Recurrent breast cancer
Recurrent breast cancer is breast cancer that comes back after initial treatment. Although the initial treatment is aimed at eliminating all cancer cells, a few may have evaded treatment and survived. These undetected cancer cells multiply, becoming recurrent breast cancer.
Recurrent breast cancer may occur months or years after your initial treatment. The cancer may come back in the same place as the original cancer (local recurrence), or it may spread to other areas of your body (distant recurrence).
Learning you have recurrent breast cancer may be harder than dealing with the initial diagnosis. But having recurrent breast cancer is far from hopeless. Treatment may eliminate local, regional or distant recurrent breast cancer. Even if a cure isn’t possible, treatment may control the disease for long periods of time.
Recurrent breast cancer occurs when cells that were part of your original breast cancer break away from the original tumor and hide nearby in the breast or in another part of your body. Later, these cells begin growing again.
The chemotherapy, radiation or hormone therapy you may have received after your first breast cancer diagnosis was intended to kill any cancer cells that may have remained after surgery. But sometimes these treatments aren’t able to kill all of the cancer cells.
Sometimes cancer cells may be dormant for years without causing harm. Then something happens that activates the cells, so they grow and spread to other parts of the body. It’s not clear why this occurs.
Signs and symptoms of recurrent breast cancer vary depending on where the cancer comes back.
In a local recurrence, cancer reappears in the same area as your original cancer.
If you’ve undergone lumpectomy, the cancer could recur in the remaining breast tissue. If you’ve undergone mastectomy, the cancer could recur in the tissue that lines the chest wall or in the skin.
Signs and symptoms of local recurrence within the same breast may include:
- A new lump in your breast or irregular area of firmness
- Changes to the skin of your breast
- Skin inflammation or area of redness
- Nipple discharge
Signs and symptoms of local recurrence on the chest wall after a mastectomy may include:
- One or more painless nodules on or under the skin of your chest wall
- A new area of thickening along or near the mastectomy scar
A regional breast cancer recurrence means the cancer has come back in the nearby lymph nodes.
Signs and symptoms of regional recurrence may include a lump or swelling in the lymph nodes located:
- Under your arm
- Near your collarbone
- In the groove above your collarbone
- In your neck
A distant (metastatic) recurrence means the cancer has traveled to distant parts of the body, most commonly the bones, liver and lungs.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Persistent and worsening pain, such as chest or bone pain
- Persistent cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Severe headaches
When to see a doctor
After your breast cancer treatment ends, your doctor will likely create a schedule of follow-up exams for you. During follow-up exams, your doctor checks for any signs of cancer recurrence.
You can also report any new signs or symptoms to your doctor. Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any persistent signs and symptoms that worry you.