Cancer Remission Definition: What Does It Mean to Be in Cancer Remission?

Posted on June 17, 2022 in Cancer

Written by Dr. Grewal

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If you or a loved one has ever battled cancer, the term “remission” inspires hope and relief. After challenging drug therapy or radiation treatments, it’s what every patient hopes to hear from their doctor.

The good news: being in remission indicates a measurable improvement of your cancer diagnosis. Some signs of remission are diminishing tumors, improving symptoms, or less cancer in your body overall. Generally, remission means that you can reduce or stop your treatment, at least temporarily.

Unfortunately, as anyone who has fought cancer knows, cancer care is rarely as clear-cut as we’d like it to be. Remission is more complicated than simply being done with treatment.

So, what does remission really mean?


What Is Remission?

In the context of cancer care, remission refers to “a decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer.” Remission is almost always the result of some form of cancer treatment, such as radiation or chemotherapy, although there are documented cases in which cancer goes into remission on its own.

Partial vs. Complete Remission

There are two types of remission: partial and complete. While complete remission is the ultimate goal, many people live healthy lives in partial remission. 


Partial Remission

Partial remission (also known as partial response in the context of treatment) is used to describe periods when cancer is improving but hasn’t totally disappeared. This may mean that a tumor has started shrinking or has stabilized. In cancers such as leukemia, partial remission indicates that there are fewer cancer cells in your body overall.

Patients who are in partial remission may be able to reduce the dosage or frequency of their treatment or even stop completely. Either way, it is essential to make sure tumors or cancer cells do not begin to grow again while treatment is reduced.


Complete Remission

Complete remission (or complete response) occurs when a patient shows no signs or symptoms of cancer. This means that a doctor has used the most accurate tests at their disposal and is unable to find any sign of cancer.

Complete remission is not the same thing as being cured. Cancer cells may still exist in the body at undetectable levels, or the cancer may come back in the future. Typically, if the cancer does return, it will be within five years of your original diagnosis.

How Do You Know If You’re in Remission?

Remission is determined by a variety of tests including X-rays, MRI scans, blood tests, and biopsies. The specific method used depends on the type of cancer you have. Your doctor uses these images to show the tumor size and whether it’s growing or shrinking.

Decreasing signs of cancer lasting for at least one month indicates that you are in remission. This could present as a shrinking tumor or decreasing number of cancer cells in the blood. In complete remission, no signs of cancer will show up in medical tests.

Achieving and Staying in Remission

Remission is achieved by developing an effective treatment plan with your doctor. The specific strategy depends on the type of cancer and individual’s health. Possible treatments include radiation, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, surgery, hormone therapy, and stem cell therapy. Your doctor will help you determine the right method for eliminating cancer cells, shrinking tumors, and reducing symptoms. 

In order to stay in remission, regular checkups help make sure that the cancer isn’t active again. You may require lower dose treatments to keep cancerous cells or tumors from coming back. It is also important to follow a healthy lifestyle to reduce the risk of recurrence. Talk to your doctor about what level of care is right for you during remission.

Remission vs. Cure

Remission is a good sign but doesn’t mean that the cancer is gone forever. It is more complicated than being permanently done with treatment because there is no way for doctors to know if all cancer cells are gone. Even in complete remission, there is a chance that cancer will come back.

Because remission is not a cure, it is important to follow your doctor’s instructions and monitor symptoms. In some cases, cancer may never come back. In other cases, tumors and cancer cells may recur and require further treatment.

Treatment During Remission

Certain types of cancer may never completely go away. In these cases, it may be helpful to think of cancer as an ongoing health condition that requires regular care over time, such as diabetes or heart disease.

Due to the cyclical nature of some cancers, patients in remission must undergo regular check-ups to ensure that the cancer is not progressing again. This screening is accomplished through blood tests, physical exams, and imaging. If cancer does begin to grow again, your doctor will work with you to plan a new treatment strategy.

During remission, maintenance therapy is used to keep cancer at bay. Most commonly, smaller doses of chemotherapy stop any remaining cancer cells from spreading further. Patients might need to continue medication for weeks or years to stay in remission. You will continue to see your doctor for regular appointments to monitor cancer progression and evaluate treatment.

Cycles of Remission and Recurrence

Some cancers, such as ovarian or gynecologic cancers, are prone to cycles of remission and recurrence. Recurrence is when cancer begins to progress again after a period of remission. Cancer can recur in the area of original diagnosis or in a separate part of the body.

While it is normal to be concerned about recurrence, regular checkups with your doctor will help address any new cancer growth. Your care team will continue to monitor signs of cancer and develop a new treatment plan as necessary.