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Summary: What You Need To Know

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Recurrence is when your cancer returns. It is not a new cancer. 

Learning that your cancer has returned can be devastating. It can even feel worse than the first diagnosis. However, the fact of a recurrence by itself is not a cause for undue alarm. Rather than focus on the fact that cancer came back, it is better to think about what to do about the situation.

To help cope with the emotions that are bound to appear, use whatever mechanisms and relationships you used the first time around. You survived cancer at least once. You also have the advantage of everything you learned since then. It may help if you think of cancer as a chronic condition which sometimes has acute phases. 

Look for humor. It helps.
A recurrence presents challenges for your medical team. However, even if the range of treatments is the same as during your first encounter with cancer, the specifics may be different. Treatment decisions are based on the type of disease, timing of recurrence, location of the recurrence, extent of spread, your overall health, and your personal wishes. For example, if you received chemotherapy, your cancer doctor may recommend a different chemotherapy. If you received radiation, you cannot generally receive additional radiation in the same area. You can receive it in a different area. 

There may be newly approved treatments, or promising treatments that are being scientifically investigated in clinical trials You can access such treatments through a process known as a clinical trial. 

Before deciding on a treatment, ask your cancer doctor about the pros and cons of each potential treatment, his or her suggestion, the reasoning behind the suggestion, and how long you have to make a decision. It is not likely that a decision must be made right away. With a time frame in mind, get a second opinion from a reputable source such as a doctor at an NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center both as to your diagnosis and your treatment. You can find an NCI center by clicking here offsite link.

There are services you can hire that will research treatments, vet the pros and cons, and make a recommendation.

If there are no treatments in the U.S. that can reasonably be said to work for you, it may be worth exploring what is happening in other countries. If you use this option, (known as "medical tourism") be cautious. There are signs to look for to help spot phone treatments. Also see: What Happens If Cancer Treatment Is No Longer Working

Keep in mind that at least one person survives every illness. There is no reason that person isn't you.

Use the practical experience you have gained to help avoid unwanted side effects and to deal with those you can't avoid. Keep in mind that with time, treatments get smarter with fewer side effects. Plus, the ability to control side effects gets better.

If paying for cancer treatment is an issue, or if finances of any type are an issue, Survivorship A to Z provides information on what to do when you are uninsured or have what we refer to as a financial crunch.

If your recurrence throws you off balance financially, when things settle, take a few moments to do financial planning that takes account of your health condition. A bit of planning will help maximize your resources. We even have tips on dealing with creditors if that is problem. (If financial planning is difficult for you, ask a trusted family member or friend to do it for you.)

This is not a time to beat yourself up if you haven't been living a cancer preventive lifestyle, or if you have, thinking that you could have done more. As the American Cancer Society says: "Although eating right, exercising, and seeing your doctor for follow-up visits are important, please understand that there probably was nothing you could do to keep your cancer from coming back… Even if you do everything just right, you can't change the possibility that cancer will come back. "

Look around you. Is your home environment peaceful and conducive to healing and healthy life? If not, do what you can to change it. For instance, repaint walls to restful colors.

If you haven't before, now is the time to get your legal affairs in order. If you have, check what you did to be sure it still reflects your wishes. 


  • Continue to think of non-traditional therapies as complementary to medical treatment rather than instead of medical treatment until the therapy is subjected to carefully designed, scientifically controlled patient studies. If money is the problem, there are alternatives for obtaining free or low cost care described in our information for people who are uninsured. (Please see "To Learn More").
  • Let your doctor know about everything you put into your body and all treatments you receive. Herbs, supplements and high dose vitamins can cause a drug interaction that interferes with treatments.


  • Even though you have been there before, it is at least worth skimming the Survivorship A to Z document: Newly Diagnosed With Cancer. There may be tips there that you didn't know the first time around that would be helpful now. 
  • When you start treatment, see In Treatment
  • When treatment ends, see Post Treatment.

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