What Does Cancer Remission Mean?

What is the Definition of Cancer Remission?

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What is the meaning of the term cancer remission?. istockphoto.com

Definition: Cancer Remission

Remission of cancer refers to the absence of active disease for a period of at least 1 month. There are two types of remission:

Complete Remission

Complete remission (or undetectable disease) refers to a cancer that has no signs or symptoms, and no evidence of cancer can be found on a physical exam by a doctor or through radiological tests such as a CT scan, MRI, or PET scan.

 With complete remission, some doctors use the terminology "NED"—which stands for "no evidence of disease." A complete remission may also be described as a "complete response."

Partial Remission

The term partial remission refers to a cancer that is still detectable but has decreased in size (or in the number of cancerous cells as in leukemia.) This may also be described as a tumor that is "controlled" or with the term "stable disease." One type of partial remission is called a partial response.  A partial response is a remission in which there is at least a 50 percent reduction in the size of a tumor, which persists for at least 1 month.

Spontaneous Remission

On rare occasions, a cancer will go into remission without any treatment directed at the cancer. This uncommon occurrence is referred to as the spontaneous remission of cancer. Spontaneous remissions often occur when someone with cancer has been fighting an infection, and it's thought that the bodies immune system, in this case fights off the cancer.

This idea, in fact, is the basis for the newer types of cancer treatments referred to as cancer ​immunotherapy.

Most remissions occur after a cancer has been treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or one of the newer treatments such as a targeted therapy or immunotherapy.

Remission Does Not Mean That Cancer is Cured

There may still be cancer cells present when a cancer is deemed to be in remission, but these cells are not detectable by tests we have at this time.

Unfortunately for most solid tumors it is rare to use the word cured - if there is a chance a cancer could recur - even if very small - it is usually referred to as a remission (or NED) instead of cured.

Recurrence and Progression

If a cancer returns after it has been in remission, it is defined as a recurrence of that cancer. Tumors in remission may:

  • Stay in remission indefinitely.
  • Recur and go back into remission in cycles.
  • Progress (grow) or spread - The term progressive disease means that a tumor has increased at least 20 percent in size or has spread to other regions of the body.

Why do some cancers come back years or even decades after remission? There are several theories as to why cancers recur following a period of remission. It's thought that even though a cancer appears to be "gone," some cancer cells may remain after treatment in a state of dormancy, which persists until conditions are right for the cells to begin growing again.

The Fear of Cancer Recurrence or Progression

Since cancer recurrence is the greatest cause of mortality with cancer, researchers are actively looking for methods to decrease the risk.

Those who are coping with the fear of cancer recurrence or progression understand all too well this risk, and anxiety about possible relapse or recurrence exists in the heart of many people who have experienced remission.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. When Cancer Doesn’t Go Away. Updated 02/12/16. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/survivorshipduringandaftertreatment/when-cancer-doesnt-go-away

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