Recurrent cervical cancer is cancer that returns after initial treatment. Doctors categorize the recurrence of cervical cancer as locoregional, distant, or lymph node involvement.

A 2020 article notes that approximately one-third of women with cervical cancer experience a recurrence during follow-up, with most relapses happening within the first 2–3 years after treatment.

A 2018 study consisting of 501 women found that recurrence often happened within approximately 20 months.

Doctors classify recurrent cervical cancer based on the location of the cancer and other factors, such as the size of the tumor and how much it has spread.

This article overviews the outlook, treatments, and support available for patients with recurrent cervical cancer.

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While some people with recurrent cervical cancer may not experience any symptoms, others may develop:

  • pelvic pain
  • lower back pain
  • chest pain
  • abnormal bleeding
  • vaginal discharge
  • swelling in the legs and feet

For some people with cervical cancer, the cancer may not return after initial treatment. However, for others, recurrence is a possibility.

The likelihood of recurrence depends on several factors, such as the initial cancer stage, the type of treatment received, and the individual’s overall health.

A 2021 article notes that for people with the Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) stage IB-IIA, recurrence rates are 11–22%, while for those with IIB-IVA, the rates are 28–64%.

For people with stage III to IVB, some studies report recurrence rates as high as 70%.

A 2022 study found that recurrence had associations with the following risk factors:

  • a younger age
  • lower number of births
  • a higher number of pregnancy losses
  • higher stage of the cancer
  • lymph node metastasis

The curability of cervical cancer depends on various factors, including the stage and extent of recurrence.

Doctors typically use “remission” instead of “cure” when discussing cancer treatment because cancer can return even after successful treatment.

A doctor may consider a person “cured” if they remain in complete remission, meaning there is no evidence of cancer, for 5 years or more after treatment. However, the criteria for considering someone cured can vary depending on the case and the cancer stage.

Localized treatments such as surgery or radiation therapy may be successful for cancer confined to a small area.

However, if cancer has spread to distant organs or lymph nodes, treatment may focus on managing symptoms and improving quality of life rather than attempting to cure the cancer.

When cervical cancer returns, it can be more challenging to treat and has a poor outlook, with an estimated overall survival of 13–17 months.

Whether treatment for recurrent cervical cancer will work can depend on various factors, such as:

  • the length of time between the original diagnosis and the cervical cancer recurrence
  • a person’s age
  • a person’s overall health
  • the treatment
  • how well a person can tolerate the treatment

If cervical cancer recurs after initial treatment, additional treatment options are available. These options depend on various factors, such as the cancer stage, the extent of recurrence, and the patient’s overall health status.

Common post-recurrence treatments for cervical cancer include:

  • Immunotherapy drugs: Immune checkpoint inhibitors such as pembrolizumab and nivolumab have shown promise in treating recurrent cervical cancer alone or in combination with chemotherapy.
  • Radiation therapy and chemotherapy: Doctors may recommend radiation therapy alongside chemotherapy for those with recurrent cancer in their pelvis. Possible chemotherapy drugs include cisplatin, paclitaxel, and topotecan.
  • Pelvic exenteration: Those who are unable to undergo radiation therapy may require a pelvic exenteration. This is a radical surgical procedure in which a surgeon removes the patient’s cervix, uterus, vagina, and nearby lymph nodes, as well as any affected organs, such as the bladder or rectum.
  • Radical hysterectomy: Doctors may offer radical hysterectomy in small recurrences in the cervix or uterus for patients previously treated with radiation therapy.

Regular checkups and follow-up care are important for early detection of recurrent cervical cancer. During these appointments, doctors may conduct a physical and pelvic exam and a Pap test to identify abnormal changes.

In addition, doctors may use various imaging tests, such as:

Cervical cancer diagnosis and recurrence can be emotionally and physically challenging. It is important to seek support from friends, family, and healthcare professionals during this difficult time.

Support groups and counseling services are also available for people and their families having difficulty coping with cervical cancer’s physical, emotional, and financial toll.

Financial aid

The following organizations provide financial assistance to cervical cancer patients:

Emotional support

The following organizations offer emotional support to cervical cancer patients:

Although the prognosis for recurrent cervical cancer is often poor, early detection can improve the chances of successful treatment.

Regular check-ups and follow-up care play a crucial role in identifying the recurrence of cervical cancer.

Treatment options for recurrent cervical include immunotherapy drugs, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, pelvic exenteration, and radical hysterectomy.

By seeking help and support, individuals can better manage their condition and improve their overall well-being.