Breast Cancer Recurrence

No matter how successful breast cancer treatment is, it sometimes leaves behind a few undetectable cancer cells that may be too small to be seen in follow-up appointments. During remission, these cells lie dormant, or remain inactive. But if they become active and start to multiply, they can grow into a detectable tumor.

Words to Know

Remission means that after treatment, tests show that there is no longer cancer in the body, though some undetectable cancer cells may remain.

Partial remission means that there’s been a decrease in the size of the tumor or the extent of cancer in the body in response to treatment.

Progression is the spread of cancer or an increase in tumor size. If cancer comes back within a year after treatment ends, it’s often considered a progression rather than a recurrence, because the cancer may never have been dormant.

Most recurrences appear within the first two to three years after treatment, but breast cancer can recur many years later. If the cancer resurfaces after only a short period of time, you are most likely experiencing a progression, rather than a recurrence, because the cancer may not have ever been dormant.

Types of recurrence

There are three different types of recurrence, based on where the cancer returns in the body:

  • Local recurrence means that the cancer has returned to the same site as the original cancer or very close to it
  • Regional recurrence means that the cancer has spread past the breast and underarm lymph nodes to the chest muscles and other regional lymph nodes
  • Distant recurrence means that the cancer has spread to distant tissues and organs, such as the bone, bone marrow, lungs, liver, and brain. This is also called secondary, or metastatic, breast cancer.
  • Even when cancer has spread to a new location, it is still named after the part of the body where it started. For example, a person with breast cancer that has spread to the bones is said to have breast cancer with bone metastases. Metastatic cancer is considered advanced if it has aggressively spread to many places in the body, is affecting vital organs, and the tumors cannot be removed.

What is the risk of recurrence?

When Cancer Comes Back

Learn how to harness your resources and experience to fight recurrent cancer in Your Guide to Cancer Care.

The risk of recurrence is different for everyone, and depends on the stage of the original cancer, the treatment you receive, how long it has been since your treatment, and many other factors.

When cancer returns, it doesn’t mean that the treatment you received was wrong or that you did something to cause the recurrence. Cancer can return even if you’ve done everything right — eating right, exercising, and seeing your doctor for follow-up visits. It’s important not to blame yourself.

Treatment for recurrent breast cancer

You may have heard that cancer is more difficult to treat the second time around. Recurrent tumors may contain high-levels of drug-resistant genes, which mean they don’t always respond well to the cancer-fighting substances used in the initial treatment. So you may benefit from a different approach. In addition, treatments may have improved since you first had cancer, so you may have new, and better, options to consider.

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