Despite the best care and treatment, cancer may occur in a person for a second time. A cancer recurrence, or a relapse, can happen within a few months or even decades later.
However, as Dr Ang Peng Tiam, Medical Director and Senior Consultant of Medical Oncology at Parkway Cancer Centre points out, not all cases of cancer have a high risk of recurrence.
“Much depends on the stage the disease was presented and the type of cancer the doctors are dealing with” says the oncologist with more than two decades of experience in treating a wide range of cancers including lung cancer, breast cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, genital urology cancer and malignant lymphoma.
Dr Ang explains that even though a patient may have completed initial treatment, which can now range from traditional chemotherapy, immunotherapy or targeted therapy, experts often have a rough idea of the risks and likelihood of a patient recurring with cancer.
It is for that reason that doctors continue to keep their patients under observation, therefore making regular check-ups on the part of patients, very important.
Why a Cancer Returns
Cancer recurrence happens because of micrometastatic cancer cells, these are the original cancer cells that manage to linger and remain undetected in the body after treatment. The cancer may recur in the same area or spread to other parts of the body through a process known as metastasis.
“It’s very important for us when we treat the cancer initially, to do the best we can in order to lower the risk of the cancer recurring” says Dr Ang.
He adds that “whenever we see a patient with cancer, we already have a good idea what are the chances that this patient will remain cancer free.”
To illustrate the point, Dr Ang cites an example. “In dealing with a patient with stage 1 breast cancer, you can be pretty sure in a good 90 per cent of these patients (cancer) will not recur.
“In contrast, when we deal with a patient with stage 3 ovarian cancer, we know that despite our best efforts in terms of surgery, in terms of chemotherapy, a significant portion, maybe up to two thirds or three quarters of these patients will eventually recur (with cancer).”
Worrying Won’t Help
There is no denying that dealing with cancer, whether for the first or second time, is a strain both for patients and their loved ones.
Oncologists make clear that the treatments prescribed, aim to help patients control cancer and live a good quality of life. And just like their patients, doctors hope for every person under their care and who has completed treatment, that the cancer does not return.
Dr Ang makes clear that when dealing with cancer, “it's important to live life to its fullest and not continue to worry about the cancer coming back ... continue to eat well, exercise, stay strong and have a positive mental attitude. Do not worry, day by day ‘when my will my cancer come back?’
“I always tell them this is very important. Don't be discouraged.”
Produced in partnership with Parkway Cancer Centre