Treatment of Recurrent Breast Cancer

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.

Treating local recurrence

For women whose breast cancer has recurred locally, treatment depends on their initial treatment.

  • If you had breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy), a local recurrence in the breast is usually treated with mastectomy.
  • If the initial treatment was mastectomy, recurrence near the mastectomy site is treated by removing the tumor whenever possible. This is often followed by radiation therapy.

In either case, hormone therapy, targeted therapy (like trastuzumab), chemotherapy, or some combination of these may be used after surgery and/or radiation therapy.

Treating regional recurrence

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. Systemic treatment (such as chemo, targeted therapy, or hormone therapy) may be considered after surgery as well.

Treating distant recurrence

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 be affected by previous treatments a woman has 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 general information 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. 2019. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/hp/breast-treatment-pdq on July 9, 2019.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Breast Cancer. Version 2.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/breast.pdf on August 8, 2019.

Last Medical Review: September 18, 2019 Last Revised: September 18, 2010

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