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If your breast cancer comes back after treatment

Many women have no more problems after their original treatment for breast cancer. But sometimes breast cancer comes back. This is called a recurrence.

This can be a shock and you might need time to deal with the information your team gives you.

If cancer comes back in the same breast

If the breast cancer comes back in the same breast it's called local recurrence. The cancer might be picked up at one of your follow up scans or appointments. Or you might notice your breast or scar looks or feels different.

Symptoms of local recurrence can include:

  • a small pink or red lump called a nodule on the breast or scar
  • change in shape or size of the breast
  • a swelling in your arm or hand on the side of your breast surgery
  • changes in the shape or position of the nipple
  • redness or a rash on the skin on or around the breast area
  • a lump or thickening in the breast

Let your doctor know as soon as you can if you notice any changes. You usually have tests to check if the cancer has come back.

Treatment

The treatment you have for a local recurrence depends on the treatment you had before. It might include:

  • having the whole breast removed - if you had breast conserving surgery before
  • radiotherapy
  • chemotherapy
  • hormone therapy
  • targeted cancer drugs
  • bone strengthening drugs

You might have one or more of these treatments. Your doctor or specialist nurse will talk you through your treatment plan.

Tests

You will have tests to check if the cancer has returned. These might include a mammogram, an ultrasound scan, and a biopsy Open a glossary item

Your doctor may suggest you have other tests such as a CT scan to check if cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Cancer beyond the breast area

A locally advanced recurrence means that the breast cancer has spread beyond the breast and the lymph nodes under the arm (the axillary lymph nodes). This includes areas near to or around the breast but has not spread to other parts of the body.

A locally advanced cancer might come back in one or more of the following:

  • the chest wall
  • lymph nodes under the breastbone or between the ribs
  • the nodes above the collarbone (supra clavicular nodes)
  • lymph nodes around the neck

Symptoms can include, changes in the breast, and swelling in the lymph nodes above and below the collarbone, the neck, and around the breast bone. 

The tests you might have are usually the same as for checking for a local recurrence.

Do speak to your nurse or doctor if you notice any of these changes.

Treatment

To treat a locally advanced breast cancer you might have:

  • surgery
  • radiotherapy
  • hormonal therapy
  • targeted cancer drugs
  • bone strengthening drugs

If the cancer has spread (secondary breast cancer)

Cancer that has spread from the breast to other parts of the body is called secondary breast cancer. The most common places for the cancer to spread is to the bones, liver, lungs or brain.

The symptoms you may experience will depend on where in the body the cancer has spread to.

Your doctor will arrange for you to have some tests. These might include:

  • a bone scan
  • a CT scan
  • blood tests
  • a biopsy
  • an ultrasound scan

Your doctor or nurse will explain what tests you need and what they involve.

Treatment 

Treatment includes radiotherapy, targeted therapies and hormone therapies. The aim of treatment is to shrink the cancer and help to control any symptoms you have.

Getting support and information

It can be very difficult to cope with the news that your cancer has come back. At first, you are likely to feel very upset, frightened and confused. Or you may feel that things are out of your control.

It is very important to get the right information about your type of cancer and how it is best treated. People who are well informed about their illness and treatment are more able to make decisions and cope with what happens. Your doctor or breast care nurse can give you information.

It can help to talk to family and friends about how you feel.

You can talk to the Cancer Research UK nurses on 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

You can also contact one of the breast cancer organisations. They have free factsheets and booklets they can send to you. They might also be able to put you in touch with a support group.