Recurrent breast cancer is breast cancer that comes back after initial treatment. Although the initial treatment is aimed at eliminating all cancer cells, a few may have evaded treatment and survived. These undetected cancer cells multiply, becoming recurrent breast cancer.
Recurrent breast cancer may occur months or years after your initial treatment. The cancer may come back in the same place as the original cancer (local recurrence), or it may spread to other areas of your body (distant recurrence).
Learning you have recurrent breast cancer may be harder than dealing with the initial diagnosis. But having recurrent breast cancer is far from hopeless. Treatment may eliminate local, regional or distant recurrent breast cancer. Even if a cure isn't possible, treatment may control the disease for long periods of time.
Signs and symptoms of recurrent breast cancer vary depending on where the cancer comes back.
In a local recurrence, cancer reappears in the same area as your original cancer.
If you've undergone a lumpectomy, the cancer could recur in the remaining breast tissue. If you've undergone a mastectomy, the cancer could recur in the tissue that lines the chest wall or in the skin.
Signs and symptoms of local recurrence within the same breast may include:
- A new lump in your breast or irregular area of firmness
- Changes to the skin of your breast
- Skin inflammation or area of redness
- Nipple discharge
Signs and symptoms of local recurrence on the chest wall after a mastectomy may include:
- One or more painless nodules on or under the skin of your chest wall
- A new area of thickening along or near the mastectomy scar
A regional breast cancer recurrence means the cancer has come back in the nearby lymph nodes.
Signs and symptoms of regional recurrence may include a lump or swelling in the lymph nodes located:
- Under your arm
- Near your collarbone
- In the groove above your collarbone
- In your neck
A distant (metastatic) recurrence means the cancer has traveled to distant parts of the body, most commonly the bones, liver and lungs.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Persistent and worsening pain, such as chest or bone pain
- Persistent cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Severe headaches
When to see a doctor
After your breast cancer treatment ends, your doctor will likely create a schedule of follow-up exams for you. During follow-up exams, your doctor checks for any signs of cancer recurrence.
You can also report any new signs or symptoms to your doctor. Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any persistent signs and symptoms that worry you.
Recurrent breast cancer occurs when cells that were part of your original breast cancer break away from the original tumor and hide nearby in the breast or in another part of your body. Later, these cells begin growing again.
The chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy or other treatment you may have received after your first breast cancer diagnosis was intended to kill any cancer cells that may have remained after surgery. But sometimes these treatments aren't able to kill all of the cancer cells.
Sometimes cancer cells may be dormant for years without causing harm. Then something happens that activates the cells, so they grow and spread to other parts of the body. It's not clear why this occurs.
For breast cancer survivors, factors that increase the risk of a recurrence include:
- Lymph node involvement. Finding cancer in nearby lymph nodes at the time of your original diagnosis increases your risk of the cancer coming back.
- Larger tumor size. Women with larger tumors have a greater risk of recurrent breast cancer.
Positive or close tumor margins. During breast cancer surgery, the surgeon tries to remove the cancer along with a small amount of the normal tissue that surrounds it. A pathologist examines the edges of the tissue to look for cancer cells.
If the borders are free of cancer when examined under a microscope, that's considered a negative margin. If any part of the border has cancer cells (positive margin), or the margin between the tumor and normal tissue is close, the risk of breast cancer recurrence is increased.
- Lack of radiation treatment following a lumpectomy. Most women who choose a lumpectomy (wide local excision) for breast cancer undergo breast radiation therapy to reduce the risk of recurrence. Women who don't undergo the radiation therapy have an increased risk of local breast cancer recurrence.
- Younger age. Younger women, particularly those under age 35 at the time of their original breast cancer diagnosis, face a higher risk of recurrent breast cancer.
- Inflammatory breast cancer. Women with inflammatory breast cancer have a higher risk of local recurrence.
- Cancer cells with certain characteristics. If your breast cancer wasn't responsive to hormone therapy or treatments directed at the HER2 gene (triple negative breast cancer), you may have an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence.
Strategies that have been linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer recurrence include:
- Hormone therapy. Women with hormone receptor positive breast cancer may reduce their risk of recurrent breast cancer by taking hormone therapy after their initial treatment. Hormone therapy may continue for at least five years.
- Chemotherapy. For women with breast cancer who have an increased risk of cancer recurrence, chemotherapy has been shown to decrease the chance that cancer will recur, and those who receive chemotherapy live longer.
- Radiation therapy. Women who've had a breast-sparing operation to treat their breast cancer and those who had a large tumor or inflammatory breast cancer have a lower chance of the cancer recurring if they're treated with radiation therapy.
- Targeted therapy. For women whose cancer makes extra HER2 protein, the drug trastuzumab (Herceptin) can decrease the chance of the cancer recurring.
- Bone-building drugs. Taking bone-building drugs reduces the risk of cancer recurring in the bones (bone metastasis) in women with an increased risk for breast cancer recurrence.
- Maintaining a healthy weight. Maintaining a healthy weight may help decrease the risk of recurrent breast cancer.
- Exercising. Regular exercise may reduce your risk of breast cancer recurrence.
- Choosing a healthy diet. Focus on including lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains in your diet. If you choose to drink alcohol, limit yourself to one drink per day.