Anxiety about cancer recurrence is normal, and it’s natural for patients to want to do everything possible to prevent the disease from returning.
Knowing which factors you can and can’t control is an important part of taking care of yourself after cancer treatment.
What causes cancer recurrence?
Three main factors play a role in your risk for cancer recurrence, said Dr. Bilal Naqvi, a Marshfield Clinic oncologist/hematologist.
1. Original characteristics of the cancer. Stage of cancer when it was diagnosed is the most important factor in risk of recurrence.
“Breast cancer is staged from 1-4. Stages 1-3 are curable, but stage 3 cancer is much more likely to recur than stage 1,” Naqvi said.
2. Genetic makeup of the cancer. “We used to worry about cancer recurrence based on traditional indicators, like size of the tumor and whether cancer spread to the lymph nodes,” Naqvi said. “Now we know that the genetic makeup of the cancer and mutations accumulated by cancer cells play a more important role in determining their behavior.”
3. Type of treatment. Patients treated with state-of-the-art methods are less likely to experience cancer recurrence than those treated with less advanced techniques.
Healthy lifestyle reduces risk
Cancer recurrence isn’t entirely within your control, but a healthier lifestyle reduces your risk. Regular exercise, a low-fat diet and quitting smoking are three of the best ways to reduce risk of cancer recurrence.
A healthy lifestyle also makes it easier to withstand treatment if cancer does return.
“Patients who are in better physical shape handle chemotherapy better, have fewer side effects and their overall prognosis is better,” Naqvi said.
Naqvi advised against using multiple supplements and alternative medicines to reduce cancer risk. At best, you’ll waste money on products that have no proven benefit, and at worst the products could interfere with cancer treatments and prescription medicines.
Follow up with your doctor
Going to followup appointments won’t stop cancer from returning but getting the blood tests, scans or ultrasounds your doctor recommends will catch cancer recurrence earlier when it’s easier to treat.
Following up with your doctor and getting a clean bill of health also may ease your mind that unusual symptoms probably aren’t signs of cancer.
If you’re concerned about symptoms, it’s okay to call your doctor, who can sift through them and let you know if it’s nothing to worry about or if you should come in for tests.
“It’s so important to have a trusting relationship with your treating physician,” Naqvi said. “He or she can help put things in perspective.”