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What is cancer recurrence? What to do if cancer comes back


Sometimes, cancer can return after treatment. This is called recurrence or relapse. It means the return of a cancer diagnosis after you’ve been in remission (cancer-free). 

So why does cancer come back? A cancer recurrence normally starts with cancer cells that the first treatment didn’t fully remove or destroy and have begun to grow or spread again – perhaps due to a small number of cancer cells surviving the initial treatment.  

It is also possible to develop a completely new cancer that has nothing to do with your original cancer. 

When cancer comes back, is it worse? 

Dealing with a relapse can be just as difficult, or sometimes more complicated, than dealing with your original cancer. Emotionally it can be overwhelming. It’s normal to feel anger, frustration, disappointment, and to think why me, why again, and how? 

It’s also really common during a relapse to experience shock, sadness and fear – perhaps the same kind of emotions you had when you were first diagnosed. Having to go through treatment again (which could be different to previous treatment); feeling unable to control your body/your life; and worrying about what the outcome will be this time, may make you upset and scared. All of these feelings are completely understandable under the circumstances - you can read more about dealing with a range of reactions in our ‘Coping with the news’ resource

A few things that might help:

- Just like the first time, get all the information you need about your relapse and treatment options so you can decide what’s right for you.

- Talk about how you feel with a trusted friend or family member or someone in your treatment team. You can also talk to a counsellor here on Connect.

- Chat with others here on Connect about the challenges of relapse

- Write down your fears, hopes and aspirations for the future in a journal or on a blog.

- You have something now that you didn’t have before – experience. You’ve navigated the system once before. A second time can be different, but there is a bit more you understand now than you did before which can be helpful in working out what comes next.

If your cancer can’t be cured

While most young people do survive cancer, the sad truth is that sometimes cancer can’t be cured.  Find out more and get support.

By Tom B, Online Counsellor, Canteen Australia