Breast Cancer: Checking for Cancer Recurrence
Introduction to Breast Cancer Recurrence
Breast cancer can recur at any time, but most recurrences occur in the first three to five years after initial treatment. Breast cancer can come back as a local recurrence (in the treated breast or near the mastectomy scar) or as a distant recurrence somewhere else in the body. The most common sites of recurrence include the lymph nodes, the bones, liver, or lungs.
If you've been treated for breast cancer, you should continue to practice breast self-examination, checking both the treated area and your other breast each month. You should report any changes to your doctor right away. Breast changes that might indicate a recurrence include:
In addition to performing monthly breast self-exams, keep your scheduled follow-up appointments with your healthcare provider. During these appointments, your healthcare provider will perform a breast exam, order lab or imaging tests as needed, and ask you about any symptoms you might have. Initially, these follow-up appointments may be scheduled every three to four months. The longer you are cancer-free, the less often you will need to see your healthcare provider. Continue to follow your healthcare provider's recommendations on screening mammograms (usually recommended once a year).
Prognostic indicators are characteristics of a patient and her tumor that may help a physician predict a cancer recurrence. These are some common indicators:
Following surgery or radiation, your treatment team will determine the likelihood that the cancer will recur outside the breast. This team usually includes a medical oncologist, a specialist trained in using medicines to treat breast cancer. The medical oncologist, who works with your surgeon, may advise the use of tamoxifen (tamoxifen citrate, Nolvadex) or possibly chemotherapy. These treatments are used in addition to, but not in place of, local breast cancer treatment with surgery and/or radiation therapy.
The type of treatment for local breast cancer recurrences depends on your initial treatment. If you had a lumpectomy, local recurrence is usually treated with mastectomy, since radiation therapy cannot be delivered twice to the same area. If the initial treatment was mastectomy, recurrence near the mastectomy site is treated by removing the tumor whenever possible, usually followed by radiation therapy.
In either case, hormone therapy and/or chemotherapy may be used after surgery and/or radiation therapy. If breast cancer is found in the other breast, it may be a new tumor unrelated to the first breast cancer. Treatment would include a lumpectomy or mastectomy and possibly systemic therapy (chemotherapy and/or hormonal therapy).
Women with distant recurrence involving organs such as the bones, lungs, brain, or other organs are treated with systemic therapy. Radiation therapy or surgery may also be recommended to relieve certain symptoms.
Immunotherapy with trastuzumab (Herceptin) alone or with chemotherapy may be recommended for women whose cancer cells have high levels of the HER2/neu protein. Immunotherapy is generally started after hormonal or chemotherapy are no longer effective.
Reviewed by the doctors at The Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Center.
Edited by Charlotte E. Grayson, MD, WebMD, February 2004.
Portions of this page © The Cleveland Clinic 2000-2004
Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005 4:22:37 AM