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It doesn’t mean “cured,” but remission marks a major turning point in cancer treatment — because your body shows little or no sign of the disease.

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, no doubt you’re looking forward to the day your doctor uses the word remission. Getting to remission is the goal of any cancer treatment. But what does it actually mean?

Remission is a period when tumors or cancer cells in your body have diminished, symptoms have lessened (or disappeared entirely) and you may even get negative results for cancer on medical tests.

Once you’re in remission, you can reduce or even stop treatment, because it’s been successful. Remission can last for months, years or even the rest of your life. 

“Decreasing signs or the absence of cancer that lasts for at least a month indicate that a person is in remission,” says Sorab Gupta, MD, a hematologist-oncologist at Geisinger. “Remission does not mean, though, that you are cured of cancer.”

Types of cancer remission

You can achieve cancer remission through an effective treatment plan. Depending on the type and stage of cancer you have, treatment may include radiation therapy, surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, hormone therapy or a combination.  

“It’s more likely for a person to achieve remission with early-stage cancer that remains local than with advanced stages that have spread throughout the body,” says Dr. Gupta.

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

Partial remission

In partial remission, many signs and symptoms of cancer have significantly improved, but not all have disappeared. In this phase, the disease is under control and it’s a positive step forward in recovery.

Complete remission

If you’ve achieved complete remission, all symptoms of cancer have disappeared. Medical tests, such as body scans, biopsies, physical exams or blood tests, show no detectable evidence of cancer. 

“Complete remission could mean that all of your cancer cells have been destroyed, or that cancer cells are still in your body, but they aren’t showing up on tests,” says Dr. Gupta. “That’s why complete remission doesn’t mean you’re cured — there is no way for doctors to know for sure that all cancer cells in your body are gone.” 

Remission vs. cure

While the terms are often used interchangeably, being in remission is different from being cured of cancer. Remission means the cancer has become inactive, while a cure is total eradication of the disease, with no cancer remaining in the body. Doctors consider patients to be cured of cancer if they have no signs or symptoms for at least five years after completing treatment. 

A recurrence can occur during remission — even complete remission — because cancer cells may still be present in your body. The cancer can become active again in the same area it was first diagnosed or elsewhere in your body. Cancer doesn’t always recur, but it’s more likely to if the cancer is fast-growing, more advanced or initially widespread. 

Maintaining cancer remission

Staying in cancer remission means having regular checkups with your care team, along with routine screenings, such as physical exams, blood and imaging tests specific to your type of cancer. Cultivating healthy lifestyle habits can also lower your risk of recurrence.   

Regular checkups, especially in the first few years following remission, are crucial to monitor symptoms and detect any signs the cancer has become active again. Your doctor may recommend maintenance therapy, such as taking lower doses of cancer drugs or hormones, to help you stay in remission for as long as possible. 

As far as adopting healthy lifestyle habits, Dr. Gupta recommends:

  • Eating a healthy diet full of fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean meats. A nutritionist can help you create a food plan tailored to your needs.
  • Exercising regularly. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (hiking, biking, water aerobics) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (running, swimming laps) each week.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Getting at least seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption. Men should consume no more than two drinks per day and women no more than one per day.
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Managing stress through techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga or meditation.

“Whether you’re going through treatment or on the other side, reaching remission is great news for anyone diagnosed with cancer,” says Dr. Gupta. “It may not be a cure, but it signifies a substantial advancement in the quest for one, and it’s a time to celebrate an important turning point in your cancer journey.” 

Next steps: 

Learn about cancer care at Geisinger
Undergoing cancer treatment? See how an oncology pharmacist can help.
What is stage zero breast cancer?

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