Breast cancer recurrence is when cancer comes back after treatment. Recurrent breast cancer may develop where it started, or spread to nearby lymph nodes or to more distant areas of your body. Healthcare providers may use new or different treatments for recurrent breast cancer. They may also recommend clinical trials.
Breast cancer recurrence is when you have breast cancer that comes back (recurs) after treatment. Breast cancer can come back months or years after you’ve finished treatment. Healthcare providers can treat recurrent breast cancer, but it can come back again.
The type depends on where the cancer comes back:
If cancer in one breast goes away after treatment but you develop it in your other untreated breast, the tumor is considered new cancer and not recurrent breast cancer. Healthcare providers may refer to this as second cancer.
It’s relatively uncommon, but the specific rate of recurrence depends on factors, like your breast cancer stage and treatment.
Most local recurrences of breast cancer occur within five years of a lumpectomy. You can lower your risk by getting radiation therapy afterward. You have a 3% to 15% chance of breast cancer recurrence within 10 years with this combined treatment. Based on genetic testing, your provider may recommend additional treatments to further reduce your risk.
Recurrence rates for people who have mastectomies vary:
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Symptoms vary depending on where cancer started. For example, cancer that comes back in the same area as the original cancer (local cancer) causes different symptoms than regional cancer, which is breast cancer that’s spread to nearby lymph nodes.
Local breast cancer recurrence may cause:
Regional breast cancer recurrence may cause:
Distant (metastatic or Stage 4) breast cancer can involve any organ, including your bones, lungs, brain or liver. Symptoms depend on where the cancer spreads. You may experience:
Breast cancer recurrence happens when treatment doesn’t kill all the cancer cells in your breast. Breast cancer treatments are effective, but breast cancer cells can be tricky:
Anyone with a breast cancer diagnosis can have a recurrence. Your risk of cancer recurrence depends on several factors:
Breast cancer that comes back or spreads is more difficult to treat:
Treatment varies depending on the recurrent cancer’s location and earlier treatments. For example:
Other treatments may include:
Research shows certain treatments may reduce the risk that certain breast cancer subtypes will come back. For example, hormone therapy, like tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors, may reduce the risk of recurrence for people with early-stage estrogen-receptive breast cancer (ER-positive or ER+). Likewise, having chemotherapy after surgery (adjuvant therapy) may reduce your risk.
But in general, experts don’t fully understand why breast cancer comes back in some people and not others. If you have recurrent breast cancer, it’s important to remember there’s nothing you did or didn’t do.
While you may not be able to prevent recurrent breast cancer, doing breast self-examinations and having regular follow-up screenings may help your provider identify recurrent breast cancer before it spreads or while metastatic breast cancer tumors are relatively small and easier to treat.
Recurrent breast cancer can be more challenging to treat, but that doesn’t mean it’s always worse than the original breast cancer. If you have recurrent breast cancer, you may have different treatment than before, or more aggressive treatment such as surgery or more powerful anticancer drugs. A lot depends on your situation, and your healthcare provider is the best person to ask what you can expect.
That depends on your situation. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect, including whether treatment is intended to cure recurrent breast cancer or keep it from growing and spreading.
In general, your chances of being alive five years after diagnosis are:
It’s important to remember most cancer survival rates are estimates based on the experiences of large groups of people with the same condition.
More than that, these are estimates based on what was going on during a specific time that may be years in the past. (Think of the differences you see when you look at a selfie taken five years ago, and one taken just the other day. Just like your appearance, survival rates change over time.)
You probably had questions about cancer survival rates when you first learned you had breast cancer. Your provider was your best resource for information then, and they’re your best source now.
If you have recurrent breast cancer, you may be living with a lot of different emotions:
It’s normal and natural if you have these feelings. But if you feel trapped in a cycle of negative feelings, consider talking to your healthcare provider. They’ll do their best to answer your questions so you have facts that may help you push back against your fears. They may refer you to a mental health professional to help you understand and manage your feelings.
Here are some other things you can do to ease the emotional stress of living with recurrent breast cancer:
You should call your provider if you have changes in your breasts or other symptoms, like coughs, headaches or swollen lymph nodes that don’t go away.
If tests show breast cancer has come back, you may want to ask your provider:
Unfortunately, no one can make that guarantee. Even when tests don’t detect any signs of breast cancer, there’s still a chance that some cancer cells that are too small to be detected can survive treatment for recurrent breast cancer. Likewise, cancer cells may travel from your breast to another part of your body. Once there, they may start growing and become tumors.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
It may be hard to hear you have breast cancer that’s come back. It’s understandable if you feel frustrated, angry and afraid. After all, you went through treatment and likely were elated when tests didn’t find signs of breast cancer. Now, it’s back, and you may feel like you’re facing a grim sort of Groundhog Day. It may help to know that recurrent breast cancer treatment often eliminates the recurring cancer. And you may be able to take part in clinical trials evaluating new treatments. If you have recurrent breast cancer, your healthcare provider will recommend the best treatment options for your situation, including clinical trials.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/10/2023.
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