For some women, breast cancer may come back after treatment – sometimes years later. This is called a recurrence. Recurrence can be local (in the same breast or in the surgery scar), regional (in nearby lymph nodes), or in a distant area. Cancer that is found in the opposite breast without any cancer elsewhere in the body is not a recurrence—it is a new cancer that requires its own treatment.
For women whose breast cancer has recurred locally, treatment depends on their initial treatment.
In either case, hormone therapy, targeted therapy (like trastuzumab), immunotherapy, chemotherapy, or some combination of these may be used after surgery and/or radiation therapy. These drugs might also be used if surgery or radiation are not options.
When breast cancer comes back in nearby lymph nodes (such as those under the arm or around the collar bone), it is treated by removing those lymph nodes, if possible. This may be followed by radiation aimed at the area if it was not given before. Systemic treatment (such as chemo, targeted therapy, or hormone therapy) may be considered after surgery as well.
In general, women whose breast cancer comes back in other parts of the body, such as the bones, lungs, or brain, are treated the same way as those found to have stage IV breast cancer in these organs when they were first diagnosed. See Treating Stage IV (Metastatic) Breast Cancer. The only difference is that treatment may or may not include treatments or drugs a woman has already had.
Recurrent breast cancer can sometimes be hard to treat. If you are in otherwise good health, you might want to think about taking part in a clinical trial testing a newer treatment.
Should your cancer come back, see Understanding Recurrence for more on how to manage and cope with this phase of your treatment.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
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, Freer PE, Jagsi R, Sabel MS. 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, Morrow M, Harris JR, Burstein HJ. Chapter 79: Malignant Tumors of the Breast. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, 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 Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Breast Cancer Treatment – Health Professional Version. 2021. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/hp/breast-treatment-pdq on August 30, 2021.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Breast Cancer. Version 7.2021. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/breast.pdf on August 30, 2021.
Last Revised: October 27, 2021
American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.