Remission: What Does It Mean?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 23, 2023
5 min read

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you’re probably hoping to hear your doctor use the word “remission.” It marks a major turn in your care and long-term health. But it’s more complicated than simply being done with treatment.

When you hear that cancer is in remission, is that the same as cured? It isn’t, but remission is still great news.

Cancer remission means you have either little or no sign of cancer in your body. It doesn’t show up on X-rays, MRI scans, or blood tests. Symptoms, like pain or fatigue, often ease up or stop.

You may be able to stop your treatments once you get there. Many people can take smaller doses of their medicine to keep cancer at bay. But you might still need to keep taking meds for weeks, months, or years to stay in remission.

Whether you take drugs or not, you’ll still see your doctor for regular appointments to make sure your disease doesn’t start up again.

There are two types of cancer remission:

  1. Partial remission means the cancer is still there, but your tumor has gotten smaller – or in cancers like leukemia, you have less cancer throughout your body. Some doctors tell patients to think of their cancer as “chronic,” like heart disease. It’s something you will need to continue to check. If you’re in partial remission, it may mean you can take a break from treatment as long as the cancer doesn’t begin to grow again.
  2. Complete remission means that tests, physical exams, and scans show that all signs of your cancer are gone. Some doctors also refer to complete remission as “no evidence of disease,” or NED. That doesn’t mean you are cured.

For both types of remission, the decrease or absence of cancer signs must last for at least a month.

There’s no way for doctors to know that all of the cancer cells in your body are gone, which is why many doctors don’t use the word “cured.” If cancer cells do come back, it usually happens within the 5 years after the first diagnosis and treatment. 

Some cancer cells can remain unnoticed in the body for years after treatment. If a cancer returns after it has been in remission, it’s called a “recurrence.” A cancer can recur in the same place it was first diagnosed, or it can recur in a different part of the body. It’s normal to be concerned that this will happen to you. Every situation is different, and there’s no way to predict what will happen.

Your doctor or health care center will continue to check for signs of cancer or health problems related to your treatment. It’s crucial to get all recommended checkups, even if you have no symptoms. Follow-up care can include physical exams, blood tests, and imaging tests.

Tests look for cancer cells in your blood. Scans like X-rays and MRIs show if your tumor is smaller or if it’s gone after surgery and isn’t growing back.

To qualify as cancer remission, your tumor either doesn’t grow back or stays the same size for a month after you finish treatments.

New cancer treatments have improved survival and quality of life for many cancers. So, it's possible for some stage IV cancers to go into remission. But this depends on a number of things, including the type of cancer you have. If your cancer is stage IV, ask your oncologist about what you can expect in your situation.

Some cancers may not go into remission. Many things affect the chance that your cancer will go into remission. Two important things are the type of your cancer and the stage at which you were diagnosed. 

Each type of cancer responds to treatment differently, which has a big effect on your chance of cancer remission. Also, it's generally easier to get to remission with early-stage cancer that remains local than with advanced cancer that has spread beyond its original site.

You and your doctor can come up with a treatment plan to try to get you there. What’s in the plan depends on:

  • Your type of cancer
  • What stage it’s in
  • Side effects or risks of each treatment
  • Your age or other health problems

If your cancer is in an early stage and hasn’t spread to other areas of your body, you might choose an aggressive treatment. This may mean more short-term side effects, but you could kill off the cancer cells or tumor.

You can also choose treatments to go into partial remission. You’ll have fewer side effects, the tumor will either shrink or at stay the same size, and your symptoms will ease up.  

Different treatments can help you go into remission:

  • Drugs like chemotherapy or targeted therapies
  • Radiation
  • Surgery
  • Hormone therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Bone marrow or stem cell therapy

You may need to combine two or more treatments to go into remission. You could have surgery to remove a tumor, then take medicine or radiation to kill cancer cells left behind.

Every cancer treatment has risks and side effects. Some drugs and radiation can lower fertility or make it hard to get pregnant later on. Talk to your doctor to decide which treatments are right for you.

One way is called maintenance therapy. That means you take lower doses of cancer drugs or hormones to keep the disease from coming back. You’re still in remission, and these treatments help you stay there.

Take these healthy steps to keep your cancer at bay:

  • Eat a healthy diet, with lots of fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
  • Don’t smoke, or quit if you do.
  • Stay at a healthy weight.
  • Skip alcohol, or drink only moderate amounts.
  • Exercise.
  • Try to manage stress, or join a cancer survivors support group.