Definition of Progressive Disease

What Does The Term Progressive Disease Mean With Your Cancer?

diagram of cancer cells
What is the meaning of the term progressive disease?. Photo©royaltystockphoto

Definition: Progressive Disease

Progressive disease is a term that describes a disease that is progressing, or worsening. With lung cancer, progressive disease is defined as at least a 20 percent growth in the size of the tumor or spread of the tumor since the beginning of treatment.

What Does it Mean if You Have Progressive Disease?

If you have been told you have "progressive disease" it can mean one of 3 things:

  • Your tumor is growing - and had increased in size by at least 20 percent as noted above. Keep in mind that measurements looking at the increase in a size of a tumor are approximations, and not so accurate. A tumor that is classified as being progressive disease has likely grown substantially -- or it would be called stable disease.
  • Your tumor is spreading.
  • Your tumor is getting worse - in other words, either waiting has increased in a tumor progressing, or the treatment you have had is failing to control the growth of the tumor.

Your doctor may use the term progressive disease as an indicator of when to choose a new treatment (for example, it may be time to switch to a second-line treatment instead of continuing a first-line treatment.) The term may also used as part of a clinical trial to indicate an inadequate or poor response to an experimental treatment.

Other Terms Describing the Current State of a Cancer

There are several other terms that you may hear in reference to your cancer.

These can include:

  • Stable disease - Stable disease means that a cancer hasn't changed significantly in either direction - it hasn't grown significantly or decreased significantly in size.
  • Complete response - Complete response means that all detectable signs of a tumor are gone.  This may also be called a complete remission or NED=no evidence of disease. In a complete response, there will be no indication of cancer present on a physical exam or on imaging studies such as a CT scan, MRI, or PET scan. It does not mean that a cancer is cured, as there may still be microscopic cells and regions of cells present that are not detectable with our current studies.
  • Partial response - A partial response to a tumor which has decreased in size by 50 percent but there is still detectable disease present.
  • Minor response - A minor response is a term that is being used more frequently in recent years.  It refers to a tumor that has responded to a treatment and has decreased in size by 25 percent, but not by 50 percent.
  • Objective response - The term objective response most often refers to either a partial response or a complete response to a treatment.
  • Clinical benefit - Clinical benefit is an informal term similar to a minor response. It usually refers to anything other than progressive disease, as sometimes stable disease could be referred to as a response to treatment (if the tumor is stable but would otherwise have grown, the treatment has benefit to the patient even though the tumor itself has not changed significantly in size.)


National Cancer Institute. Cancer Imaging Program. Imaging Response Criteria. Accessed 03/23/09.

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