Cancer remission is when the signs and symptoms of cancer have lessened or are undetectable. Being in remission is not the same as being cancer free.

In blood-related cancers like leukemia, this means you’ll have a decrease in the number of cancer cells. For solid tumors, it means that the tumor size has decreased. The decrease must last for at least 1 month to be considered remission.

Types of cancer remission

There are different types of remission:

  • Partial. A reduction of at least 50 percent in measurable tumor size or cancer cells.
  • Complete. All detectable evidence of cancer is gone.
  • Spontaneous. Cancer goes into remission without therapy that’s considered adequate to otherwise lead to remission. This is rare and usually happens after a fever or infection.

Remission is not a cure, and it doesn’t mean that you’re totally cancer free. Even in complete remission, there can still be some cancer cells in your body, and these can start growing again.

Cancer remission is determined by blood tests, imaging tests, or a biopsy, depending on the type of cancer.

During treatment, your cancer will be closely monitored so your doctor will be able to see any reduction in cancer signs. This reduction has to last for at least a month for your cancer to be considered in remission.

Because there are still cancer cells in your body even when you’re in remission, you might have treatment during remission. This reduces the risk that the remaining cancer cells will start growing again.

Whether or not you have treatment during remission, you’ll be watched closely to make sure your cancer doesn’t become active again.

The most common type of treatment during remission is maintenance chemotherapy. This is chemo that’s given regularly to stop the cancer from spreading.

Maintenance therapy shouldn‘t make you feel worse. If you find that the side effects start to become too much for you, talk with your doctor. They may take you off maintenance therapy.

Maintenance therapy may also become less effective over time, in which case your doctor may stop the therapy to help make sure your cancer doesn’t become resistant to chemo.

For some people, cancer remission can last a lifetime. Others may have their cancer come back, which is called a recurrence.

Types of cancer recurrence
  • Local. The cancer comes back in the place it was originally found.
  • Regional. The cancer comes back in lymph nodes and tissues near the original cancer site.
  • Distant. The cancer comes back in other places throughout the body (metastasized).

The chance of recurrence depends on many things, including the type of cancer you had, what stage the cancer was found in, and your overall health.

There’s no one way to say for sure if your cancer will come back. However, cancers that were diagnosed in later stages or cancers with lymph node involvement are more likely to recur.

Ways to stay healthy during remission

Supporting your overall health is the best way to reduce your risk of a recurrence or a second cancer. This means:

  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • eating a balanced, nutritious diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • staying physically active, as much as you can
  • quitting smoking, if you smoke
  • drinking only in moderation; this means no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men
  • taking care of your mental health, whether it’s making time for hobbies you enjoy or joining a cancer support group

The outlook also depends on the cancer type. The most common statistic you’ll see is a 5-year or 10-year survival rate, which is the percentage of people with that type of cancer who are still alive 5 or 10 years after diagnosis.

A relative survival rate compares people with the same type and stage of cancer with people in the overall population. If the 5-year relative survival rate for a certain cancer is 20 percent, it means those who have that cancer are about 20 percent as likely to live 5 years after being diagnosed as people who don’t have that cancer.

These statistics don’t take into account whether someone is in remission or still undergoing treatment, so it’s not quite the same as being in remission. But since remission doesn’t mean you’re cured, these statistics can give you an idea of the outlook for that type of cancer.

The outlook for the five most common types of cancers are:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer. The 5-year relative survival rate for all stages combined, according to the American Cancer Society, is 25 percent. The relative survival rate is 63 percent for localized lung cancer and 7 percent for lung cancer that was metastasized at the time of diagnosis.
  • Breast cancer. The 5-year relative survival rate is 90 percent for all stages combined. The survival rates for breast cancer are higher if the cancer is found at an earlier stage and lower if the cancer is found in later stages.
  • Colorectal cancer. The 5-year relative survival rate for all stages combined is 64 percent. The rate for localized colorectal cancer is 91 percent, 72 percent if the cancer spread to surrounding tissues or lymph nodes, and 14 percent if the cancer spread to distant parts of the body.
  • Prostate cancer. For males with localized or regional prostate cancer, the 5-year survival rate is 98 percent. The 5-year survival rate if prostate cancer has spread to distant parts of the body at the time of diagnosis is 31 percent.
  • Stomach cancer. The 5-year relative survival rate for all stages is 32 percent. This rate is 70 percent for localized stomach cancer and 6 percent for stomach cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body at the time of diagnosis.

No matter what type of cancer you have, early detection of recurrence is very important. If found early, local recurrences may be curable. A distant recurrence is less likely to be cured, but early detection can help stop it from spreading further.

If you’re in remission, you should be regularly checked by a doctor for new signs of cancer.

Cancer remission doesn’t mean your cancer is cured, but it is an important milestone. In some cases, your cancer may never come back. In others, it may recur.

Even in remission, it’s important to follow all of your doctor’s instructions and monitor any potential cancer symptoms closely.