If cancer comes back after treatment

Sometimes, even if it’s been a long time since you had treatment, cancer can come back, this is also called ‘relapse’. Read more about why cancer can come back and how you might be feeling if it does.

  • Sadly cancer can come back after treatment
  • It’s natural to worry about it coming back, even if you’ve been told you’re in remission
  • It’s also normal to feel a range of intense emotions if you’re told your cancer has come back

Sometimes, even if it’s been a long time since you had treatment, cancer can come back – either where you had it before or somewhere else. Getting that news can be devastating.

For most people, every day that passes lowers the risk of that happening. But even if your doctor is 95% certain that your cancer has gone for good, it can be really difficult to stop thinking about that 5%.

Why does cancer come back?

When cancer comes back after treatment and remission it’s also called ‘relapse’. 

There are several reasons why this happens, but it’s never because of anything you’ve done.

Sometimes cancer treatment doesn’t get rid of all of the cancer cells, and the ones that were left behind form a new tumour, either in the same place as your original cancer or somewhere nearby.

Sometimes cells have spread to another part of your body and form a tumour there.

And sometimes cancer treatments increase the risk of getting cancer again in the future.

If you are diagnosed with cancer again, your doctors and nurses will talk through exactly what the situation is and what treatment you might need. Cancer treatments are advancing all the time and might have changed since your first diagnosis. So don’t be afraid to ask questions or to be totally honest about whatever is on your mind.

How might you feel if cancer comes back?

Hearing a doctor tell you that your cancer is back can feel totally overwhelming, like everything you’ve already been through was for nothing.

It’s completely unfair.

You might find yourself experiencing a lot of the same emotions you felt first time around – but perhaps more intensely.

You might be feeling:

  • Shock - This is only natural, especially if you’ve been feeling well and like you’ve moved on
  • Anger - That’s only natural, too. There are no two ways around it: this is not fair
  • Sadness - You might be upset at the thought of how your life could change again
  • Fear - You might be scared about having to go through more treatment
  • Guilty - You might be worried about putting pressure on people again, but try to remember that this definitely isn’t your fault. Your family and friends know that and will only want to support you
  • Confusion – You might ask why you have to go through it all again 

Facing up to feelings like this again can be really difficult. Knowing what to expect can sometimes help, but it might also make things feel harder than the first time round.

Who can I talk to if cancer comes back?

Your clinical care team will be on hand to talk to about what happens next if your cancer does come back. They’ll talk to you about treatment and what support is available to you.

You might find it helpful to take a notebook to write down questions you have and the answers you get.

You’ll likely have a lot going on in your mind about this news, and talking to someone you trust about how you’re feeling is always a good place to start.