Cancer recurrence: some tips to cope better

Use the lessons learned from your initial treatment to give you confidence and strength as you face the anger and fear that come with a cancer recurrence. Your cancer is back, and so is the shock and fear that accompanied your first diagnosis. The uncertainties are also back, and you wonder about the continuation of cancer treatment and your future. The distress you feel is normal, some say the second cancer diagnosis can be more distressing than the first.

What is a cancer recurrence?

When the cancer comes back after a period of remission, it is called a recurrence. A cancer recurrence happens because, despite your best efforts to get rid of your cancer, some cancer cells remain. These cells may be where your cancer started or in another part of your body. These cancer cells may have lain dormant for a while, but eventually they continued to multiply, causing the cancer to come back. A cancer recurrence means that the same cancer comes back after some time. In rare cases, you may be diagnosed with a new cancer that is completely unrelated to your first cancer. This is then referred to as a second primary cancer.

3 categories of recurrence: Where does the cancer come back?

Your cancer may come back where it was originally located, or migrate to other parts of your body. Recurrence falls into three categories:

– Local recurrence: This means that the cancer comes back at the same place where it was first discovered or very close to it. The cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

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– Regional recurrence: A regional recurrence occurs in the lymph nodes and tissues near your original cancer.

Distant recurrence: This is cancer that has spread (metastasized) to areas further away from where your original cancer was.

Where your cancer comes back depends on the original type of cancer and its stage. Certain types of cancer usually come back in specific areas.

How are cancer recurrences diagnosed?

Cancer recurrences are diagnosed like any other cancer. Your doctor may suspect a recurrence of the cancer based on certain tests, or you may suspect a recurrence based on your signs and symptoms. After your last round of treatments, your doctor probably gave you a schedule of follow-up exams to check for cancer recurrences. He’s probably told you the signs and symptoms to look out for that could signal a recurrence. Monitoring for cancer recurrence is often very different from screening for the initial cancer. And the goals of the two are different.

For most forms of cancer, local recurrence can still be curable, so early detection of local recurrence is very important. For most cancers, a recurrence at a site far from where the cancer started means the chances of cure are low. All cancers are different, so talk to your doctor about the type of cancer you have and what can be done in case of a distant recurrence. This can guide the tests you will have during routine check-ups after your initial treatment.

Can cancer recurrences be treated?

In many cases, local and regional recurrences can be cured. Even when a cure isn’t possible, treatment can shrink your cancer to slow its growth. It can relieve pain and other symptoms, and help you live longer. The treatment you choose, if any, will be based on the same factors you considered when making the first choice of treatment. Consider what you hope to accomplish and what side effects you are willing to endure. Your doctor will also take into account the types of treatment you have received previously and how your body has reacted to these treatments.

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How to deal with a recurrence of cancer

A recurrence of cancer brings back many of the emotions you felt when you were first diagnosed with cancer. Some common emotions include:


When you finished treatment for your first cancer, you slowly started to get back on track with your life, thinking the cancer was gone. Over the weeks, months or years, cancer has become less and less of a part of your daily life. The shock of the reappearance of a cancer that you thought was gone can be a source of distress, sometimes more than the first diagnosis.


You may doubt the wisdom of your past treatment decisions or the lifestyle choices you have made since your last cancer experience. Try not to look back. Instead, focus on where you are now and what you need to do now to move forward.


It’s very common and reasonable to be angry that your cancer has come back. You may even blame your doctor for not stopping your cancer the first time. You may also wonder why you put up with the side effects of your first treatment, only for the cancer to come back anyway. But you and your doctor made treatment choices based on the information available at the time.


It’s normal to feel like you can’t cope with cancer anymore. Whether it’s the side effects of treatment you dread or having to tell friends and family that you have cancer, you’ve done it before.

Rejoice that you were able to do it the first time, even if you doubted yourself at the time.

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All of these feelings are normal, and the same coping mechanisms you used when you were first diagnosed with cancer are likely to work now. Whether it’s a best friend, family member, or support group you’ve turned to, you know that person or group gives you good emotional support.

At the recurrence you have other advantages this time!

Count on them to help you deal with the situation.

For example :

You know more now

Knowing more about cancer and your treatment options can help reduce your anxiety. Think about what you knew about cancer when you were first diagnosed. Compare that to what you now know, such as what the treatment involves and what side effects you should expect.

You have established relationships

You have worked closely with your doctor and you know the hospital or clinic well. It can make you more comfortable.

You have already had this experience

Given your first cancer experience, you know what is best for you during this time. Whether you need some alone time or prefer to have someone close by, you can draw on your experience to plan.

Use these experiences to your advantage. They can help you feel more in control when making treatment decisions. Express your feelings to your doctor. The resulting conversation will help you better understand your situation and help you make decisions about your treatment.


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