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Why Does Cancer Recur? What You Need To Know

Why does cancer recur? When cancer returns after therapy, this is called a recurrence. Even after years of therapy, cancer might return.

Dr. Cooney Blades
Jan 25, 20241335 Shares18042 Views
Why does cancer recur? When cancer returns after therapy, this is called a recurrence. Even after years of therapy, cancer might return.
Treatment may have missed malignant cells or failed to touch all of them, leading to a recurrence. Medical professionals are able to manage cancer that returns. Recurring cancer may be a long-term healthproblem for many people.

What Is A Cancer Recurrence?

Cancer recurrence occurs when cancer returns after a remission phase, resulting from certain cancer cells evading treatment. These cells may be located in different areas or have been dormant for some time, leading to the cancer's return. On rare occasions, a second primary cancer may be discovered that has nothing to do with the first.
Cancer recurrence, which manifests as its reappearance in the same, nearby, or distant locations within the body, is still a possibility despite removal and treatment efforts. Recurrence is classified as local, regional, or distant. The term "metastasis" is used when cancer spreads to various body locations.
Recurrence can occur weeks to years post-initial treatment, posing a risk even if scans or tests indicate no residual cancer. Survival of cancer cells post-radiation and chemotherapy, developing resistance to these treatments, contributes to recurrence. A shorter time span between initial treatment and reappearance indicates a more aggressive cancer.
It is crucial to distinguish recurrence from the development of a second cancer, a less common occurrence. The intricacies of cancer recurrence underscore the ongoing challenges in its management and understanding.
View of blue breast epithelial cells
View of blue breast epithelial cells

Why Does Cancer Recur?

Recurrences of cancer may be discovered in patients who have previously had effective treatment. That doesn't imply their therapy was bad or didn't work. The reality is that different types of cancer have different recurrence rates.
A small number of cancer cells that are not eliminated during therapy are all it takes for cancer to return. A tumor detectable by even the most cutting-edge imaging methods requires the coordinated efforts of millions of cancer cells.

Radioactive And Surgical Procedures

It might be perplexing to learn that your cancer has returned after surgery when the pathology report indicates clean margins and a scan reveals no signs of malignancy.
Although cancer cells may not be visible at the tumor's periphery, they may have already metastasized to other parts of the body via the lymphatic system, adjacent tissues, or the bloodstream. These cells that are unable to be detected are called micrometastases.
Local therapies include surgical proceduresand radiation therapy. As a result, they do not affect cancer cells that have spread outside the treatment area. Furthermore, it is possible that some cancer cells may survive radiation treatment.
Damage to DNA is the mechanism by which radiation kills cancer cells and healthy cells alike. A subset of cancer cells may undergo a similar process to normal cells after radiation treatment.


Some patients are given adjuvant chemotherapy (chemotherapy administered after local treatment with surgery or radiation has been completed) in the event that micrometastases are detected. The goal of this treatment is to kill these little cancer cells.

Medical Treatment With Drugs

As a systemic treatment, chemotherapy differs from radiation and surgery. This technique may target cancer cells that are present inside or around a tumor as well as those that have spread past the scope of earlier treatments (radiation and surgery). That being the case, why wouldn't chemotherapy eradicate all cancer cells?
The majority of chemo medicines target specific steps in the cell cycle process, and these steps might vary from treatment to drug.
Some cancer cells may be able to evade chemotherapy because they are either not dividing at the moment or are at a different stage of cell division than the one that a particular medication targets. This is one rationale for the use of many chemotherapy drugs in treatment and the practice of administering the medicine in multiple sessions spread out over time.

Stealthy Cancer Cells

What seems to be a cancer cell's capacity to "hide" for a long time has been the subject of a few hypotheses. Twenty percent to forty-five percent of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer recurrences, for instance, happen years, if not decades, after the first treatment was effective.
A subgroup of cancer cells called cancer stem cellsis one possible explanation. These cells are more resistant to chemotherapy and other therapies because they proliferate more slowly than typical cancer cells. Stem cells may be able to survive cancer therapies that destroy most normal cells, giving them the potential to regenerate if needed.
Dormancy is another idea. Like a dormant plant in winter, cancer cells may sometimes wake up under the correct conditions and start growing anew. These cancer cells, which could be stem cells, might lie dormant for quite some time before undergoing a fast growth spurt.
A robust immune system may aid in the suppression of cancer cells. In the event when immunosuppression is present. A tumor's capacity for angiogenesis—the formation of new blood vessels to supply and nourish the tumor—improves the likelihood of the cancer's survival.

Which Cancer Has The Highest Recurrence Rate?

