When Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence

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Treating cancer as a chronic illness

“My cancer has come back 3 times. I just keep fighting, even though I know there’s a good chance that treatment won’t make the cancer go away forever…”

Cancer may not be a one-time event. Cancer can come back a second and third time and can even become a chronic (ongoing) illness that never goes away completely. In some cases, especially with certain cancer types, this is true. Although recurrent disease may not be cured, it can often be controlled for months or even years. In fact, there’s always a chance that the cancer will go back into remission. The natural tendency of some cancers (for example, ovarian), is of recurrence and remission. Often, this repeating cycle can translate into survival over many years during which the cancer can be managed as a chronic illness. Treatment can be used to shrink the cancer, relieve symptoms, and help you live longer.

Repeated recurrences, often with shorter time periods in between disease-free intervals, can become discouraging and exhausting. The question of whether to continue treating cancer that keeps coming back is a valid one. Your choices about ongoing treatment are personal and based on your needs, wishes, and abilities. There is no right or wrong decision on how to handle this phase of the illness.

Still, it is important to know that even those who are not cured of cancer may go on living for months or years, even though there may be changes in their lives. And though it can be hard to do, many families adjust to this kind of treatment schedule. For people with controllable cancer, it can be something like diabetes or heart disease – a chronic illness that is mostly controlled with treatment.


Last Medical Review: 05/13/2013
Last Revised: 06/19/2013