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When Cancer Returns

  • Posted: 07/15/2011

Why and Where Cancer Returns


"I was floored. I thought all the cancer was gone. I was just getting back to a normal life. I was even more surprised that it came back in a different place. But I didn't care where it was. I just wanted it to go away." - Ronald

When cancer comes back, doctors call it a recurrence (or recurrent cancer). Some things you should know are:

  • A recurrent cancer starts with cancer cells that the first treatment didn't fully remove or destroy. Some may have been too small to be seen in follow-up. This doesn't mean that the treatment you received was wrong. And it doesn't mean that you did anything wrong, either. It just means that a small number of cancer cells survived the treatment. These cells grew over time into tumors or cancer that your doctor can now detect.
  • When cancer comes back, it doesn't always show up in the same part of the body. For example, if you had colon cancer, it may come back in your liver. But the cancer is still called colon cancer. When the original cancer spreads to a new place, it is called a metastasis (meh-TAS-tuh-sis). (See the box below.)
  • It is possible to develop a completely new cancer that has nothing to do with your original cancer. But this doesn't happen very often. Recurrences are more common.

Where Cancer Can Return

Doctors define recurrent cancers by where they develop. The different types of recurrence are:

  • Local recurrence. This means that the cancer is in the same place as the original cancer or is very close to it.
  • Regional recurrence. This is when tumors grow in lymph nodes or tissues near the place of the original cancer.
  • Distant recurrence. In these cases, the cancer has spread (metastasized) to organs or tissues far from the place of the original cancer.

Local cancer may be easier to treat than regional or distant cancer. But this can be different for each patient. Talk with your doctor about your options.