Millions of women across the globe are survivors of breast cancer. Those women serve as inspiration to millions more individuals, even as they bravely live with the threat of recurrence.
The Cleveland Clinic notes that most local recurrences of breast cancer occur within five years of a lumpectomy, which is a common breast cancer treatment during which cancer cells and a small margin of healthy breast tissue are removed. Even if recurrence is unlikely and/or beyond a woman’s control, the lingering notion that breast cancer return at any moment can be difficult to confront. Learning about recurrence could calm the nerves of breast cancer survivors and their families.
A second diagnosis of breast cancer does not necessarily mean women are experiencing a recurrence. The Cleveland Clinic notes that breast cancer that develops in the opposite breast that was not treated and does not appear anywhere else in the body is not the same thing as recurrence. Recurrence occurs when the cancer is detected in the same breast in which the disease was initially detected. Breastcancer.org notes that cancer found in the opposite breast is likely not a recurrence.
How recurrence happens
Treatment for breast cancer is often very successful, particularly in patients whose cancer was discovered early. Recurrence can happen when single cancer cells or groups of cancer cells are left behind after surgery. Breastcancer.org notes that tests for cancer cannot detect if single cancer cells or small groups of cells are still present after surgery, and a single cell that survives post-surgery rounds of radiation therapy and chemotherapy can multiply and ultimately become a tumor.
Types of breast cancer recurrence
There are different types of breast cancer recurrence, including:
• Local recurrence: The Cleveland Clinic notes that a local recurrence diagnosis indicates the cancer has returned to the same breast or chest area as the original tumor.
• Regional recurrence: A regional recurrence means the cancer has come back near the original tumor, in lymph nodes in the armpit or collarbone area.
• Distant recurrence: A distant recurrence indicates the breast cancer has spread away from the original tumor. The Cleveland Clinic notes this is often referred to as stage 4 breast cancer. This diagnosis indicates the tumor has spread to the lungs, bones, brain, or other parts of the body.
The risk of recurrence
Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that certain variables unique to each individual affect the risk of breast cancer recurrence. This is an important distinction, as women who have survived breast cancer but are concerned about recurrence should know that they will not necessarily experience one, even if a first-degree relative or friend did. The type of cancer and its stage at diagnosis can elevate risk, which also is highest during the first few years after treatment.
The Cleveland Clinic notes that women who develop breast cancer before age 35, which is uncommon, are more likely to experience a recurrence. In addition, women diagnosed with later-stage breast cancers or rare forms of the disease, including inflammatory breast cancer, are more likely, though not guaranteed, to experience a recurrence.
The fear of breast cancer recurrence can be tough for survivors of the disease to confront. Sharing concerns with family members and a cancer care team could help survivors overcome their fears.