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When Your Cancer Returns: Understanding, Coping, and Moving Forward

April 03, 2024

When a patient reaches the end of cancer treatment and hears their physician say, “There is no evidence of disease,” it is a moment of celebration. But for some, being cancer-free is only temporary, and it may be a shock to learn your cancer has returned.

Cancer recurrence — the return of cancer after a period of remission — is a possibility for any cancer survivor. Whether it reappears in the same location or spreads to other parts of the body, navigating the challenges of recurrent cancer requires resilience, support, and informed decision-making with one’s medical team and loved ones.


According to the American Cancer Society, almost 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women in the U.S. are expected to face cancer in their lifetimes. Of the 18.1 million cancer survivors in the U.S. as of January 2022, some of these will face cancer more than once.

While the recurrence rates for specific cancer types are hard to measure long-term, what is known is that the likelihood of recurrence depends on the type and stage of cancer.

Cancer can recur in the same spot, in nearby tissues or lymph nodes, or it can appear in a completely different part of the body. Recurrence may happen due to:

  • Some cancer cells being left behind during initial treatment, or having spread to other parts of the body before initial treatment
  • The development of treatment-resistant cancer cells over time
  • Certain tumor characteristics, such as the ability to lie dormant for long periods
  • Using tobacco products, obesity, lack of exercise, and excess alcohol consumption can correlate with increased recurrence risk


The recurrence of cancer can evoke a wide range of emotions. A study to understand how cancer affects self-perception, body image, and mental and emotional health found that 70% of survey respondents experienced one or more symptoms of depression and 65% experienced anxiety.

Proactively addressing symptoms of depression or anxiety can help people cope more effectively with the emotional impact of cancer recurrence. However, the same study showed that only one-third of respondents sought out resources to help cope with physical and mental side effects of cancer treatment and only 25% sought resources for just mental side effects.

In addition to resources your care team may have available, self-care plays an important role in physical and mental health. Maintaining healthy habits can support both physical and emotional resilience, empowering patients to actively participate in their care journey. These may include:

  • Consuming nutritious foods
  • Engaging in exercise or physical activity within one’s abilities
  • Incorporating stress management techniques
  • Adding integrative therapies such as meditation or massage

Moving Forward

When facing cancer recurrence, weigh treatment options carefully and make informed decisions on the next step of your journey.

Considerations such as the type and location of the cancer, overall health status, treatment tolerance, and even personal preferences play a central part in the decision-making process. That is why an open dialogue with the healthcare team is essential to understand treatment goals, potential benefits, side effects, and overall outcomes.

Navigating cancer recurrence also requires a strong support network and access to reliable resources. Support groups, counseling services, and online communities offer opportunities for connection, empathy, and shared experiences with others who are going through a similar scenario.

While the prospect of cancer recurrence may evoke feelings of fear, anger, or uncertainty, it’s also good to remember that feelings of hope and resilience can coexist. By understanding the nature of recurrence, addressing the emotional and practical concerns to cope with the diagnosis, and actively engaging in treatment decisions, one can navigate the journey of cancer recurrence with support, strength, and perseverance.

For upcoming webinars visit www.TexasOncologyFoundation.org.