Remission means that the signs and symptoms of cancer have reduced. This can be either partial or complete. When a person experiences complete remission of cancer, all the signs and symptoms of the disease have gone.

This article examines what it means to be in remission.

It also explores the types of remission, the follow-up care a person can expect, and when to contact a doctor after being in remission.

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The American Cancer Society (ACS) states that being in remission refers to a time when the treatment for cancer is working and keeping the disease under control. Remission can last anywhere from weeks to years, either during or following treatment.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a person needs to have a reduction in the number or severity of their symptoms to be in remission.

Entering remission does not mean that a person is cured of cancer. If a person’s cancer is cured, it means that there are no traces of the disease in the body and that it will not return. Since the cancer cells may still exist in the body, the cancer may recur or come back.

There are two types of remission: partial remission and complete remission.

Partial remission means that the cancer has responded positively to treatment and has shrunk. While this can mean a person has reduced symptoms of the disease, the disease has not fully gone away.

Complete remission means that all signs, symptoms, and traces of cancer cells are no longer present. After 5 years of complete remission, some doctors may say a person is cured.

Being in complete remission does not necessarily mean the cancer is entirely gone, since it may recur years later. However, even if the disease returns after complete remission, a new round of treatment may put the cancer back into remission.

Once a person begins cancer treatment, a doctor will need to check how they respond to it. If a person achieves partial remission, an oncology team may need to make adjustments to the treatment to help achieve complete remission.

Following complete remission, a person will need to attend regular checkups. The checkups will look for signs of the cancer returning, which could indicate that additional treatment is necessary.

The NCI states that in the first 2–3 years following treatment, a person will typically need checkups every 3–4 months. After that, they may only need to check in once or twice a year.

These visits will involve a physical examination, blood tests, and other tests specific to the individual’s previous cancer.

During these appointments, a person can talk about any emotional or physical problems they experience. They should also discuss any new or continuing symptoms. The presence of symptoms does not necessarily mean that the cancer has returned.

A person can discuss the following with the doctor:

  • the use of any new medications or supplements
  • any physical concerns that may be interfering with daily life
  • changes in family medical history
  • symptoms of depression or anxiety

Cancer treatment can also cause side effects that appear months or years after the treatment. These are called late effects. As these effects are specific to the treatment a person has undergone, a doctor will have discussed the late effects to look out for during follow-up care.

A person will need to let the doctor know if any late effects appear.

Recurrence means that the cancer has come back after complete remission. Though most cancers recur within the first 5 years, it is possible for them to return many years later.

The cancer may return in the same place it first began or elsewhere in the body.

Healthcare professionals will test to see if the cancer is the same as the person’s previous cancer or whether a new type of cancer has developed.

Does cancer always come back after remission?

When a person achieves remission following treatment, the cancer does not always return.

The ACS notes that it is not possible for doctors to predict how likely it is that the disease will return. However, it is more likely to recur if the cancer is fast growing, more advanced, or widespread.

Even if recurrence does occur, a person may be able to achieve complete remission again with treatment.

A person should work with their healthcare team to determine when they should come back for checkups. A doctor will likely recommend frequent checkups in the first few years. They may then recommend checkups once or twice a year after 2–3 years.

A person should let their healthcare team know if they experience any unusual signs or symptoms that could indicate that their cancer has returned. If the disease is going to recur, most of them do so within the first 5 years following complete remission.

An oncology team can provide a list of symptoms that individuals should look out for in their cancer diagnosis.

Cancers grow and recur at different rates. A person’s doctor can best advise them when to return for checkups.

Remission means that a person’s symptoms and signs of cancer have reduced.

Individuals may enter partial or complete remission. Partial remission means that the cancer and its symptoms are still present but under control. Complete remission means that tests can no longer detect the disease in the body and that its symptoms and signs are gone.

Being in remission does not mean that a person is cured, as it is possible for the cancer to return. However, if the disease returns, individuals may achieve complete remission again following further treatment.