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July 25, 2023

How Can You Tell if Lung Cancer Has Come Back?

How Can You Tell if Lung Cancer Has Come Back?

Finding out that your lung cancer has gone into remission is an exciting time — and chances are, you feel a sense of relief. For some patients, lung cancer treatment ends after the first time it’s found because it doesn’t return. However, even with the advancements in lung cancer treatments that have been introduced in the past several years, it may begin to grow again after a period of remission.

As a lung cancer survivor, it’s very important to stay on track with your follow-up oncology appointments, where they can use imaging tests to see if there are signs of cancer recurrence. And while you don’t want to live in a constant state of concern about cancer returning, it’s helpful if you know the signs of lung cancer recurrence.

What Does Lung Cancer Recurrence Mean?

Recurrent lung cancer is lung cancer that has come back after treatment. While remission is a good thing, it doesn’t mean that the cancer is cured. It just means that there are currently no signs that the cancer remains.

Several factors can impact the chance of lung cancer returning, including the type of lung cancer and the stage when it was found.

The most significant factor is the type of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Most patients with small cell lung cancer are likely to experience a recurrence. This is usually within a year or two of the first diagnosis.

For those with the more common non-small cell lung cancer, the likelihood of recurrence is based on when it was found.

  • Stage 1: 5%-19% of patients have a recurrence

  • Stage 2: 11%-27% of patients have a recurrence

  • Stage 3: 24%-40% of patients have a recurrence

Non-small cell lung cancer recurrence is most common within five years after diagnosis.

The Type of Lung Cancer Recurrence Affects Your Prognosis

Lung cancer recurs in three main ways. Where cancer has returned determines how it is categorized

  • Local recurrence is when the cancer has returned close to where it initially originated.

  • Regional recurrence is when the cancer returns to the lymph nodes or other tissues surrounding the area of your initial cancer.

  • Distant recurrence is when the lung cancer has made its way to a new site far from where it was first found, such as in the brain, bones, adrenal glands, or liver.

If your lung cancer does return, another round of tests (similar to the ones at the time of diagnosis) will be needed so the oncologist can learn about its extent. These tests will also help determine if it's the same type of cancer that has returned or if you have a secondary cancer.

Secondary cancers can sometimes develop due to specific treatments. They are not the same as a recurrence and are referred to as a second cancer. Biopsy results that show the cancer cells look different mean that it is not a recurrence but a second type of cancer.

Signs That Lung Cancer Has Come Back

There are different ways that a lung cancer recurrence can be detected, like through a routine scan or because of certain symptoms you are experiencing. Recurring lung cancer developed locally can express itself similarly to first-time lung cancer. Some common symptoms can include:

  • Persistent cough

  • Coughing up blood

  • Wheezing, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath

  • Dizziness and visual disturbances

  • Weight loss

  • Chronic fatigue

The signs of returning lung cancer can vary among patients depending on where the cancer is growing in the body. Other than the signs of lung cancer mentioned, if cancer spreads to a distant location, such as the brain, bones, or liver, the following symptoms can also occur:

  • Pneumonia

  • Deep pain in the chest, back, arms, legs, or shoulders

  • Weakness on one side of the body

  • Poor coordination

  • Pain in the abdominal area

  • Jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes

  • Itchiness

  • Confusion

The location of the cancer recurrence can influence what symptoms you experience. For example, confusion and coordination could be the result of lung cancer spreading to the brain, while jaundice could mean it’s spread to the liver. Although these symptoms could be related to something other than cancer, you should see a doctor for a proper diagnosis.

What Causes Lung Cancer to Recur?

Cancer cells can linger even when lung cancer has gone into remission. These cells, which are not detectable on a scan, can develop into localized cancer or can enter the bloodstream and spread to a new part of the body. Genetics or lifestyle factors can also increase the risk of cancer coming back.

Lung Cancer Risk Factors

Certain individuals have risk factors that make developing lung cancer more likely to happen in their lifetime. These include:

  • Smoking

  • Inhaling secondhand smoke

  • Exposure to radon or asbestos

  • Arsenic in your drinking water

  • Previous radiation therapy to lungs

  • Air pollution

  • Family history of lung cancer

Out of all of these risk factors, smoking significantly increases the chances of recurrence. Quitting smoking and limiting secondhand smoke exposure can reduce your chances of having a recurrence of lung cancer.

Lung Cancer Recurrence Treatment Options

When lung cancer recurs, it often comes back in a later stage, making it more difficult to cure. The lung cancer doctor will evaluate your unique situation and make treatment recommendations with the goal of increasing survival time and improving your quality of life.

Treatments for lung cancer recurrence can include:

  • Chemotherapy is a common treatment method for lung cancer recurrence. Because recurrent lung cancer can mutate and respond differently, your lung cancer specialist may recommend a new type of chemo drug.

  • Targeted therapy may be an option for patients with recurrent NSCLC. This type of treatment uses drugs that target specific gene mutations found in the cancer cells. By targeting a specific mutation, cancer cell growth can be slowed or stopped without causing much damage to the surrounding cells. Biomarker testing (genomic testing) can help the oncologist determine if a drug is available to target your specific genetic mutation.

  • Radiation therapy can be used to reduce the size of tumors that have developed in other areas of the body. It may also be used to relieve symptoms caused by cancer (palliative radiation therapy).

    Learn more in our related blog: When is Radiation Therapy Used to Treat Lung Cancer?

Surgery is not a common approach to treating lung cancer that has come back. However, it can sometimes be used if you have a localized tumor.

Recurrent Lung Cancer Treatment in the South Chicago Suburbs

If you have been diagnosed with recurrent lung cancer, the specialists at Affiliated Oncologists are here to help by providing you with comprehensive care and the latest lung cancer treatments. We also offer second opinions on treatment plans as you consider your next steps.

Request an appointment at our cancer centers, which include Chicago Ridge, Mokena, Hazel Crest, Oak Lawn, and Palos Heights, IL.


Categories: Lung Cancer