What is recurrent breast cancer?

Breast cancer is treatable, and it may go away for months, years or forever. However, it may come back. If it comes back, it gets a slightly different name: recurrent breast cancer. Recurrent breast cancer can form in the same part of your body as the original cancer. It can also happen somewhere else in your body. If it comes back in the same place, it's called a local recurrence. If it comes back somewhere else, it's a distant recurrence.

The goal of breast cancer treatment is to kill all the cancer cells. However, sometimes, the cells don't all die. Those that survive can hide in your body for years. Sometimes, they hide without causing harm. Other times, they start to grow again. Doctors don't know why this happens.

Breast Cancer

Risk factors for recurrent breast cancer

The main risk factor for recurrent breast cancer is having had breast cancer in the past.

Other risk factors include:

  • History of larger tumors
  • History of inflammatory breast cancer
  • Cancer in lymph nodes near the breast
  • History of breast cancer the first time before age 35
  • Not undergoing radiation treatment after having a breast lump removed
  • Cancerous cells on the border between the original tumors and nearby tissue

Symptoms of recurrent breast cancer

Signs of local recurrence include:

  • A new breast lump
  • Fluid coming out of your nipple
  • Breast skin that's inflamed or red
  • Changes to the skin over your breast
  • A new thickened area on or near a mastectomy scar
  • Nodules on or under your chest wall skin after a mastectomy

Regional recurrence means the cancer has come back in the lymph nodes near the breast. Signs of regional recurrence include:

  • A lump in your armpit, neck or near or above the collarbone
  • Swollen lymph nodes in your armpit or neck or near or above your collarbone

Signs of distant recurrence include:

  • Seizures
  • Low appetite
  • Bad headaches
  • Difficulty breathing
  • A cough that doesn't go away
  • Weight loss that's not due to another reason
  • Pain in your chest that gets worse and doesn't go away

Diagnosis of recurrent breast cancer

Your doctor may use various tests to find out if you have recurrent breast cancer. These tests include:

  • Biopsy
  • X-ray or CT, MRI or PET scans

During a biopsy, the doctor takes a small sample of tissue out of your body. A trained specialist examines the tissue sample in a lab to see if it's cancerous. x-rays and CT, MRI and PET scans create images of the insides of your body. The doctor looks at these images to find signs of cancer.

Treatments for recurrent breast cancer

Treatments for this type of cancer may include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Radiation therapy

Your treatment plan depends on where the new cancer is in your body, which treatments you had the first time, your current health status and characteristics of the new cancer.

Treatment of a local recurrence usually involves surgery. Treatment of a regional recurrence could include surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

If the cancer comes back somewhere else in your body, your treatment options will depend on where the cancer is located. Depending on how much the cancer has grown, your treatment may focus on easing your symptoms and helping you live a longer life, even if it can't remove all the cancer cells.

Recovery from recurrent breast cancer

Recurrent breast cancer can be even more upsetting than the original diagnosis. You should try to be involved in your treatment plan, stay connected with family and friends and find people to talk to for emotional support. It's entirely possible to live a happy, healthy life after you have treatment for recurrent breast cancer.

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