Cancer recurrence happens when cancer comes back after treatment. Cancer may come back years after treatment. It may come back because treatment missed cancerous cells or because treatment didn’t affect some cells. Healthcare providers can treat recurrent cancer. People often live for years with recurrent cancer.
Recurrent cancer is cancer that comes back after treatment. Cancer may come back months or years after you’ve finished treatment. It can come back after being in remission. (Remission means you don’t have cancer symptoms and tests don’t find signs of cancer.) At times, healthcare providers may recommend treatments to manage recurrent cancer. Depending on your situation, you may live for many years with recurrent cancer.
Healthcare providers characterize recurrent cancer by its location. The different recurrence types are:
Any type of cancer may come back. Beyond that, it’s hard to say which are more likely to recur. One analysis of recurrent cancer research concluded the following cancers had high recurrence rates:
Regardless of cancer type, it’s important to remember recurrence rates are like cancer survival rates: they’re estimates that vary. Factors such as cancer type and initial cancer treatment significantly change cancer recurrence estimates. If you have recurrent cancer, your healthcare provider is your best resource for information on what you can expect.
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Many symptoms mimic recurrent cancer symptoms. If you’re monitoring your health, ask your healthcare provider about common symptoms for the type of cancer you have. They’ll explain which symptoms may require tests to rule out recurrent cancer. Contact your provider if you notice:
Cancer is a moving target, making it hard for any treatment to capture and kill all cancerous cells. For example, surgery to remove a cancerous tumor may miss some cells because they were too small to detect. Cancer constantly evolves as cells mutate and change. In some cases, cancer treatment may not work against all cancer cells. Those cells can keep on growing despite treatment until a healthcare provider detects them during follow-up examinations.
Healthcare providers diagnose recurrent cancer with many of the same tests they use in their original diagnosis. Tests to diagnose recurrent cancer may include:
Blood tests for cancer recurrence typically include:
If you have recurrent cancer, your provider may use imaging tests to learn more about cancerous tumors that develop from the original tumor. Imaging tests may include:
Providers do biopsies to diagnose cancer, including recurrent cancer. In biopsies, providers obtain tissue samples that medical pathologists examine under a microscope for signs of cancer. Biopsy types include:
Recurrent cancer treatment varies depending on your situation. Your provider may:
If you have recurrent cancer, your provider will discuss your options, including what you can expect treatment to accomplish. Typically, recurrent cancer treatments manage cancer and keep it from getting worse or spreading, and they aren’t expected to cure it. Factors that affect treatment decisions include:
No matter what treatment you choose, consider palliative care to help you manage cancer symptoms and treatment side effects. Palliative care acts like an extra layer of support and symptom control while you receive cancer treatments.
Your prognosis or expected outcome depends on your situation. Many factors that affect treatment choices also affect your prognosis, such as the type of cancer you have, how you responded to treatment and managed side effects, and your overall health. Your healthcare provider is your best resource of information about your prognosis.
Recurrent cancer may feel like déjà vu. You’ve been through cancer once, and now it’s back. This time around, however, you may feel discouraged and overwhelmed by having to deal with cancer again. Your feelings are real and they matter. If you’re living with recurrent cancer, one of the first things you should do is give yourself time and space to understand your situation. Then start thinking of steps you can take to live as well as possible with recurrent cancer. Here are some suggestions:
If you’ve had cancer, you may develop a second cancer. This is a completely new and different cancer. Recurrent cancer, on the other hand, is the same type as the original cancer that has come back.
Yes. In some cases, people go through cycles of remission and recurrence. When cancer comes back, healthcare providers may try the same or different treatments with the goal of putting cancer back into remission.
That’s not an easy decision. If you’ve just learned you have recurrent cancer, you should take some time to understand your treatment options and to think about what you want for yourself, your family and others who care about your well-being. Here are some steps that may help you with your decision:
There are many reasons why people decide to stop cancer treatment. Get input from your provider, your family and other loved ones, but know that you have the final say about continuing or stopping treatment at any point.
It may be, but it depends on your overall health and your prognosis. In general, providers recommend hospice care if they believe treatment won’t cure your condition and they believe you have less than six months to live. Here’s what you can expect if your provider recommends hospice care:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you had successful cancer treatment, you may have known there was a chance cancer could recur (come back) after treatment. Even so, you may still be shocked and upset to learn that once again, you have cancer. You may feel hopeless and afraid. However, there’s always hope with cancer, and recurrent cancer is no exception. There’s hope for new treatments or a chance to participate in a clinical trial. In addition, even if treatment can’t slow recurrent cancer, there’s hope for living as you choose, regardless of how long you live. If you have recurrent cancer, your oncologist and healthcare team will support your choices and be there to help you as much as they can.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/30/2023.
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