Does Complete Response to Treatment Mean You're Cured?

Complete response to treatment (CR) is the term used for the absence of all detectable cancer after your treatment is complete. 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.

Female doctor and patient using laptop in hospital office
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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.

Pathologic Complete Response

When you see complete response reported for clinical trials and other research, the studies may use another term called pathologic complete response.

Pathologic complete response refers to a situation in which some form of therapy is given prior to surgery for cancer (such as chemotherapy, radiation, etc), and then once the patient undergoes surgery, the tissue removed that previously had been proven to contain cancer no longer contains any cancer cells when it is examined by the pathologist (hence the term pathologic).

This term is often used in breast cancer as that is one example of a cancer in which therapy (chemo, radiation, etc.) is often given prior to surgery, however it is used in many other cancers as well. 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.

A Word From Verywell

Throughout the course of your treatment, you will hear many new terms used by your healthcare team and it is important that you ask your physicians to explain the terms to you in terms you understand. Don't hesitate to ask 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

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