When cancer returns: How to cope with cancer recurrence

Use lessons from your initial treatment to give you confidence and strength as you face the anger and fear that comes with a cancer recurrence.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Your cancer is back, and so are the shock and fear that came with your first diagnosis. The uncertainties are back, too, and you wonder about more cancer treatment and about 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 cancer returns after a period of remission, it's considered a recurrence. A cancer recurrence happens because, in spite of the best efforts to rid you of your cancer, some cells from your cancer remained.

These cells could be in the same place where your cancer first originated, or they could be in another part of your body. These cancer cells may have been dormant for a period of time, but eventually they continued to multiply, resulting in the reappearance of the cancer.

A cancer recurrence means it's the same cancer coming back after some period of time. In rare cases, you may be diagnosed with a new cancer that's completely unrelated to your first cancer. This is referred to as a second primary cancer.

Where does cancer recur?

Your cancer can recur in the same place it was originally located, or it can migrate to other parts of your body. Recurrence is divided into three categories:

  • Local recurrence. This means the cancer reappears in the same place it was first found or very close by. The cancer hasn't spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
  • Regional recurrence. A regional recurrence occurs in the lymph nodes and tissue located in the vicinity of your original cancer.
  • Distant recurrence. This refers to cancer that has spread (metastasized) to areas farther away from where your cancer was first located.

Where your cancer recurs depends on your original cancer type and stage. Some cancer types commonly recur in specific areas.

Feb. 18, 2014 See more In-depth