Understanding the Risk of Recurrence
Breast cancer recurrence means the breast cancer comes back after initial treatment is completed.
During surgery to remove early-stage breast cancer, the surgeon removes all the cancer that can be seen. In some cases, there may be individual cells circulating in the bloodstream or hiding in the bones or other places in the body. These cells may be inactive and not growing — what doctors call dormant — but at some point in the future the cells may start growing and cause a recurrence.
Doctors prescribe treatments after surgery, such as hormonal therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies, to destroy any cancer cells left behind after surgery and reduce the risk of recurrence.
The risk of recurrence is unique to each person diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and depends on a number of factors, including:
number of positive lymph nodes (lymph nodes that contain cancer are called positive)
hormone receptor status
age at diagnosis
Doctors work very hard to estimate the risk of recurrence for each person. The estimate is used to create a tailored treatment plan after surgery to keep the risk of recurrence as low as it can be.
Example of treatment reducing recurrence risk
Let’s say you’ve been diagnosed with early-stage, hormone receptor-positive breast cancer and have had surgery to remove the cancer. Your doctor has told you your risk of recurrence is 14%. This is your absolute risk of recurrence.
Your doctor recommends that you take Arimidex (chemical name: anastrozole), an aromatase inhibitor, for 10 years after surgery to reduce the risk of the hormone receptor-positive cancer coming back. Your doctor tells you the hormonal therapy medicine can reduce your risk of recurrence by 50%. This 50% decrease is relative risk. It means your absolute risk will be 50% lower if you take 10 years of Arimidex.
Since your risk of recurrence is 14%, reducing it by 50% would mean your risk would be 7% lower (.5 x .14 = .07). And 14%-7%=7%. So your risk would go from 14% to 7%.
Learn more about absolute and relative risk.
— Last updated on July 27, 2022, 1:51 PM