I don't know of a single person who has had breast cancer who does not wonder if their breast cancer will return. For some, the thoughts are infrequent but for many others, it is something that almost invades their thoughts on a daily basis. Even with having had a mastectomy, there is always fear that some cancer cells may have managed to linger undetected in the area or some may have escaped through the lymph nodes that were unnoticed because there weren't many of them at the time of surgery when the lymph nodes were checked. But, other than finding a new lump and/or having regular yearly screenings, are there any other ways to determine, or any signs that may indicate a change, that would lead one to suspect that breast cancer has returned? Since this question has been raised on more than one occasion of late and I didn't have any idea whether a patient may have some clues of a recurrence, I decided it was something that needed further investigation.
I was able to locate a site that provided some answers for me to share. As we suspected, despite best efforts, some small amount of cancer cells may have escaped detection at the time of initial treatment. If a recurrence happens in the same place as the first breast cancer, in addition to a new breast lump, you might find changes to the nipple, redness or swelling of the breast or a new thickening near the mastectomy scar. If a recurrence happens regionally (returned to the lymph nodes or close to the original cancer), symptoms may include lumps in your lymph nodes or near the collarbone, chest pain, pain or loss of sensation in your arm or shoulder or swelling in your arm on the same side of the original cancer.
Obviously if any of these symptoms appeared under any circumstances, I would hope that we would immediately bring such changes to our physician's attention. With that said, I would hope that we would be willing to rely on our yearly testing in order to satisfy ourselves that the cancer has not recurred. For those who have successfully been treated and determined to be cancer free after subsequent testing, the main goal should be to be grateful for such an outcome and to enjoy and appreciate each day as it is given to us. Yes, the cancer may recur at any time but then again, it may never recur so why would a person waste their good energy focusing on what might happen when the odds are pretty good that it won't?
If you find that you are someone who is not able to live your life without the constant fear of a recurrence, perhaps it would be in your best interest to share this with your medical team so that they can get you some help with dealing with this situation. You will not be the first patient that they have had whose life has not only been changed by the initial diagnosis of breast cancer but who also lives with a constant fear that it will return. Just as you would want to be treated for any physical problem that you might be experiencing so should you receive the help that you need in dealing with your fears.
Living a life that is controlled by a fear of what might happen is a waste. If you talk to those who have advanced breast cancer, they live each day in the throes of treatment and a future that, at this time, has no answers that will give them a cancer-free life. But, that does not mean that they give their days over to a focus on their disease. So it should be for every single one of us who has received a clean bill of health at our last exam. We need to be grateful for this gift and appreciate it while holding on to the hope that this will continue throughout the rest of our lives. We worked hard to get to this place so we deserve to enjoy this day and live it for all its worth. After all, that is what life is all about for all of us anyway.