Many women are relieved to be finished with breast cancer treatment, but also worry about the cancer coming back and can feel lost when they don't see their cancer care team as often.
But for some women with advanced breast cancer, the cancer may never go away completely. These women may continue to get treatments to help keep the breast cancer under control and to help relieve symptoms from it. Learning to live with advanced breast cancer that doesn’t go away can have its own types of stress and uncertainty.
Even if you have completed breast cancer treatment, your doctors still will want to watch you closely, so it’s very important for you to go to all of your follow-up appointments. During these visits, your doctors will ask if you are having any problems and will examine you. Lab tests and imaging tests typically aren't needed after treatment for most early-stage breast cancers. But they might be done in some women who are having symptoms to see if they're the result of the cancer returning or are from treatment-related side effects.
Almost any cancer treatment can have side effects. Some might only last for a few days or weeks, but others might last a long time. Some side effects might not even show up until years after you have finished treatment. Your doctor visits are a good time for you to ask questions and talk about any changes or problems you notice or concerns you have. However, if concerns about your cancer come up between visits, you shouldn't wait until your next scheduled visit. Call your doctor's office right away.
Your follow-up schedule can depend on many factors, including the type of breast cancer, how advanced it was when it was found (the stage of the cancer), and how it was (or is being) treated.
If the cancer recurrence is confirmed, your doctor may also check your blood for circulating tumor cells (CTCs), or for levels of blood tumor markers such as CA-15-3, CA 27-29, or CEA. Tumor marker levels go up in some women if their cancer recurs or has spread, so if a tumor marker level is high, your doctor might use it to monitor the results of further treatment. But tumor marker levels don’t go up in all women, so these tests aren't always helpful, and they aren't used to watch for cancer recurrence in women without any symptoms.
Talk with your doctor about developing a survivorship care plan for you. This plan might include:
Even after treatment is finished, it’s very important to keep your health insurance. Tests and doctor visits cost a lot, and even though no one wants to think their cancer might come back, this could happen.
At some point after your treatment, you might find yourself seeing a new doctor who doesn’t know about your medical history. It’s important to keep copies of your medical records so you can give your new doctor the details of your diagnosis and treatment. Learn more in Keeping Copies of Important Medical Records.
If cancer does return, your treatment options will depend on where it comes back, what treatments you've had before, and your current health and preferences. For more information, see Treatment of Recurrent Breast Cancer.
It’s important to know that women who have had breast cancer can also still get other types of cancer, so it’s important to follow the American Cancer Society guidelines for the early detection of cancer, such as those for colorectal cancer and cervical cancer.
Women who have had breast cancer are actually at higher risk for certain other cancers. To learn more about the risks of second cancers, see Second Cancers After Breast Cancer.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Henry NL, Shah PD, Haider I, et al. Chapter 88: Cancer of the breast. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020.
Jagsi R, King TA, Lehman C, et al. Chapter 79: Malignant tumors of the breast. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Breast Cancer. Version 8.2021. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/breast.pdf on October 18, 2021.
Ruddy KJ, Partridge AH. Approach to the patient following treatment for breast cancer. UpToDate. 2021. Accessed at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/approach-to-the-patient-following-treatment-for-breast-cancer on October 18, 2021.
Runowicz CD, Leach CR, Henry NL, et al. American Cancer Society/American Society of Clinical Oncology Breast Cancer Survivorship Care Guideline. J Clin Oncol. 2016;34(6):611-635.
Last Revised: January 5, 2022