When Breast Cancer Comes Back

Recurrent breast cancer comes back after treatment and a period of time that it was thought to be gone. Only a few cancer cells need to survive treatment. Then, over time, they can replicate enough to cause problems and be found. It can come back in your breast or chest, or in another part of your body, like a bone or your liver.

Common signs of breast cancer recurrence include:

  • The same symptoms you had the first time you had cancer, like a lump in your breast or armpit
  • A new lump or swelling anywhere in your body
  • Bone pain or fracture
  • New pain that doesn’t go away
  • Breathing problems or a new cough
  • Headaches that don’t go away
  • Yellow eyes or skin
  • Changes in your energy level

Whether breast cancer comes back depends on things like the size of your original tumor, how fast-growing the cancer was the first time, whether it was in your lymph nodes, and how well treatment worked. Still, there’s no sure way to know it will come back, and there’s no sure way to keep it from coming back.

How do I know it’s recurrence?

Tests will be done to know for sure. The tests may be the same as those used the first time you were diagnosed. Mammograms, CT scans, MRIs, PET scans, and bone scans might be done. The type of test used depends on where the cancer might be. Imaging tests will show exactly where it is and how far it has spread.

Many times, a biopsy is needed to know for sure what kind of cancer it is. It may be breast cancer that’s come back, or it may be a new kind of cancer. (While uncommon, you can have two different kinds of cancer.) This is key information when making treatment plans and talking about outcomes.

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What’s the treatment?

It’s important to know that recurrent breast cancer is not a new cancer (although a new primary breast cancer is a possibility). It’s the same cancer you had before, and it may be treated much the same way. Treatment will depend on things like:

  • The size of the cancer
  • Where it is
  • The type of treatment you had before
  • How long ago you had treatment
  • Your general health
  • Your preferences

Treatments might include:

Your doctor will work with you to make treatment decisions. They can also tell you the goal of treatment and what outcomes you can expect.

How do I deal with this?

This diagnosis may be harder to deal with than the first one. You did your part, and the cancer was gone. It’s not fair to have to go through it all again. You may think you got the wrong treatment last time, or maybe did something wrong. You may be angry with your doctor. You may think you can’t do this again. These feelings are normal.

Talk to your doctor about your concerns. Get the information and help you need to cope and move forward. Remember: You know a lot more than you did the first time. You’re better prepared and know what to expect. You also know which questions to ask. Also, keep in mind that cancer treatments are getting better all the time. There may be new ones that work better than the kind you had before.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on April 21, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

National Cancer Institute: “Recurrent Cancer: When Cancer Comes Back,” “Breast Cancer Treatment (PDQ)-Patient Version,” “Follow-Up Care for Breast Cancer.”

American Cancer Society: “Can I Do Anything to Prevent Cancer Recurrence?" “How is advanced cancer found?” “What is cancer recurrence?” “Coping With Cancer Recurrence.”

American Society of Clinical Oncology: “Follow-Up Care for Breast Cancer,” “Dealing With Cancer Recurrence.”

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