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This topic provides information about breast cancer that has spread or come back after treatment. If you are looking for information about first-time diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, see the topic Breast Cancer.
What are metastatic and recurrent breast cancer?
Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control in one or both breasts. Treatment often cures breast cancer if it is found before it has spread.
But even after treatment that seemed to work, cancer can come back (recur) or spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Cancer that comes back in or near the original site is called locally recurrent breast cancer. Cancer that spreads to other parts of the body is called metastatic breast cancer.
For most women who have had breast cancer, their greatest fear is that the cancer will come back or spread. Finding out this has happened can turn your world upside down. But there is hope. Treatment can often cure recurrent breast cancer. Although metastatic breast cancer usually cannot be cured, treatment can help you manage the disease and live longer. Some women live for many years, managing their cancer like a long-term health problem.
Why does breast cancer come back after treatment?
Even with the best treatment, cancer can come back. If just a small cluster of cancer cells remains in your body, those cells can spread through the blood or lymph system and grow. This may happen from a few months to many years after the first diagnosis.
If your breast cancer has come back, you may be tempted to second-guess your previous treatment choices. But the fact is, there is no guarantee with any treatment.
The treatment decisions you and your doctor made in the past were the right ones at that time. But now it is time to make new decisions and explore other treatment options.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms depend on where the cancer is and how large it is. The most common places for breast cancer to spread are within the breast or to the nearby chest wall or to the liver, lungs, or bones. Common symptoms include a lump in your breast or on your chest wall, bone pain, or shortness of breath.
You may not have any symptoms. Sometimes recurrent or metastatic breast cancer is found with an X-ray or lab test.
How is it treated?
To plan your treatment, your doctor will consider where the cancer is and what type of treatment you had in the past. Your wishes and quality of life are also important factors. Treatment choices may include surgery, medicines like chemotherapy or hormone therapy, and radiation. Sometimes a mix of these treatments is used.
Treatments for breast cancer can cause side effects. Your doctor can tell you what problems to expect and help you find ways to manage them.
Clinical trials to test new cancer treatments are going on all the time. Ask your doctor if it would be a good idea to take part in one of these studies.
If treatments have not worked, a time may come when your goal shifts from curing the disease to staying as comfortable as you can. Palliative care can provide symptom relief and support for you and your loved ones so you can make the most of the time you have left.
How can you handle your feelings about having breast cancer again?
It is common to have a wide range of emotions. It may be hard to stay hopeful when you are fighting cancer for the second or third time. These ideas may help.
- Get the support you need. Spend time with people who care about you, and let them help you. Talk to your hospital social worker if you need help with bills or other worries. Your local American Cancer Society may also be helpful.
- Take good care of yourself. Get plenty of rest. Eat healthy meals. Get regular exercise. Try meditation or guided imagery to help you relax. These steps can help you feel as well and stay as healthy as you can.
- Talk about your feelings. Find a support group. Talking with other people who have breast cancer can be a big help. Sharing your experience can help others too.
- Do everything you can to stay positive. Set a goal each day to do something special for yourself or someone else.
If your emotions are too much to handle, be sure to tell your doctor. You may be able to get counseling or other types of help.
You may want to think about planning for the future. A living will lets doctors know what type of life-support measures you want if your health gets much worse. You can also choose a health care agent to make decisions in case you are not able to. It can be comforting to know that you will get the type of care you want.
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