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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on November 04, 2020.

Recurrent breast cancer

Even after initial treatment is complete and tests show no sign of disease, there is a chance breast cancer may return. When that happens, it’s called recurrent breast cancer. In most cases, recurrent cancers appear within the first three years after treatment. But in some cases, the disease may return many years later, either locally or in distant organs in the body.

According to the Susan G. Komen® organization, women with early breast cancer most often develop local recurrence within the first five years after treatment. On average, 7 percent to 11 percent of women with early breast cancer experience a local recurrence during this time.

For patients with a family history of cancer, or a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, the cancer recurrence rate is higher. The risk of finding new cancers, such as ovarian cancer, may also be higher. Cancer recurrence risk is based on many factors, including the cancer type and how it was treated.

Learn more about risk factors for breast cancer

Types of recurrent breast cancer

There are three types of recurrent breast cancer:

Local recurrence: When cancer returns to the same part of the breast as the initial diagnosis, the disease is classified as a local recurrence.

Regional recurrence: This type is diagnosed when the breast cancer is found in nearby lymph nodes and/or the chest wall.

Distant recurrence: Also called metastatic breast cancer, this occurs when cancer cells travel away from the original tumor in the breast to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system or bloodstream. Common metastatic areas include the bones, liver and lungs. Even when a metastatic breast tumor spreads to a different part of the body, it contains the same cancerous cells that developed in the breast.

Learn more about breast cancer stages

Symptoms of recurrent breast cancer

It is important to report new signs or symptoms of breast cancer to your doctor. Symptoms of recurrent breast cancer vary from person to person.

Signs and symptoms of local breast cancer recurrence may include:

  • An increase in the size or shape of the breast
  • Lumps or nodes felt on or inside the breast
  • Skin changes, such as swelling, redness or other visible differences
  • Skin inflammation or area of redness
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk
  • Irritated or itchy breasts

Signs and symptoms of regional and/or metastatic breast cancer may include:

  • Swelling or lumps in the lymph nodes
  • Unexplained pain in other areas of the body, such as the bone
  • Difficulty breathing or a persistent cough
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight loss
  • Intense headaches

Women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel, and report changes to a health care provider right away. They should also see their doctor for follow-up visits, so he or she can examine the breasts, discuss new symptoms and order lab or imaging tests, if necessary. Continuing routine screenings and annual checkups is important in detecting breast cancer recurrence early.

Learn more about breast cancer symptoms

Treatments for recurrent breast cancer

Treatments for recurrent breast cancer may include many of the same options used to treat the original disease. They include:

Learn more about treatments for breast cancer

Supportive care for recurrent breast cancer

A recurrent breast cancer diagnosis may cause difficult emotional challenges, and treatments may bring on new side effects. Our team of breast cancer experts offer supportive care services to help maintain quality of life. Depending on your need, diagnosis and other factors, these services may include:

Learn more about integrative care