Does Complete Response to Treatment Mean You're Cured?

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The term used for the absence of all detectable cancer after your treatment is complete response (CR). Complete response doesn't necessarily mean that you are cured, but it is the best result that can be reported. It means the cancerous tumor is now gone and there is no evidence of disease.

Some doctors also use terms like no evidence of disease (NED), complete remission, or complete regression when referring to complete response to cancer treatment.

Assessing Complete Response to Treatment

When you are diagnosed with cancer, you will be assigned to a course of treatment. This can be chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, stem cell transplant, and any new therapies yet to be developed. After treatment completion, a period of time is allowed to go by so the maximum effect is achieved, with the tumor-shrinking or the malignant cells dying. At the end of that period if there is no residual disease that can be identified on clinical examination by the doctor, or on X-rays and scans, or even by lab tests for the disease or its markers — it is called complete response (or complete regression).

Does It Mean You're Cured?

Complete response (CR) does not imply cure. Some people with a complete response may have a tumor recurrence later. But it definitely is a good thing to have a complete response — it is the best starting point for a cure.

For some types of cancers, seeing a complete response is a good indication of a cure. For other cancers, the rate of cure is lower after seeing a complete response. Ask your doctor to explain to you what the term means in the case of cancers similar to yours. Your doctor will know what it is likely to mean for patients with your condition who had the same treatment.

Keep in mind that there is no detectable cancer, but that doesn't mean that every cancerous cell has been destroyed. For this reason, it may be referred to as no evidence of disease.

Types of Complete Response

When you see complete response reported for clinical trials and other research, the studies may use additional terms.

Pathologic complete response: This means that when tissue was examined in the lab by the pathologist (hence the term pathologic) there was no evidence of cancer. It is often referred to in the case of breast cancer. Pre-surgical treatment is assessed for pathologic complete response by examining the breast tissue removed in surgery. If no cancer is found in the tissue, the patient is said to have pathological complete response.

Histopathological complete response: This is similar, it means that a histological examination was done on tissue from the site that formerly had a tumor, and there was no evidence remaining of cancer.

You will hear many new terms used by your health care team and it is important that you ask them to explain them to you in terms you understand. Don't hesitate to ask them questions so you know what it means for your condition.

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  1. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. Complete response.

  2. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms Pathologic complete response

Additional Reading
  • NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms, National Cancer Institute.
  • von Minckwitz G., et. al. "Definition and impact of pathologic complete response on prognosis after neoadjuvant chemotherapy in various intrinsic breast cancer subtypes." J Clin Oncol. 2012 May 20;30(15):1796-804. doi:10.1200/JCO.2011.38.8595. Epub 2012 Apr 16.