Remission: What Does It Mean?

Medically Reviewed by Kumar Shital, DO on November 20, 2020

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.

There are two types of 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 (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 one 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 following the first diagnosis and treatment. 

Understanding “Recurrence”

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 originally 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.

Show Sources


American Cancer Society: “When Cancer Doesn’t Go Away,” “Common questions about cancer recurrence,” “Words to Describe Cancer and Its Treatment,” “Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Recurrence.”

Mayo Clinic: “Cancer Survival Rate: What it Means for Your Prognosis.”

National Cancer Institute: “When Cancer Returns,” “NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms,” “Understanding Cancer Prognosis,” “Follow Up Care After Cancer Treatment.”

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