Cancers exhibiting notable recurrence rates encompass various types:
  • Glioblastoma:This prevalent brain cancer type boasts an almost 100 percent recurrence rate, as highlighted in a study from the Journal of Neuro-Oncology. It's essential to note that glioblastoma, although highly recurrent, is relatively rare.
  • Epithelial Ovarian Cancer:Research published in Expert Review of Anticancer Therapy indicates an 85 percent recurrence rate for epithelial ovarian cancer.
  • Bladder Cancer:Post-surgical removal of the bladder, bladder cancer tends to recur locally between 30 percent and 54 percent of the time, as revealed by a study in the World Journal of Urology.
  • Breast Cancer Recurrence:According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, recurrent breast cancer commonly manifests locally within five years following initial tumor treatment. Interestingly, the risk of distant or metastasized recurrence remains consistent, whether the patient underwent lumpectomy with radiation therapy or a mastectomy.
Tumor grade, denoting the microscopic appearance of tumor cells, plays a pivotal role. Cells resembling normal tissue, termed "well-differentiated," typically exhibit slower growth. In contrast, cells with abnormal appearances, referred to as "undifferentiated" or "poorly differentiated," indicate faster growth.
The grading scale, ranging from one to three, correlates higher numbers with increased tumor aggressiveness and a heightened likelihood of recurrence.

How To Cope With A Cancer Recurrence

Dealing with a cancer recurrence can be emotionally challenging, evoking familiar feelings from the initial diagnosis. However, there are strategies to help cope with these emotions:
  • Leverage Knowledge:Recognize the growth in your understanding of cancer and treatment options since the first diagnosis. Reflect on the increased awareness of treatment processes and potential side effects, providing a source of reassurance.
  • Explore Advances in Treatment:Stay informed about advancements in cancer treatments. New drugs or methods may have emerged since your initial diagnosis, offering additional possibilities and potentially improved outcomes.
  • Build on Relationships:Having established connections with your healthcare team and familiarizing yourself with medical settings can foster a sense of comfort. Your prior experience equips you to navigate the process with greater confidence.
  • Draw from Past Experience:Reflect on your resilience during the first encounter with cancer. Use the lessons learned to anticipate your needs and preferences, whether it involves seeking solitude or leaning on the support of others.
  • Employ Coping Strategies:Engage in activities such as meditation, yoga, physical exercise, or journaling to manage stress. Seek support from friends and family who played a crucial role during the initial diagnosis.
  • Seek Professional Help:If the emotional burden becomes overwhelming, consider reaching out to a therapist or counselor experienced in supporting individuals dealing with cancer. Professional guidance can offer valuable insights and coping mechanisms.
  • Rebuild Support Systems:Acknowledge that some support systems may shift after a recurrence. Communicate openly with friends and family about your needs, fostering renewed connections and understanding.
  • Communicate with Healthcare Providers:Share your emotions and concerns with your healthcare provider. Open dialogue enhances your understanding of the situation and aids in making informed decisions regarding treatment.
While a cancer recurrence can be emotionally challenging, proactive steps and support systems can significantly contribute to navigating this difficult journey.

Diagnosis And Treatment

Having battled cancer before, regular follow-up examinations, scans, and blood tests become part of your medical routine. If suspicions arise regarding a possible recurrence, doctors may conduct additional tests, including biopsies, to determine the nature of the suspicious site—whether it signifies a recurrent episode or a new development.
Vigilance regarding potential physical symptoms associated with cancer recurrence is crucial. Contact your doctor if you notice any alarming signs, recognizing that these symptoms can vary depending on the type and location of cancer.
These may include lumps, non-healing sores, night sweats, extreme fatigue, unexplained weight changes, persistent cough, changes in bowel or urinary habits, and more.
Treatment strategies for recurrent cancer hinge on factors such as cancer type, its local or metastatic nature, and its responsiveness to therapies like chemotherapy.
For instance, in cases of prostate cancer recurrence indicated by elevated prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels, monitoring may be prioritized unless progression is observed. If the cancer has metastasized, treatment options like hormone therapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy may be recommended.
Medical teams use termslike "complete remission" or "partial remission/partial response" after treatment:
  • Complete Remission:No detectable cancer in the body.
  • Partial Remission/Partial Response:Cancer has responded but not been eliminated.
Metastatic cancer, involving the spread to distant sites, manifests symptoms based on tumor size and location. Common sites include bones, liver, lungs, with symptoms ranging from broken bones and pain to jaundice or difficulty breathing.
For cases of recurrent cancer with distant spread, the focus shifts to controlling its growth. Palliative care aims to maintain quality of lifeand reduce discomfort. If the cancer becomes uncontrollable, end-of-life care discussions may occur.
In pursuit of innovative treatments, clinical trials may be suggested, exploring new drug developments or technologies. Your doctor plays a crucial role in guiding decisions throughout the complex journey of recurrent cancer management.

