Breast cancer recurrence

One of the most common concerns for women following treatment for breast cancer is uncertainty about the future and fear of a recurrence.

What is cancer recurrence?

Cancer that has recurred (come back), usually after a period of time during which the cancer could not be detected. The cancer may come back to the same place as the original (primary) tumour or to another place in the body.

Lifestyle and breast cancer recurrence

One of the most common concerns for women following treatment for breast cancer is uncertainty about the future and fear of a recurrence. The evidence suggests that there are some lifestyle factors such as physical activity that may reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back after  women have finished their treatment.

Studies of physical activity in women after breast cancer have shown some striking findings. In a recent meta-analysis of observational studies which looked at over 10,000 women after breast cancer diagnosis[1], even moderate physical activity was shown to reduce risk of recurrence of breast cancer by 24% and reduce risk of death from breast cancer by 34%.

A more recent study of around 3,000 women also confirms that activity such as just 3 hours a week of brisk exercise can reduce risk of breast cancer mortality by 30%.[2]

This could mean that women who feel well enough could undertake some regular exercise such as going for a 30 minute brisk walk several times a week, going for a bike ride or doing some strength training.  It could also mean undertaking some activities such as dancing or taking the dog for a walk may also help you stay healthy.

Individual factors and risk of recurrence

Even with the knowledge about lifestyle factors, it is still not possible to predict if the cancer will return in individual women, and it is not known why breast cancer comes back in some women but not in others with seemingly the same characteristics.

There are factors which may increase the risk of recurrence related to patient characteristics, such as age, tumour characteristics such as the aggressiveness of the tumour, or extent of the spread of cancer at diagnosis.

Research is ongoing to better understand the modifiable factors which influence recurrence of breast cancer.

[1] Ibrahim EM and Al-Homaidh A. Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis: meta-analysis of published studies. Med Oncol. 2011;28(3):753-65.

[1] Ballard-Barbash R, Friedenreich CM, Courneya KS, et al. Physical activity, biomarkers, and disease outcomes in cancer survivors: a systematic review. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2012;104(11):815-40.