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Breast cancer recurrence symptoms

It's normal to worry about breast cancer returning. Find out about the symptoms of breast cancer recurrence and who to talk to, if you’re concerned.

1. What are the symptoms of breast cancer recurrence?

Most breast cancers don’t come back after treatment, but it’s very common to worry about breast cancer returning. 

If breast cancer does come back, it’s known as recurrence

It’s important to know what signs and symptoms to look out for.

Changes to the breast or chest area

After breast-conserving surgery or a , with or without reconstruction, be aware of any changes to either side, such as: 

  • Swelling on your chest, in your armpit or around your collarbone
  • A change in shape or size
  • A change in skin texture, such as puckering or dimpling
  • Redness or a rash on or around the nipple or on the skin
  • Liquid (discharge) that comes from the nipple without squeezing it
  • The nipple has become inverted (pulled in) or looks different, for example changed its position or shape
  • Swelling in the arm or hand
  • A lump or thickening that feels different (with your treated breast this could be on or away from the scar line)

Symptoms elsewhere in the body 

Sometimes breast cancer cells can spread from the breast to other parts of the body. This is known as secondary breast cancer. 

Some symptoms to be aware of include:

  • Unexpected weight loss and a loss of appetite
  • Severe or ongoing headaches
  • A dry cough or feeling of breathlessness
  • Feeling much more tired than usual
  • Pain in your bones, for example in the back, hips or ribs, that doesn’t get better with pain relief and may be worse at night

Find out more about the symptoms of secondary breast cancer.

2. What to do if you have a concern

Talk to your GP or breast care nurse about any symptoms that are: 

  • New or unusual for you
  • Don’t have an obvious cause 
  • Don’t go away 

During follow-up 

Calling your breast care nurse can be a good way to discuss any concerns in between your follow-up appointments. They may be able to make you an earlier appointment if you need to see your specialist. 

If you have any new symptoms that are worrying you, you can also see your GP between appointments. 

Alternatively, you can phone the hospital and ask for an earlier appointment. 

After follow-up 

After you have been discharged from your follow-up appointments, your GP may be your main contact to get concerns checked quickly. 

When speaking to your GP, make sure they know about your breast cancer, particularly if you were diagnosed some time ago.

If necessary your GP can refer you back to your treatment team. Alternatively, you may be able to contact the breast care nurse or hospital you were discharged from to report any concerns.

3. What are the chances of breast cancer returning?

Each person’s risk of breast cancer recurrence is different and depends on many factors, such as the size, type, and features of the cancer and whether the were affected.

Your treatment team can tell you more about your individual risk of recurrence if you want to know this.

The risk of breast cancer recurring is higher in the first few years and reduces as time goes on.

However, recurrence can happen even many years after treatment, which is why it’s important to be breast and body aware, and report any changes to your treatment team or GP.

In the UK, the number of people surviving breast cancer has risen greatly over the past decade and most people diagnosed with primary breast cancer will not have a recurrence.

4. Checking for changes

It can be difficult to know how your breast or scar area should feel, especially as the area can change over time as it repairs and heals. 

After treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy, you may experience pain and sensations such as burning and numbness in the scar area and under the arm. 

The area around the scar may feel lumpy, numb or sensitive. 

If you have pain that gets worse or is severe, contact your GP or treatment team.

How to check

There’s no set way to check for any changes. 

You’ll need to get to know how the area looks and feels so you know what’s normal for you. This will help you to feel more confident about noticing changes and reporting them early to your treatment team. 

It’s also important to be aware of any new changes in the other breast and to report these as soon as possible. 

Get used to looking at and feeling both sides of your chest regularly. You can do this in the bath or shower, when you use body lotion, or when you get dressed. 

There’s no need to change your usual routine. Decide what you’re comfortable with and what suits you best.

5. Coping with worries about recurrence

Nearly everyone who has been treated for cancer worries about it coming back. 

At first, every ache or pain can frighten you. But, as time passes, you may come to accept minor symptoms for what they are in most cases – warning signs of a cold or flu or the result of over-exerting yourself.

Some events may be particularly stressful – the days or weeks leading up to your check-ups, the discovery that a friend or relative has been diagnosed with cancer or the news that someone you met while having treatment is ill again or has died.

We all cope with such anxieties in our own way and there are no easy answers. But keeping quiet about them and not wanting to bother anyone is probably not the best approach.

Just as talking about your diagnosis and treatment may have helped you through the early days, talking about your fears relating to recurrence may help you later on.

Our forum lets you share your worries with other people in a similar situation to you.

You can also read our tips on coping with anxiety and find suggestions in Becca, our free support app that helps you move forward after breast cancer.

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Quality assurance

Last reviewed in May 2019. The next planned review begins in February 2023.

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