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Recognizing Recurrence

Publication: Healthy Magazine, McAllen

A cancer diagnosis is a very personal and life-changing experience. While no two patients are the same, all share the same goal—beating the disease.

As an oncologist, it is a great feeling when I am able to tell my patients, “There is no evidence of disease.” It is thrilling to see them return to their lives and families. One common trait I have noted in almost all cancer survivors that becomes part of their “new normal” is an unspoken, lingering question: What if my cancer returns?

The American Cancer Society defines a recurrence as the return of cancer after treatment and a period of time when the cancer cannot be detected. Like so many aspects of treating cancer, recurrence is based on a variety of individual factors. It is not fair that anyone has to fight cancer once, let alone multiple times, but cancer does not discriminate. Half of American men and one in three U.S. women are expected to face cancer in their lifetimes. Of the 13.7 million cancer survivors in the U.S., some of these will face cancer more than once.

Cancer recurs for a variety of reasons. Although uncommon, it is possible for a few cells to survive treatment and begin to grow again. The cancer could have metastasized—and grown in another place. While it is different from recurrence, some patients develop a second type of cancer, unrelated to their first cancer.

Patients and physicians are not powerless against recurrence. The same healthy-living tips that help reduce the risk of cancer still hold true. If you use tobacco products, stop. Cancer survivors, and all adults, should aim for at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. A diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains provides the body with vital nutrients. Processed meats, an abundance of red meat, high amounts of alcohol, and salty or fatty foods are not part of a cancer-risk-reducing diet. You should ask your oncologist for any specific dietary guidelines based on your medical history.

Some patients are given medications to help prevent recurrence, such as tamoxifen for breast cancer. Additionally, a few specific types of cancer have vaccines that can be given to patients after completion of treatment that have been shown to reduce the risk of recurrence.

If worries about recurrence become all-consuming, consider talking with a counselor, social worker or spiritual leader about your fears. Your physician will continue to be your partner. Our goal is always to address concerns and give our patients the knowledge they need.

Ask your doctor what specific symptoms you should be watching for including unexplained weight loss, pain or bruising; chills or fevers; headaches; cough, shortness of breath or wheezing; lumps, bumps or swelling; an unexplained rash or allergic reaction; nausea, vomiting or diarrhea; and trouble swallowing or loss of appetite. Also ask what you can do to lower your risk factors. Patients should adhere to their schedule of follow-up appointments and tests, as well as keep detailed copies of their medical records.

Recurrence is a possibility but not a foregone conclusion. Oncology research is continually making breakthroughs in the fight against cancer. If cancer should return to your life, we will fight it together.

This story originally appeared in Healthy Magazine.

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