When Breast Cancer Returns 

There are many facts and figures about breast cancer: about one woman in eight will develop the disease at some time during her life; there are more than 2 million breast cancer survivors in the United States today; most breast cancer recurrences happen three to five years after initial treatment. Now there is one more statistic that women who already have experienced the challenges of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment should know.

The survival rate for women who have a recurrence of the disease has been improving by about one percent a year since 1974. According to a study done at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the five-year survival rate was 10 percent for patients diagnosed from 1974 to 1979; that rate jumped to 44 percent for those diagnosed from 1995 to 2000. Treatments used since the end of the study may help women live even longer in the years to come.

Researchers credited the improved survival rate to the increased number of new drugs available to treat breast cancer as well as earlier diagnosis of the original cancers. In the 1970s there were seven drugs to treat breast cancer; now, there are more than 40.

If your doctor suspects that your breast cancer has come back, imaging studies such as mammography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound or computed tomography (CT) scans may be used. A recurrence can be in the same place as before, which is a localized recurrence. If it is in the same general area such as in the lymph nodes near the breast where the cancer was first found, that is called a regional recurrence. Metastatic cancer is when the cancer has spread beyond the area of the breast to other parts of the body such as the lungs, spine or brain.

Generally, if your doctor finds a cancer in the non-treated breast, that is considered to be a new cancer. For instance, if your first cancer was in your right breast and the second cancer is found in your left, chances are that you are dealing with a new rather than a recurring cancer.

Treatment for recurrent breast cancer may include surgery (a mastectomy or lumpectomy), radiation therapy, chemotherapy or hormone therapy. The option or combination of options chosen will depend on initial treatment, location and spread of the recurrent cancer, and your general health.

Breast cancer can return if even a small number of cells are missed during the initial treatment. But recurrence is not a hopeless situation. New chemotherapy drugs, combinations of drugs and other therapies are helping women live long and productive lives. For more information about recurrent breast cancer, visit the American Cancer Society website at www.cancer.org.

For a Physician Referral call St. Mary's Medical Center at (561) 882-9100.