Breast Cancer Recurrence
The goal of treating early and locally advanced breast cancer is to remove the cancer and keep it from coming back (breast cancer recurrence).
Most people diagnosed with breast cancer will never have a breast cancer recurrence. However, everyone who has had breast cancer is at risk of recurrence.
How is a local recurrence or metastasis found?
Breast cancer can recur at the original site (called local recurrence). It can also return and spread to other parts of the body (called metastasis or distant recurrence).
Local recurrence is usually found on a mammogram, during a physical exam by a health care provider or when you notice a change in or around the breast or underarm.
Metastasis is usually found when symptoms are reported to a provider.
If you have a local recurrence or metastasis, it’s not your fault. You did nothing to cause it.
Learn about follow-up care after breast cancer treatment.
When a local recurrence is found, it’s treated in much the same way as the first breast cancer.
Tests are also done to be sure there’s no sign of metastasis.
Local recurrence after lumpectomy
Local recurrence after lumpectomy (breast conserving surgery) can most often be treated successfully.
Treatment generally includes surgery, usually a mastectomy. Radiation therapy may be given if it wasn’t part of the initial breast cancer treatment.
Treatment may also include chemotherapy, hormone therapy and/or HER2-targeted therapy.
Local recurrence after mastectomy
Even though the entire breast is removed in a mastectomy, breast cancer can still return to the chest area. If you notice any changes around the mastectomy scar, tell your health care provider.
The more lymph nodes with cancer at the time of the mastectomy, the higher the chances of breast cancer recurrence.
Local recurrence after a mastectomy is usually treated with surgery, and radiation therapy if radiation therapy wasn’t part of the initial treatment.
Signs and symptoms
Metastasis (distant recurrence) is most often found when people report symptoms.
These may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Weight loss
- Bone pain
- Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes (jaundice)
Don’t panic if you have signs or symptoms like fatigue, weight change or bone pain. These are common problems for many people. Most often, they don’t mean the breast cancer has spread. For example, bone pain may be a sign of arthritis or muscle strain. And, many people have fatigue for a number of reasons.
Discuss any signs or symptoms you have (especially if they last more than 2 weeks) with your health care provider to find out the cause. It’s always OK to get a second opinion, especially if you feel your health care provider isn’t listening to your concerns.
You should see your oncologist and other health care providers regularly, usually about every 6 months for the first few years after breast cancer treatment. After that, you’ll see them every year for many years.
Your health care team will examine you and pay close attention to the breast/chest wall, underarm and neck. You will also need a mammogram every year (unless you had bilateral mastectomy).
If you don’t have any symptoms that could be related to breast cancer recurrence, and if there are no concerning findings on your physical exam, you don’t need extra tests. There’s no role for lab tests, X-rays, CT scans, bone scans or PET scans if you’re not having any symptoms and there are no findings on your physical exam.
If you have signs and symptoms that might be due to breast cancer recurrence, your health care team will order follow-up tests to see if the breast cancer has spread to other organs (metastasized).
Depending on your signs and symptoms, follow-up tests may include:
- Blood tests (including tumor marker tests)
- Imaging tests (such as bone scans, CT scans, PET scans and chest X-rays)
- A tissue biopsy (to check if a suspicious finding is a recurrence of breast cancer)
Other tests may also be done.
For people with no signs or symptoms of metastases, using blood or imaging tests (other than mammography) does not increase survival . These tests are not a standard part of follow-up care.
If follow-up tests show metastatic breast cancer, this means the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, most often the bones, lungs, liver or brain.
Although it’s spread to another part of the body, it’s still considered and treated as breast cancer.
For example, breast cancer that’s spread to the bones is still breast cancer (not bone cancer). It’s treated with breast cancer drugs rather than treatments for a cancer that began in the bones.
When metastases are present, tests are done to determine which organs are involved, and the hormone receptor status and HER2 status of the tumor. Then, you and your oncologist can discuss your treatment options.
Learn more about treatment of metastatic breast cancer.
Learn about clinical trials.
Metastatic breast cancer can cause pain in the areas where the cancer has spread.
Controlling pain is a standard part of metastatic breast cancer care. Even mild pain can interfere with daily life and make other side effects, such as fatigue, seem worse.
Learn more about management of pain related to metastatic breast cancer.
Treatment for breast cancer is stressful and can be difficult. If you have a recurrence, it’s common to have a strong emotional response.
You’re not alone
If you have a breast cancer recurrence, remember there are many people who have been where you are today. They had the same fears and faced the same tough choices.
It may be helpful to talk with others going through treatment for local recurrence or metastasis. A cancer support group may help.
Your health care provider may be able to help you find a local support group. Our Support section offers a list of resources to help find local and online support groups.
SUSAN G. KOMEN® SUPPORT RESOURCES
Research is ongoing to improve all areas of treatment for breast cancer.
New therapies are being studied in clinical trials. The results of these studies will decide whether these therapies will become part of standard care.
After discussing the benefits and risks with your health care provider, we encourage you to consider joining a clinical trial.
Susan G. Komen® Breast Care Helpline
If you or a loved one needs information or resources about clinical trials, call the Komen Breast Care Helpline at 1-877 GO KOMEN (1-877- 465- 6636) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
BreastCancerTrials.org in collaboration with Susan G. Komen® offers a custom matching service to help find clinical trials that fit your needs.
When to consider joining a clinical trial
If you have a breast cancer recurrence, consider joining a clinical trial before treatment begins or when your health care provider is considering changing treatments.
Learn more about clinical trials.
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