If cancer comes back - Maggie's Centres

If cancer comes back


Sometimes, despite treatment, a small number of cancer cells remain. This means that your cancer may come back (recurrence) weeks, months or years after the original diagnosis.

Knowing your cancer has come back can trigger a range of emotions. You may be scared, angry and concerned about what lies ahead - including having more treatment, and having to live with cancer that isn’t going away. You may also be worried that you’ll die from the cancer now it’s back.

The information on this page will help you to find out more about cancer when it comes back, and ways to cope with emotions and practical issues this raises.

When cancer comes back

Most people with cancer are naturally worried about it coming back. For many, cancer will be treated successfully and it may never recur. However, sometimes cancer returns (recurrence) - and for some types of cancers this can be weeks, months or years after the original diagnosis.

Your original treatment aimed to get rid of all or most of your cancer. Sometimes, a small amount of minute cancer cells remain, and regrow. It can depend on what type of cancer you had, whether it was a faster growing type, or was more widespread when it was first found. It may come back in the same area of the body, in nearby glands (lymph nodes) or in other parts of your body (secondary cancer).

If cancer comes back it does not necessarily mean that it cannot be treated successfully. Your doctor may recommend another course of treatment. Even if the cancer itself cannot be treated there may be treatment available to help control the symptoms caused by the cancer.

For some people, cancer doesn't go away, and it becomes a chronic (ongoing) illness - like diabetes or heart disease. The cancer is controlled and managed, and may become a cycle of recurrence and remission. 

For other people, the cancer may metastasize (spread) to other areas of the body, but be well controlled for a number of years. When cancer spreads it is known as secondary cancer. Sometimes, the cancer becomes advanced and life limiting meaning that treatment focuses on quality of life rather than quantity.

Emotionally, this can feel a distressing time. You may feel scared, angry,  and anxious, wondering what the future will hold, and how you will manage. It often brings back feelings you experienced when originally diagnosed. You may feel frustrated that the treatments you went through didn’t stop the cancer returning. Sometimes people blame themselves, wondering if it’s something they did or didn’t do. These are all normal responses although they can feel overwhelming at first.

When cancer comes back, you may feel helpless and overwhelmed at first, even if you had always thought it might be a possibility. There’s no wrong or right way to react, but there are things you can do to feel more in control of the situation.

Ways to cope when cancer comes back

  • Ask questions: find out what treatments the healthcare team are suggesting, and how well they are likely to work. It can help to know what the treatment goal is. Is  the aim of treatment  to get rid of the cancer, hold back or shrink the recurrence, or to make you more comfortable and stable for a period of time. 
  • There may be clinical trials available: ask your consultant about specific research looking at your particular type of cancer.  Sometimes people ask for a second opinion, and your healthcare team can help you with this.
  • Draw on existing strengths: You may feel that you can’t face the emotional and practical issues of treatment again. However, you may have built up ways of coping, over the time since your cancer was first diagnosed. You’ll know the medical system better, and how to access support more quickly, this time around.
  • Speak with your family and friends: They may be keen to help. Close family may naturally feel as shocked and disappointed as you, so sharing how you all feel can be supportive. 
  • Build relationships with the teams overseeing your treatment: touch base with your GP, and let them know if you’re struggling emotionally or physically. Your specialist nurse at the hospital can be a valuable contact.
  • You and/or your family can visit your local Maggie’s Centre: Find out how we can support you.  You can find out more information about your cancer and treatments, find ways to help yourself with relaxation, stress management, benefits advice, nutrition and exercise. Support groups within our Centres  and  our online forums can give you a focus and help you feel less isolated.

When to seek further help

If you’re waiting for treatment to start and your symptoms get worse - let your healthcare team know. It can sometimes take time to set up treatment plans, whilst investigations are completed, but symptoms need to be followed up, so that you can be comfortable.

Similarly, if you’re having trouble sleeping, feeling anxious and panicky or low in mood, talk with your GP.  Whilst the emotions you’re feeling are normal, if they’re going on for a number of days, or feel completely overwhelming then it can help to talk things through with someone who understands. 


What now?

Have a look at our blogs and links on this page to find out more about living with cancer when it comes back.

Talk with others about what you are experiencing. It can help to hear that what you’re feeling is not unusual, and help you feel less alone.  Call into your local Maggie’s Centre, or join our online forums to talk things over with our cancer support specialists and to connect with others in a similar position to yourself.


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