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What is Remission?

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 10, 2023

Remission. It’s the word that every cancer patient wants to hear from their doctor following a course of treatment. But what–exactly–does it mean?


Remission doesn’t mean “cured”


Some people assume that remission means that a patient has been cured of cancer. Sadly, that is not the case. No doctor can be certain that all cancer cells in your body have been eradicated. The National Cancer Institute defines remission as “a decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer.” Depending on the type of remission, this could mean that tests show no detectable evidence of disease in your body. Alternatively, it may mean that the tumor or cancer cells in your body are still there, but they have been reduced in size or number.


Types of Remission


  • Complete Remission. Complete remission is what every cancer patient wants to achieve. It means that you had a complete response to treatment, and the doctor can find no evidence of cancer or tumors in your body. This does not mean that they do not exist. You may still have cancerous cells or tumors in your body. However, if they do exist, they are no longer visible.
  • Partial Remission. Not all cancer remissions mean that you no longer have any visible signs of cancer in your body. Partial remission means that you still have visible tumors or cancer cells in your body. However, since your previous check-up, there has been a partial response to the treatment, and they have become smaller or reduced in number. The cancer is still there, but your doctor may say that you can take a break in your treatment and, in time, reduce the frequency of your check-ups. 


Determining Remission


Your doctor will run various tests, depending on the type of cancer, to determine if it has gone into remission. These tests may include biopsies, imaging tests, and blood tests. If they don’t find any signs of your cancer after a month of testing or it remains reduced, they will be able to say that you are in remission.


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Cancer - Blood Test

Cancer - Blood Test

You may still undergo treatment while in remission. Your doctor may decide that continued medicinal treatment will lower the risk of tumor cells or cancer cells regrowing, especially in the case of partial remission. This management of your remission is known as maintenance therapy.


Managing your Remission


One of the best ways to reduce the risk of your cancer returning is to take care of yourself. Eat a healthy diet full of whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables and make sure that you exercise regularly. Similarly, making sure that you maintain a healthy weight is crucial. Your doctor may also recommend you quit smoking if you’re a smoker and lower your alcohol intake if you drink alcohol. They may also advise that you attend regular therapy or counseling during your treatment and when you are in remission. The effects of cancer on a patient’s mental health can sometimes be as significant as the physical toll.




While taking good care of yourself can help lower the risk of recurrence, nothing can guarantee against your cancer returning after a period of remission. Cells and tumors can be dormant for up to five years following initial treatment, so regular check-ups and follow-up care are crucial. Many doctors like their patients to view cancer as a chronic disease that could flare up at any time. 


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Cancer - Recurrence

Cancer - Recurrence

Any cancer recurrence could be local, that is, recur where it was originally found, or regional, which is in a similar area to the first cancer. Other recurrence cases might be more distant as the primary cancer may have metastasized and traveled to a different part of the body. In all cases of recurrence, early detection and treatment will mean a better chance of going back into either partial or complete remission.


Remission is an important step in a patient’s cancer journey. While it does not mean that you are cured, it is almost the same thing for many people who may be in remission for the rest of their lives. Even for patients who experience recurrence, the periods of remission offer them a respite and the opportunity to return to a more regular daily life. 

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