warning signs for cancer recurrence

If you’ve successfully completed chemotherapy, radiation, or another cancer treatment, you likely want to breathe a sigh of relief and get back to living a more normal life.

As exciting as remission can be, some cancer survivors experience a recurrence of the disease. The chances of a cancer recurrence depend on the type of cancer you had. And the warning signs of a recurrence in cancer survivors may vary by person.

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What Is Cancer Recurrence?

There are three main types of cancer recurrence.

  • A local recurrence means the cancer returns in the same part of the body. For example, a local recurrence of breast cancer occurs in the same breast.
  • A regional recurrence means the cancer has come back in lymph nodes near the area where cancer originally occurred.
  • A distant recurrence means cancer recurs in a new part of the body. The liver, lungs, brain, and bones are the most common sites for a distant recurrence. In the case of breast cancer, a recurrence of that disease in a different body part is still considered to be breast cancer.

Cancer Recurrence: Warning Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of a local cancer recurrence are specific to the original cancer. With breast cancer, these warning signs can include:

  • A new lump in the breast.
  • Changes to the surrounding skin.

If the recurrence is regional, the symptoms might involve a lump where nearby lymph nodes are located, such as in the:

  • Collarbone
  • Neck
  • Underarm

Warning signs of a distant recurrence tend to involve a different body part from the original cancer site.

  • For example, if cancer recurs in the lungs, you might experience coughing and difficulty breathing.
  • A recurrence of cancer in the brain can cause seizures and headaches.
  • Bone pain also can be a symptom of cancer recurrence.

If you experience worrisome symptoms or notice changes to your health, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

Because some cancers can become resistant to chemotherapy, you may need to try different treatments. Your doctor will help you choose the best treatment or combination of treatments depending on the type of cancer, when and where it recurs, how much it has spread, and your overall health.

Coping with Fear of Cancer Recurrence

As a cancer survivor, you may worry about a recurrence. These feelings are normal and may be most intense the first year after treatment. This worry usually gets better over time, so if it does not—talk to your health care provider.

Here are a few ways to cope with the fear of cancer coming back:

Recognize your fear or anxiety and name it. It could be the fear of having to repeat cancer treatment, losing control over your life, or facing death. You also could try writing down your thoughts in a journal or expressing yourself through art or music.

Talk about it. Confiding in a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional can help you talk out the reasons behind your concerns. Don’t tell yourself not to worry or criticize yourself for being afraid.

Reduce stress. Accept that uncertainty can be stressful and focus instead on ways to manage the stress. A few to try are:

  • Taking a walk, meditating, reading a book, or enjoying a bath.
  • Spending time with family and friends.
  • Focusing on hobbies and other enjoyable activities.
  • Doing yoga, Pilates, or stretching exercises.

Join a support group. Listen to others and exchange practical information with people who understand what you’re going through. Building a sense of community and belonging can help survivors feel less alone and more understood.

Make healthy choices. Healthy habits like eating nutritious meals, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep help people feel better both physically and mentally.

When To Get More Help

If you find yourself overwhelmed by fear or anxiety even after your best efforts to cope with it, you may have more serious anxiety or depression. Talk to your primary health care provider or mental health care provider if your symptoms include:

  • Anxiety or worry that gets in the way of your relationships and daily activities.
  • Fear that prevents you from attending your follow-up care appointments.
  • Feeling hopelessness or apathetic about the future.
  • Difficulty sleeping or eating.
  • Not participating in activities you used to enjoy.
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions.
  • Feeling that you have nothing to look forward to.
  • Being unusually forgetful.

Visit the website for UPMC Hillman Cancer Center to find locations and doctors. 

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.