If cancer comes back

Sometimes, sadly, cancer can return. This is called recurrence or relapse. It means return of a sign, symptom or tumour after you’ve been in remission (cancer-free).

Dealing with a relapse can be just as hard as, or harder than, dealing with your original cancer.

When cancer comes back, it doesn’t always show up in the same part of the body – for example, if you had colon cancer, it may recur in the liver. The cancer is still called colon cancer.

The different types of recurrence are:

  • Local: which means that the cancer is in the same place as the original cancer or is very close to it.
  • Regional: when tumours grow in lymph nodes or tissues near the place of the original cancer.
  • Distant: if the cancer has spread (metastasised) to organs or tissues far from the place of the original cancer.

A recurrent cancer normally starts with cancer cells that the first treatment didn’t fully remove or destroy. This doesn’t mean that the treatment you received was wrong. And it doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong. It just means that a small number of cancer cells survived the treatment. It is also possible to develop a completely new cancer that has nothing to do with your original cancer.

Not again! Normal reactions to relapse

It’s normal to feel angry and think ‘How can this be happening to me again? Haven’t I been through enough??’.

Other common reactions at relapse are shock, sadness and fear – perhaps the same kind of emotions you had when you were first diagnosed. Read more about dealing with them here.

Having to go through treatment again (often more intense), feeling out of control of your body and your life, and worrying about what the outcome will be this time may make you upset and scared.

A few things that might help:

  • Just like the first time, you need to 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, nurse or someone else in your YCS team or a counsellor. Canteen also offers a free and confidential counselling service.
  • Find a support group or online forum where you can talk about the challenges of relapse with young people who’ve been through it. You can join Canteen’s online community for young people affected by cancer.
  • Write down your fears, hopes and aspirations for the future in a journal or on a blog.

Staying positive. You have something now that you didn’t have before – experience. You’ve lived through cancer once. There is no reason why you can’t do it again.

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.