WebMD Feature Archive
Breast cancer recurrence: What you should know
When women stop breast cancer treatment early, they take a big risk.
Elyse Caplan remembers it well; that first conversation with her oncologist.
She had just been diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer, and they were
discussing the plan for treatment. If her oncologist
mentioned “recurrence”, the possibility that her cancer could return, it
was lost on her, she says.
“You sit through an hour-long appointment and take notes, but when the
doctor says one thing that's very upsetting, you just freeze”, she says.
“You're thinking, ‘I'm going to lose my hair. How am I going to tell my boss,
my kids?’ You don't hear much after that.”
Yet the risk of breast cancer returning is a critical issue that must be
emphasised early on, she says. “The whole goal of treatment is to eradicate the
disease and hopefully reduce risk of recurrence”, Caplan tells says. “But I'm
not so sure doctors are speaking as directly to that point as they could
It's true that many oncologists don't directly address the subject of
recurrence, says Dr Victor Vogel, of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer
Institute in the US.
“I don't think we've come up with a good way to talk about it”, Vogel says.
“Recurrence is fearsome stuff, disturbing.” No one likes the uncertainty of it,
he explains, which patient will have a recurrence, when it will happen, how
long we can control it, when they will die from it. “So we hide behind the
business at hand, stay busy with the treatments.”
“We've got that one shot to get it right, in that initial treatment, so we
focus on that”, Vogel says.
The problem is that some women stop taking breast cancer medication, without
realising it raises the risk of the cancer returning. Some are having serious
side effects from the medications. Others are feeling fine and don't see the
harm of stopping, he explains.
By giving up the treatment, they may put their lives at risk. If a patient
completes the treatment, there is significantly less chance of recurrence.
“Oncologists need to do a better job of explaining that,” says Vogel. If side
effects are the problem, there may be options to provide relief.
There are also lifestyle changes that women can make to either prevent
cancer from returning or catch it early if it does, so treatment can begin
Importance of sticking with the plan
When a woman is first diagnosed with breast cancer, her oncologists analyse
the tumour closely, already calculating her recurrence risk, to determine the
best plan of attack, explains Dr Mark Pegram, a breast cancer
More than ever before, today's breast cancer treatment is individualised,
tailored to the make-up of each patient's cancer cells, Pegram says. He adds
that if a woman has a large tumour that has spread to her lymph nodes,
recurrence is more likely than if the tumour is smaller, contained and less