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 mastectomy scar), regional (in nearby lymph nodes), or in a distant area. Cancer that is found in the opposite breast 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, but only if none had been given after the original surgery. (Radiation usually can’t be given to the same area twice.)
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 the local treatment 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 (Advanced) 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 may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial testing a newer promising treatment.
Should your cancer come back, see our section about cancer recurrence with more general information on how to manage and cope with this phase of your treatment.
Morrow M, Burstein HJ, Harris JR. 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. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Breast Cancer. Version 2.2016. Accessed at www.nccn.org on June 1, 2016.
Wolff AC, Domchek SM, Davidson NE, Sacchini V, McCormick B. Chapter 91: Cancer of the Breast. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2014.
Last Medical Review: June 1, 2016 Last Revised: August 18, 2016
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