Tips for Coping with a Cancer Recurrence


In some cases, despite a cancer care team’s best effort, cancer comes back after treatment. This is known as a relapse or recurrence. The news can have a similar emotional impact to a patient’s initial diagnosis; patients may experience shock or feel overwhelmed.

Everyone’s experience is different, and the most important thing you can do is to be open and honest with yourself, says Carrie Wechsler, MSW, LICSW, a clinical social worker at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Here are her tips on how to help cope with the news of a cancer recurrence.

Reestablish trust

Before you can move forward with a plan, it’s important to be comfortable and trusting of your medical team. One way to do this is by discussing any questions or concerns you may have with your oncologist. 

Make sure to write your questions down and try to be as specific as possible. It may help to have someone accompany you to appointments; they can provide emotional support, take notes, and remind you of anything you might have forgotten.  

Examples of questions you may want to ask include:

  • Where is the recurrence?
  • Can you help me understand why my cancer recurred?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • What are the risks and the benefits of treatment?
  • What are the goals of treatment?
  • What are the known side effects?

This is also a good time to understand any factors—including your age, overall health, and the cancer’s location—that may impact your response to further treatment.

Don’t be afraid to tell your team if your relapse has impacted your sense of trust in yourself or the team’s prior treatment plan, even if this is a challenging conversation, Wechsler says. If you’re not sure what to say, try something simple and straightforward such as, “The cancer returning has shaken my trust. Can we talk about that?”

Don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion. If you still have questions after speaking with your oncologist, it’s OK to voice them. Your care team will always want you to feel comfortable and confident and may even be able to help coordinate a second opinion.

Embrace your empowerment

During this process, it’s important to remember that you’ve already been through a diagnosis and treatment, and you should use this information to your advantage. Having gone through this before, you largely know what works for you and what doesn’t, and it’s important for you to voice that.

If there are treatments you do not want to repeat, make sure to tell your doctor so they can work to adapt your plan. In addition, this may be a good time to ask your team if you would benefit from a palliative care consultation. Palliative care physicians are experts in pain and side effect/symptom management, and they can be helpful to you and your team through all stages of illness. During these conversations, it’s essential to be both honest and flexible so you can come up with a plan that everyone is comfortable with.

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