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Does Cancer Come Back?

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 10, 2023

A cancer diagnosis is often accompanied by fear, distress, and worry. When a person successfully undergoes cancer treatment, they may feel relieved and hopeful but still fearful of cancer coming back. That fear is an emotion many cancer survivors feel, and cancer can recur. However, it is difficult to pinpoint how likely it is for a specific type of cancer to come back. There are, though, techniques to manage the emotional impacts of that fear and to maintain a healthy lifestyle.


Will cancer come back?


This is a question that many cancer survivors wonder about after completing treatment. If cancer does come back, it most often is in the first five years after treatment is completed. As time goes on, the chances of cancer coming back get lower. Cancer’s behavior is difficult to predict, and its recurrence rates are dependent on several different factors, including the type of cancer, initial treatment type and duration, a person’s genetic makeup, environmental factors, and more. That variation makes it difficult for healthcare providers to predict whether cancer will return.


Cancer can come back because cancer cells can stay in the body even after surgery or treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation. When cancer does come back, it is categorized into three categories:


  • Local recurrence: The cancer returns to the place it was originally found, or is very near that place. This means the cancer has not spread to the rest of the body or to the lymph nodes.
  • Regional recurrence: This is when the cancer is in the lymph nodes and the area of the original cancer.
  • Distant recurrence: This is when cancer has spread, also called metastasized, to areas that are far away from the original cancer area.


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Cancer - Recurrence

Cancer - Recurrence

Is it possible to prevent cancer from coming back?


Cancer recurrence is difficult to prevent, so a person should not blame themselves for not eating right, missing a follow-up visit, or postponing diagnostic tests, such as a CT scan, to accommodate a vacation or other life event. Even if a person does everything right, cancer may come back. However, a person can take steps to live a life that is as healthy as possible which may help keep cancer at bay.


  • Eat a variety of vegetables each day, including dark green, red, and orange vegetables as well as legumes, such as beans and peas
  • Eat fruits that are whole and come in a variety of colors
  • Limit consumption of red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and processed foods (hot dogs, sausage, lunch meat)
  • Choose foods made from whole grains instead of sugars and refined grains
  • Avoid beverages with high sugar content (soda, sugar-added juices)
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Stop smoking
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Get regular physical activity (150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity workouts or 75-100 minutes of high-intensity workouts)


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Cancer - Prevention

Cancer - Prevention

How to handle the fear of cancer coming back


While there are many aspects of cancer that impact a person’s physical body, it is also important to address the mental impacts of cancer and cancer survival. The fear of getting cancer again can be intense at some times and nearly non-existent at others. Sometimes, the fear of recurring cancer can feel like a shadow over a person’s life, and that shadow can deepen around particular times or events, such as special occasions, before a follow-up appointment, when other people are diagnosed with cancer, or when having symptoms similar to those felt at the first diagnosis.


Some of the ways to handle fear of recurring cancer are to:


  • Recognize the emotions being felt, which can be helped by practicing mindfulness
  • Reduce stress by engaging in enjoyable activities
  • Focus on aspects of health that can be controlled
  • Learn more about the specific cancer and its recurrence rates
  • Speak with a psychologist or mental health counselor
  • Join a support group
  • Talk with a healthcare provider about distinguishing cancer symptoms from symptoms of other conditions or diseases

How to deal with cancer that has come back


If cancer does come back, it is important to address it with your cancer healthcare provider. It is important to get diagnostic tests to determine whether the cancer is a recurring cancer or a “secondary primary cancer,” which is a new type of cancer not related to the initial cancer. The treatment that worked for the initial cancer may not be effective for the recurring cancer. A healthcare professional can determine the best treatment plan moving forward.

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