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Why Cancer Comes Back: Shannen Doherty Facing Stage 4

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Actress Shannen Doherty revealed her breast cancer has returned and is now at stage four. Her cancer had previously gone into remission in 2017, and she spoke about feeling “lucky to be alive” after undergoing treatment.

The heartbreaking battle began with an initial diagnosis in 2015, and Doherty documented much of her journey on social media.

Doherty also said she initially didn't tell anyone about her recurrence because she wanted to prove that she was still able to work.

“Our life doesn't end the minute we get that diagnosis. We still have some living to do," she said.

Advances in Breast Cancer Treatment

After learning her breast cancer spread to her lymph nodes, Doherty had a single mastectomy and also went through chemo and radiation.

Even with a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis — meaning the disease has spread to other parts of your body — there’s reason to have hope. A recent study shows women with advanced-stage breast cancer are living longer.

“We’re getting better and better at fighting back against breast cancer,” says AdventHealth Cancer Institute oncologist Dr. Sarah George. “Treatments and technologies have advanced, and we take care to create a very tailored care plan that meets your needs and attacks your cancer using combinations of chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.”

In the early 1990s, women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer before age 50 typically lived for about 22 months. By 2012, that had gone up to 39 months.

It’s estimated that there are more than 150,000 U.S. women living with metastatic breast cancer — an increase of nearly 20% since 2000.

“The fact that more patients are living with breast cancer than dying of breast cancer is a sign of progress,” said Dr. George.

Why Does Cancer Come Back?

Some say the second cancer diagnosis is more devastating than the first. It’s understandable to feel angry, frustrated, sad and uncertain when cancer in yourself or a loved one has recurred.

A cancer recurrence happens when some cells from your cancer remained, despite treatment to remove them. These cells could be in the same place where your cancer first originated, or they could be in another part of your body.

“When a patient’s cancer goes into remission, it’s a victory for all of us,” said Dr. George. “But then we begin looking at their health through a different lens, watching for potential signs of recurrence.”

Recurrence is divided into three categories:

  • Distant recurrence: This refers to cancer that has spread (metastasized) to areas farther away from where your cancer was first found
  • Local recurrence: The cancer reappears in the same place it was first found or very close by
  • Regional recurrence: Cancer occurs in the lymph nodes and tissue located near your original cancer

In some cases, recurrence can still be cured. Even if it cannot be cured, treatment may be able to slow the cancer’s progress to prolong and improve your quality of life.

Can Cancer Recurrence Be Avoided?

Following your doctor’s orders regarding nutrition, exercise and medication is essential in caring for your cancer and working to keep it controlled. But sometimes, its progression is something you can’t change.

“If cancer recurs, you can’t blame yourself,” said Dr. George. “You may be taking care of yourself and doing everything right, but cancer can be unpredictable and aggressive. We will be here for you through all the ups and downs in this fight.”

Screening is Still the Best Way to Reduce Your Risk

Breast cancer screening is the best way to find breast cancer early, before it spreads.

“Screening mammograms are recommended at least every two years, starting between the ages of 40 and 50,” explained Dr. George.

Some may need earlier or more frequent screening — for example, if you have a family history of breast cancer, carry a certain genetic mutation or received radiation therapy to your chest when you were younger.

Talk with your doctor about the screening schedule that would be best for you.

The AdventHealth Cancer Institute offers the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’re doing everything you can to spot breast cancer early. And even if cancer is found, we’re here with compassionate care, hope and the latest treatment options.

For seven ways to reduce your risk of breast cancer, visit our post. To learn more about our breast cancer care, click here.

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