Living With Recurrent Cancer

Encountering recurrent cancer may evoke a sense of déjà vu, reopening a chapter you've already faced. The emotional weight of dealing with cancer once again can be overwhelming, and it's crucial to acknowledge and validate these feelings.
As you navigate through the complexities of recurrent cancer, allowing yourself time and space to comprehend the situation becomes paramount. Consider these personalized steps to enhance your well-being:
  • Explore Survivorship Programs: Inquire about cancer survivorship programs tailored to assist you in comprehending and managing the challenges associated with living with recurrent cancer.
  • Embrace Nutritious Eating Habits: Consult with your healthcare provider to connect with a nutritionist who can guide you in creating a food plan that aligns with your specific needs.
  • Incorporate Physical Activity: Seek approval from your provider before embarking on an exercise regimen, as physical activity can contribute to stress relief, increased strength, and enhanced endurance.
  • Cultivate Healthy Lifestyle Choices: Evaluate and refine your lifestyle habits, especially if you use tobacco or consume alcohol-containing beverages, aiming for positive changes.
  • Prioritize Adequate Sleep: Recognize the toll cancer and its treatment can take on your body, emphasizing the importance of ensuring sufficient sleep. If sleep troubles persist, discuss them with your healthcare provider.
  • Engage in Advance Care Planning: Delve into advance care planning, including the formulation of advance directives. These legal documents articulate your end-of-life preferences and designate individuals authorized to make medical decisions on your behalf in case you cannot communicate your wishes.

Difference Between Recurrence And Progression

Distinguishing between cancer recurrence and progression can pose a challenge due to their nuanced differences. Recurrence implies the return of cancer, indicating that it had regressed but resurfaced.
On the other hand, progression denotes the continuous growth or spread of cancer without achieving complete eradication. Deciphering whether it's a recurrence or progression becomes crucial in devising an appropriate care plan.
In scenarios where cancer reappears shortly after seeming to vanish, it likely wasn't entirely eradicated. Potential explanations include:
  • Incomplete Removal: Surgical procedures may not have successfully eliminated all cancer cells, leaving imperceptible clusters behind. These undetected cells gradually proliferate, becoming evident on scans or causing symptoms. Such cancers frequently exhibit rapid growth and quick dissemination, making them very aggressive.
  • Treatment Resistance: Cancer cells can develop resistance to treatment, akin to how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. Despite chemotherapy or radiation initially diminishing a majority of cancer cells, treatment resistance may allow residual cells to thrive and resurface.
In instances of swift cancer reappearance post-remission, collaboration with your cancer care team becomes imperative to formulate an effective care plan.
While there isn't a universally defined timeframe to discern between recurrence and progression, most medical professionals typically consider it a recurrence when cancer reemerges after a symptom-free period lasting at least a year.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Lifestyle Changes Reduce The Risk Of Cancer Recurrence?

Lifestyle changes, such as maintaining a healthy diet, regular exercise, and avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption, may contribute to reducing the risk of cancer recurrence. Consult with your healthcare provider for personalized recommendations.

How Does The Immune System Impact Cancer Recurrence?

The immune systemplays a crucial role in recognizing and eliminating cancer cells. Dysfunction in immune surveillance can contribute to cancer recurrence. Immunotherapies aim to enhance the immune response against cancer and may be explored as part of treatment plans.

Are There Genetic Factors Influencing Cancer Recurrence?

Genetic factors can influence an individual's susceptibility to cancer and its recurrence. Understanding the genetic profile of both the tumor and the patient may guide treatment decisions and risk assessment for recurrence.

What Role Does Tumor Microenvironment Play In Cancer Recurrence?

The tumor microenvironment, consisting of surrounding tissues, blood vessels, and immune cells, can influence cancer recurrence. Researchers are exploring how the interactions within the microenvironment contribute to the growth and persistence of cancer cells.

How Does Treatment-induced Resistance Contribute To Cancer Recurrence?

Cancer cells can develop resistance to treatments like chemotherapy, leading to incomplete eradication and potential recurrence. Research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of treatment resistance to develop more effective therapeutic strategies.

Final Words

Why does cancer recur? Due to the dynamic nature of cancer cells, cancer recurrence is a complex phenomenon. Despite advancements in treatments, cancer can return due to residual undetected cells, treatment resistance, or incomplete removal during surgery.
The intricate biology of cancer, coupled with its ability to evolve, makes recurrence a persistent challenge.
Understanding the underlying reasons for cancer recurrence is crucial for developing targeted therapies and improving long-term outcomes for individuals navigating the complexities of cancer survivorship.
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