What Does It Mean When Cancer Is In Remission?

Cancer has been the second most common cause of death in the U.S. for a very long time, even though the overall numbers are falling, according to the American Cancer Society. At the beginning of this year, experts estimated that about 1.9 million people were expected to get a cancer diagnosis, and over 600,000 were presumed to lose their lives to some form of cancer. While the numbers are still staggering, they used to be worse. Luckily, the death for cancer patients is now 32% lower than in 1991. This is partly because more people are getting screened, so cancers are being detected earlier when they're more treatable. Additionally, it's due to treatments becoming more effective. Therefore, more people are going into remission.

It's important to note that cure and remission are not the same things in cancer. WebMD points out that it's impossible to use the word "cure" in cancer because even if all signs of the disease are gone, it's still possible for some invisible-to-the-eye cancer cells to remain in the body. These cells could potentially divide and cause a new tumor at some point in the future.

Instead, doctors use the word "remission" when talking about cancer. Remission covers a wide range of results, but WebMD explains the term is used only when the current situation of cancer shrinking or not being visible lasts for at least a month. So while remission doesn't sound as hopeful as a cure, it's still an optimistic sign for many.

Not all remission is the same

Depending on how things look after treatment, your doctor could potentially declare you as "being in remission," either partially or completely (via WebMD). Partial remission usually means the treatment has been effective and the tumor has shrunk or there are fewer lymphoma cells in your blood, for example. However, signs of cancer are still present and visible, like blood tests still indicate the existence of lymphoma and tumors are still visible in imaging and scans. It's crucial that patients in partial remission remain in follow-ups and frequent checkups.

Complete remission indicates all visible signs of the cancer are gone. Blood tests, CT scans, and MRIs reveal no obvious presence of cancer anywhere. However, it's still possible for some cancer cells to remain in the body undetected and cause cancer to return at some point. Patients in partial remission are often put on maintenance therapy (per Cancer.net). Once the original aggressive treatment, such as chemo, has worked enough to shrink cancer, patients in partial remission can often switch to lower dosages of medication or cut down the number of drugs taken. This often improves the quality of life and still helps keep cancer from growing or spreading.

Cancers with high recurrence rates, meaning the cancer is very likely to come back, might require continued follow-up exams and treatments, even if they're in remission, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. This includes some types of brain and ovarian cancer, as well as bladder cancer.