If cancer comes back

Sometimes cancer does come back. This is called a recurrence or relapse. When cancer recurs, you may feel the same emotions as you did at diagnosis. Feelings of numbness, guilt, dread, anger, fear, confusion, denial and grief are all common. You may also experience physical symptoms, such as dizziness, nausea, fainting and shortness of breath. It is easy to doubt whether everyone in the family can go through it all again.

Sometimes, feelings can be even stronger at a recurrence than they were at diagnosis. The situation may seem worse than ever. If the first round of treatments did not work, then what will? You may feel guilty or worry that you did something wrong to make the cancer come back.

As a survivor you may have felt a part of a group of other cancer survivors and their families. A recurrence can make you feel different from families of children who have not had a recurrence or relapse.

Whether you are the parent or the child with cancer, remember that you are not the same person you were when the cancer was first diagnosed. You are already familiar with the medical words and tests. You have a better understanding of how to get emotional and practical support. You and your family were able to overcome and deal with what once seemed an impossible problem. Now that the cancer has come back, you and your family will need to rely again on the available resources for support that helped get you through treatment the first time.

It is important to talk to your healthcare team about any concerns that you have.

Some families feel it is even more important to get a second opinion when it comes to recurrence. Treatment options when cancer comes back are unique for each child. Treatment will depend on the original type of cancer, what treatment was given, how long since treatment was completed and the child’s general health.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Childhood Cancer: Late Effects of Cancer Treatment. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2006.
  • Arroyave, W.D., Clipp, E.C., Miller, P.E., et al . Childhood cancer survivors' perceived barriers to improving exercise and dietary behaviors. Oncology Nursing Forum. Oncology Nursing Society; 2008.
  • CureSearch. Relapse or recurrence. Bethesda, MD: National Childhood Cancer Foundation & Children's Oncology Group; 2014.
  • Relapse. Janes-Hodder, H. & Keene, N. Childhood Cancer - A Parent's Guide to Solid Tumor Cancers. 2nd ed. O'Reilly; 2002: 26: 439-446.
  • Keene N, Hobbie W, Ruccione K. Childhood Cancer Survivors: A Practical Guide to Your Future. 3rd ed. Bellingham, WA: Childhood Cancer Guides; 2012.
  • Ness, K.K. and Gurney, J.G . Adverse late effects of childhood cancer and its treatment on health and performance. Annual Review of Public Health. Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews Inc; 2007.
  • Shaw, A.K., Pogany, L., Speechley, K.N., et al . Use of health care services by survivors of childhood and adolescent cancer in Canada. Cancer. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc; 2006.