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Cancer Remission

January 7, 2019

It’s the word that every person who is battling cancer wants to hear their doctor say — remission. But what does remission mean? Are you cured? Could the cancer still come back?

Let’s walk step-by-step through these questions and unpack some of these terms.

Does remission mean I’m cured?

Not exactly. Remission is still excellent news in many ways. A proclamation of remission means that there has been an absence of active disease for at least one month. The cancer has responded to treatment and is either no longer detected or reduced in size.

There are two different kinds of remission:

Complete remission means that there are no signs of cancer in any exam, scan, or radiological test. Symptoms are also not evident. Many doctors refer to complete remission as “no evidence of disease,” or NED for short.

Partial remission means that the cancer is still detected, but the tumor has reduced in size or the number of cancer cells have reduced in your body (as in blood cancers like leukemia or lymphoma). In this case, a doctor may refer to partial remission as “stable disease,” or describe the tumor as being “controlled.”  

Despite all of our advances in technology, it is possible for cancer cells to continue to remain in your body undetected after treatment ends, which is why doctors will not use the word “cured” in the case of complete remission.

So, could the cancer come back?

It is possible, yes. You may find it helpful to think about cancer as many other types of chronic illnesses, such as heart or lung disease. It’s something that you’ll need to have continually checked, even after complete remission. These follow-ups may include blood tests, imaging, and exams.

Most recurrences happen within the first five years after treatment. But every instance is unique and depends on the type of cancer; recurrence is not something that can be predicted. It is possible that even many years after completing treatment, the cancer could recur.

On the other hand, it also is totally possible that a tumor in remission could remain in remission indefinitely.

I’m afraid of a recurrence. Is there anything I can do?

First, know that you are absolutely not alone! Even after receiving a complete remission or NED proclamation, there are a lot of physical and emotional effects to process.

In addition to the fatigue and pain you may still be feeling due to the end of treatment, you may also feel fear or guilt. This is totally normal and why connecting with a support group [link to December post] is important, even after your treatment ends.

Also, living a healthy lifestyle can be beneficial as well. Eat lots of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables and be sure to exercise.