Dealing With Cancer that Comes Back

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2022

Sometimes after cancer treatment, cancer comes back or returns. This is called a cancer recurrence. It can happen weeks, months, or even years after the original cancer was treated.

It is not possible to know for sure if cancer will come back after your treatment ends. The chance of a cancer coming back depends on the type and stage of cancer you had. Your doctor can tell you more about your personal risk of having a recurrence and coping with the fear of another cancer diagnosis. This information can help you feel more prepared if the cancer does return.

Why do some cancers come back?

Cancers come back when small numbers of cancer cells can remain in the body after treatment. These cells are too small to find with current tests. Over time, they can multiply and grow enough to cause symptoms or be found by testing.

Where do cancers come back, if they recur?

Where a cancer comes back depends on the type of cancer. It may come back:

  • In the same part of the body as the original cancer, called a local recurrence

  • Near the area of the original cancer was located, called a regional recurrence

  • In another part of the body, called a distant recurrence

Some types of cancers tend to come back in specific places. Doctors call this a "pattern of recurrence."

Is it the same cancer if it is somewhere else?

Yes. Cancer that comes back is named for the place where it started. For example, if breast cancer recurs in the liver, it is called metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic means the cancer has spread. It is not called liver cancer, even though it it has spread to the liver, because it did not start there.

How is a cancer recurrence diagnosed?

After finishing their original cancer treatment, patients often receive a follow-up care plan, also called a survivorship care plan. This plan includes a schedule for visits to the doctor, physical examinations, and possibly other tests. The goal of follow-up care is to make sure you are healthy and to watch for a recurrence.

Depending on the type of cancer you had, you may need blood tests or imaging scans. Often, a careful examination and conversation will be the focus of follow-up care. Your doctor may tell you to watch for specific signs or symptoms of recurrence.

If your doctor suspects the cancer is coming back, you will likely need other diagnostic tests to learn more. These may include laboratory tests such as blood and urine tests, imaging scans, or a biopsy.

Treatment if your cancer comes back

If testing shows that your cancer has come back, your doctor will talk with you about your treatment options. This is similar to planning your original cancer treatment. Your doctor will consider the following factors:

  • The type of cancer, where it came back, and how much there is

  • Your general health

  • The original treatment and how well it worked

  • Your personal goals for treatment

  • Side effects you had with the original treatment

  • How long ago you finished treatment

Your doctor may also suggest a clinical trial.

When you choose a treatment option, you may want to consider:

  • The goals of each treatment, and the benefits you expect from it

  • The possible risks and side effects

  • How each treatment could affect your quality of life

During treatment, relieving symptoms and side effects is important. This is called palliative care or supportive care. Talk with your health care team about your symptoms, including any new or different symptoms.

Coping when cancer comes back

If your cancer returns, you may have many different feelings. Shock, disbelief, anger, and fear are all common emotions. So are anxiety and grief. You may even find this diagnosis more upsetting than the first cancer diagnosis.

You may also doubt your original treatment choice or other decisions. However, it is important to remember that you and your health care team made the best decisions you could at the time. You used the information that was available to you.

You might be worried about coping with another round of tests and treatments. But many people find they are better prepared because they have been through treatment before. For example, you have:

  • Knowledge about cancer, which helps lessen fear and anxiety about the unknown

  • Relationships with doctors, nurses, and other health care team members

  • An understanding of health care, health insurance, and some medical terms

  • Knowledge of cancer treatments and side effects, including ways to manage side effects

  • Support, such as family and friends, support groups, and health care team members trained to support you

  • Experience managing stress with exercise, meditation, spending time with friends, and other activities

It is normal to be upset when you learn your cancer has come back. If this lasts a long time or affects your daily activities, ask your health care team about counseling. Counseling may help you:

  • Learn ways to cope

  • Manage cancer symptoms and treatment side effects

  • Think more clearly about your cancer experience

This may also be a good time to consider joining an in-person support group or online community. These are places where you can talk about your feelings and experiences with others in the same situation.

Questions to ask your health care team

If your cancer comes back, you may want to ask your doctor or health care team some of these questions.

  • Why did my cancer come back?

  • What does it mean for my future health?

  • Do I need more tests to learn about the cancer recurrence?

  • Did the stage of my disease change?

  • Can the cancer be treated? What treatment do you recommend?

  • What clinical trials are open to me?

  • Can we stop or slow down the cancer? Will the cancer shorten my life?

  • If I do not want treatment for the cancer, what are my options to focus on supporting my quality of life?

  • If I'm very worried or anxious about this diagnosis, who can I talk with?

  • I would like to talk to other people who had this type of cancer come back. Can you help me connect with them?

Related Resources

Coping with Metastatic Cancer

Making Decisions About Cancer Treatment

Coping with Uncertainty

Living with Chronic Cancer