Relapse (also known as recurrence) is return of a sign, symptom, or tumour after a remission of cancer.
The different types of recurrence are:
- Local recurrence. This means that the cancer is in the same place as the original cancer or is very close to it.
- Regional recurrence. This is when tumors grow in lymph nodes or tissues near the place of the original cancer.
- Distant recurrence. In these cases, 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.
- It doesn't mean that you did anything wrong. It just means that a small number of cancer cells survived the treatment.
- When cancer comes back, it doesn't always show up in the same part of the body. E.g. if you had colon cancer, it may recur in the prostate. The cancer is still called colon cancer.
- When the original cancer spreads to a new place, it is called a metastasis.
- It is possible to develop a completely new cancer that has nothing to do with your original cancer.
This can be a major challenge to you if you've been in remission for some time and thought your experience with cancer was over.
There are many challenges to people who relapse. You may be thinking:
"How can this be happening to me again? Haven't I been through enough?"
Emotions associated with relapse
- Shock: Relapse may come as big surprise, as you have been feeling good and the tests showed that the cancer was in remission.
- Anger: Is a very common emotion. Sometimes people feel like they have been through enough and are annoyed at having to do all this over again.
- Sad: At the thought of having to put family and friends through the roller coaster of treatment and its effects. You may be very aware of the stress and strain that it puts people under and you may be disappointed in yourself that it has to happen again. Don’t feel this way! None of this is your fault, and your family and friends love you and will support you whatever happens.
- Scared: The severity of treatment, the lack of control in your life and the way it made you feel may bring on fear that you had, when first diagnosed.
Many people have these feelings.
Remeber: 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.
Also there are constant developments in cancer research in both treatment and the handling of the side effects of treatment. Things may have moved one since you were first diagnosed.
When relapse occurs it can be a very challenging time, both mentally and physically, for both family and friends but more so for the patient.
Here are a few things that may help
- Communication: it is important to communicate how you feel to either a trust friend or family member or alternatively using the counselling services available at the hospital. The old phrase of “a problem shared is a problem halved”, works for some. These services are also available to family and friends of the person on their cancer journey.
- Information: One of the big problems with the topic of relapse is not knowing what it means. It is very important to look for information on what is involved. Asking one of the medical staff, as well as counselling services in medical centers and hospitals is a good place to start. Also online there are numerous well-informed websites that handle the issues clearly.
- Online communication: Join a forum specifically set up to handle the challenges around relapse.
- Journaling: Keeping a journal could be very helpful in getting down on paper, you fears, hopes and aspirations for the future. It can also be a great reminder of the high regard people hold you in.