When Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence

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What happens if treatment is no longer working?

Sometimes the cancer keeps growing after one kind of treatment, or it comes back. It’s often possible to try another treatment that might destroy the cancer or shrink the tumors enough to help you live longer and feel better. When a person has had many different treatments that didn’t help stop the cancer, it may mean that it has become resistant to all treatment. At this time it’s important to weigh the possible limited benefit of a new treatment against the possible downsides, including the stress of getting treatment and the side effects that go with it. Everyone has a different way of looking at this.

This is likely to be the toughest time in your battle with cancer – when you have tried everything available and it’s just not working anymore. Your doctor may offer you a new treatment, but you need to consider that at some point, continuing treatment is not likely to improve your health or change your survival.

If you want to continue treatment to fight your cancer as long as you can, you still need to think about the chances that it will help. In many cases, your doctor can estimate the response rate for the treatment you are considering. Some people are tempted to try more chemo or radiation, for example, even when their doctors say that the odds that it will help are less than 1 in 100. In this case, you need to think about and understand your reasons for wanting this kind of treatment.

No matter what you decide to do, it’s important that you be as comfortable as possible. Make sure you are asking for and getting treatment for any symptoms you might have, such as pain or nausea. This type of treatment is called palliative or supportive care.

Palliative treatment helps relieve cancer-related symptoms, but it’s not expected to cure the disease. Its main purpose is to improve your quality of life. Sometimes, the treatments used to control your symptoms are much like the treatments used to treat cancer. For example, radiation therapy might be used to help relieve bone pain from bone metastasis. Or chemo might be given to help shrink a tumor and keep it from blocking your bowel. But this is not the same as getting treatment to try to cure the cancer.

At some point, you may benefit from hospice care. Most of the time, this can be given at home. It can also be given in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice houses. Your cancer may be causing symptoms or problems that need attention, and hospice focuses on your comfort and quality of life. You should know that getting hospice care doesn’t mean you can’t have treatment for the problems caused by the cancer or other health conditions, but you will need to find out in advance what your hospice will do. Hospice is focused on helping you live your life as fully as possible and feel as well as you can at this difficult time. If you’d like to learn more about this, please see our document called Hospice Care.

Remember that staying hopeful can also help you cope. Your hope for a cure may not be as bright, but there is still hope for good times with family and friends – times that are filled with happiness and meaning. In a way, pausing at this time in your cancer treatment gives you a chance to refocus on the most important things in your life. Now may be the time to do some of the things you’ve always wanted to do.


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