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Recurrence : When Cancer Returns

When breast cancer comes back after your treatment, the illness is known as recurrence. We still do not fully understand why recurrence happens or when it might happen.

Risk of recurrence

The risk that breast cancer will return depends on several factors: the size and grade of the original cancer; its receptor status if any lymph nodes were affected and how many; the treatment provided; and the time since diagnosis.

There are no special diets, vitamin supplements or physical activities that have been definitely proven to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer. However, living well by having a healthier body weight, being physically active, limiting alcohol use and quitting smoking—is thought to help to reduce the risk of recurrence.

If you are concerned about your risk of recurrence, speak to your health care provider, health care team or oncologist about your concerns and ways to reduce the risk.


After making it through your first diagnosis and treatment, a diagnosis of recurrence can be discouraging. Recurrence can be even more daunting than your first diagnosis because you now know the kinds of changes and adjustments you will have to make if the recurrence is to be treated. However, it is also possible that recurrence may feel less daunting because you have the experience of your original diagnosis to draw upon this time.

Recurrence is often classified by the location where cancer is detected:

  • Local recurrence means the cancer has come back in the area of the original tumour. Local recurrence also refers to a new tumour in the same breast.
  • Regional recurrence means that breast cancer has come back in the area of the same breast, possibly involving the neck, chest, axillary lymph nodes (small fluid sacs under the arm) or torso.
  • Distant recurrence means that breast cancer has come back in another part of the body, such as the liver or bone. This is also called metastatic breast cancer or metastatic disease.

Metastasis – when cancer spreads

Metastatic breast cancer (also known as secondary cancer) has spread from the breast to distant tissues or organs in the body. When breast cancer spreads, or metastasizes, the most common sites include the bone, liver, brain and lungs. Once it has spread to distant parts of the body, breast cancer is no longer considered curable. However it can still be treated, and many people live with metastatic breast cancer for a long time.

Treatment options

The location and other characteristics of the recurrence will help you and your health care team decide how to proceed.

The treatment options are the same for recurrence as for the primary cancer: surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and HER-2 therapy. However, the treatment for your recurrence may be different from your previous treatment plan. Remind yourself that you got through treatment before and the experience you gained may help you cope as you deal with the recurrence.

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