Recurrent cancer is cancer that comes back to its original location, or somewhere close by, after initial treatment. In the case of breast cancer this means recurrence in the same breast, the opposite breast or the chest wall. Metastatic cancer is cancer that spreads from its original location to other parts of the body. If breast cancer metastasizes it often spreads to the lungs, liver, bones or brain. Recurrent or metastatic breast cancer is sometimes referred to as advanced breast cancer. Concerns about the possibility of recurrent or metastatic cancer were common amongst the women we spoke to. Our topic page on follow-up care and risk of recurrence shares their experiences around this subject in more detail.
Undergoing testing for metastatic cancer
Some women underwent testing to determine whether their cancer had spread to other parts of their body. In some cases, it had not spread but just waiting for the test results could be extremely stressful. For example, Christa had additional testing because an ultrasound revealed spots on her liver. Fortunately, these were found to be benign (harmless).
Similarly, Annie underwent testing for possible metastases to her bones. Although she too was found to be in the clear, she had to wait several weeks for the test results.
Living with uncertainty about metastases
In several cases, there was uncertainty about whether a woman's cancer had spread. For example, Sirkka's medical team suspected that her cancer might have spread to her bones but they could not say for certain. She was, for unknown reasons to her, unable to access a PET scan, the test she needed to confirm this.
A number of the women we spoke to have developed recurrent or metastatic breast cancer. This presented them with a whole new set of challenges.
Recurrent breast cancer
Six years after her initial treatment, Iceni noticed something hard underneath her surgical scar. It turned out to be a recurrence of her cancer. When she was initially treated, it was felt that the best option was to just remove the lump rather than having a mastectomy.
Kathryn had a recurrence of her cancer three and a half years after her initial treatment. She had asked her doctor, at the time, what steps she could take to prevent the cancer from coming back and was assured that she had done all she could. She too was angry about the recurrence and felt she should have taken additional steps to prevent it.
Three of the women we spoke to were confirmed as having metastatic cancer. Receiving this diagnosis was emotionally challenging for all of them.
Debbra's metastases were discovered when her physiotherapist suggested she have an x-ray to investigate persistent lymphedema (swelling in the limbs). Like Julie, she hadn't fully realized how her cancer might spread.
While receiving a second cancer diagnosis was very upsetting, all three women had found their own way of dealing with their situation.
Kathryn's doctor did not expect her to live very long after her second diagnosis. In fact, she has been living with metastatic breast cancer for 12 years.
Support for women with advanced breast cancer
While there are many supports available to women with breast cancer (please see our information and links section), there is less public awareness and fewer supports available specifically for women living with advanced breast cancer.