Chemotherapy is an effective cancer treatment, but it can also help reduce your risk of recurrence. Learn what to expect with this type of post-cancer treatment and what factors to consider.

Chemotherapy isn’t just for cancer treatment. For certain types of cancers, chemotherapy might be offered after treatment as a preventive measure to help keep your cancer from returning.

However, just like with initial chemotherapy treatment, chemotherapy used to prevent recurrence can have intense side effects.

This article describes when chemotherapy is used for prevention, what happens after this treatment, and how to decide if the risks are worth the benefits for you.

The chances of your cancer returning depend on several factors, such as:

  • the type of cancer
  • the stage of cancer when it was treated
  • if the cancer spread (metastasized), and where it spread to
  • your overall health
  • the efficacy of the treatment(s) you received

Brain tumors like glioblastoma have an almost 100% chance of recurrence after treatment. Ovarian cancer has an 85% recurrence rate. About 50% of cancers affecting soft tissues like the breast return even after successful treatment.

Meanwhile, other cancers like non-Hodgkin lymphoma and renal cancer have return rates of around 20% or less.

Your cancer care team can let you know about the individual odds of your cancer returning.

After your cancer treatments are complete and your cancer care team determines that you’ve reached remission, you may start to discuss options for preventing a recurrence.

Treatments that are designed to prevent cancer from returning often result in the same kinds of side effects as the initial treatment. This can include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • hair loss
  • increased risk of infections
  • diarrhea
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • numbness and tingling

When discussing your options for ongoing cancer management, your care team will talk with you about the individual chances of recurrence for your particular cancer type and stage. Some cancers even have testing for risk of recurrence like the Oncotype DX test for breast cancer.

Based on your recurrence risk, your care team will outline your different treatment options, which can range from:

Your care team can explain the benefits and side effects of these treatments for your diagnosis and outlook. You can work together to find the right solution for your prognosis and lifestyle.

Post-cancer treatments vary widely in how effective they are. Diversity of cancer cells, your overall health profile, the type and stage of cancer, age, and what kind of initial treatment you received will all be considered when weighing post-cancer treatment options.

There’s little consensus on which treatments are best for each type of cancer, and the ultimate decision will be specific to you and your cancer. For example, treatment after surgery for stage 2 colon cancer is not always required, though recent research shows it helps reduce the recurrence rate.

In pancreatic cancers, the use of post-cancer treatments resulted in significantly higher survival rates.

Generally, your cancer care team will weigh a number of factors before deciding on a post-cancer treatment plan. These may include:

  • involvement of lymph nodes
  • hormone sensitivity and tumor receptor type
  • tumor grade and stage
  • tumor size and spread
  • age
  • growth and genetic factors of the cancer cells
  • prior treatment
  • treatment efficacy

Recurrence, and even the development of secondary cancers after you’ve already gone through initial treatment, can be stressful. You may have put work, relationships, and hobbies to the side during your initial treatment and are now hoping to get on with your life and put your cancer in the rearview mirror.

When discussing post-cancer treatment options with your cancer care team, there are important questions you might want to ask. These questions will help you make an informed decision with your care team and usually involve medical choices that can’t be measured with a biopsy or blood test.

Questions to ask

  • What are the side effects of this treatment? Are these temporary or permanent side effects?
  • How long will I have to be on this medication?
  • What kinds of activities, foods, or medications will I have to avoid while on this treatment?
  • Will the treatment be an oral medication I can take at home, or will I need infusions in a clinic or hospital?
  • How often will I have to come to the cancer center, and are there additional tests or imaging I would need?
  • What is the recurrence risk for my cancer type and stage without additional treatment?
  • Does research support the use of post-cancer treatment for my specific cancer?
  • Will insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid cover the cost of these treatments? And for how long?
  • What kind of treatment options will I have if my cancer still returns?
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    Decisions on post-cancer treatment should be made after careful discussions between you and your cancer care team. There are many factors worth considering such as your lifestyle, cancer type, and overall health.

    Every type of treatment comes at some cost in terms of side effects. You and your care team can determine what is tolerable for you while also lowering the risk of your cancer returning.