When you start treatment for acute myeloid leukemia (AML), your doctor may tell you that the goal is to get into remission. You've probably heard the word before, and you know it's a good thing. But what exactly does remission mean, and what does it say about how you'll manage the disease down the road?
Going into remission marks a turning point in your treatment. It's a sign your cancer is under control. Yet it doesn't mean that you're cured or you can stop treatment completely.
With AML, some cancer cells can be left behind even when you're in remission. That's why you'll get treated until all signs of your AML are gone. And your doctor will keep checking you long after your treatment is done to make sure that you stay cancer-free.
What Is Remission in AML?
Your effort to get into remission starts with the first phase of AML treatment, called remission-induction therapy. You get high-dose chemotherapy to kill as many leukemia cells as possible in your blood and bone marrow -- the spongy place inside your bones that makes blood cells.
How do you know you're in remission? Your doctor will tell you that you're in "complete remission" when:
- There are no signs of leukemia cells, called blasts, in your bone marrow
- You don't have symptoms of AML
- Your blood count -- which measures the number of blood cells -- is back to normal
Will You Need More Treatment?
Just because you're in remission doesn't mean you're finished with treatment. A few leukemia cells that are too small for tests to pick up may be left behind in your blood or bone marrow. These cells can start to grow and spread if you don't get more treatment.
You'll now go into the second phase of AML treatment, which is called post-remission or consolidation therapy. You'll get another round of chemo or a stem cell transplant to kill any cancer cells that remain.
Will You Need Checkups During Remission?
After you go into remission you'll have regular visits to your doctor to make sure that your AML hasn't come back. When cancer returns after treatment, it's called a relapse.
During these visits, your doctor may take a sample of your blood or bone marrow. A lab will check for certain gene changes and other substances that are found in AML cells.
If your cancer does return, your doctor will put you on more chemo or give you other types of cancer drugs. Another option is to have a stem cell transplant.
Once you finish treatment, you'll see your doctor every few months for several years. If tests show that your blood and bone marrow are free from AML, you may be able to stretch out the time between follow-up visits.
How Should I Take Care of Myself During Remission?
The most important thing you can is to follow your doctor's instructions. Go to all of your appointments, and take any medicines or other treatments he suggests.
Take special care of yourself during this time with these tips:
Eat well. Your body needs a good mix of nutrition to heal. Try to put veggies, fruits, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy in your diet. If your stomach is upset because you're getting chemo, eat smaller meals every 2 to 3 hours instead of three big meals.
Get extra rest . Don't push yourself if your treatment makes you tired. Set aside time for breaks and naps during the day.
Stay active . It might sound like the wrong thing to do, but exercise helps cut your fatigue and improve sleep. It also boosts your mood. Try to walk or do other physical activities for at least a few minutes each day.
Take time for yourself . Your life has been caught up with AML tests and treatments. Now that you're in remission, set aside time to do things you enjoy. Read a book, get a massage, or take a gentle yoga class.
Check in with your doctor. Call if you have any new symptoms, such as fever or extreme tiredness.
Find support. Reach out to family and friends for the emotional backing you need. Or join a support group where you can talk to people who understand just what you've been going through. Your doctor can help you find one that's near your home.