Cancer Remission Types and Recurrence

What is the definition of cancer remission? Are there different types of remission? If a cancer is in remission, is it cured? Let's take a look at the terms which describe the response of cancer to treatment and what these may mean for you.

A women laughing although she has cancer
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Remission of cancer refers to the absence of active disease for a period of at least 1 month. The absence of active disease does not mean that cancer has been cured or even that there are no detectable signs of cancer. There are two types of remission:

Complete Remission

Complete remission (or undetectable disease) refers to cancer that has no signs or symptoms, and no evidence of cancer can be found on a physical exam by a doctor or through radiological tests such as a CT scan, MRI, or PET scan

With complete remission, some doctors use the terminology "NED"—which stands for "no evidence of disease." A complete remission may also be described as a "complete response."

Partial Remission

The term partial remission refers to cancer that is still detectable but has decreased in size (or in the number of cancerous cells as in leukemia.) This may also be described as a tumor that is "controlled" or with the term stable disease. One type of partial remission is called a partial response. 

While remission can mean the same thing as a complete response or stable disease, depending on the type, the term remission is used more often with blood related cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas and the terms stable disease or no evidence of disease are used more often when describing the response of solid tumors (such as lung cancer, breast cancer, or colon cancer) to treatment.

Remission Does Not Mean That Cancer Is Cured

There may still be cancer cells present when cancer is deemed to be in remission, but these cells are not detectable by tests we have available at this time. Unfortunately for most solid tumors, it is rare to use the word cured; if there is a chance cancer could recur—even if the chance is very small—it is usually referred to as a remission (or NED) instead of cured.

Recurrence and Progression

If a cancer returns after it has been in remission, it is defined as a recurrence or relapse of that cancer. Tumors in remission may:

  • Stay in remission indefinitely.
  • Recur and go back into remission in cycles.
  • Progress (grow) or spread: The term progressive disease means that a tumor has increased in size or has spread to other regions of the body.

Why do some cancers come back years or even decades after remission? There are several theories as to why cancers recur following a period of remission. It's thought that even though cancer appears to be "gone," some cancer cells may remain after treatment in a state of dormancy (cancer stem cells,) which persist until conditions are right for the cells to begin growing again.

The Fear of Cancer Recurrence or Progression

Since cancer recurrence is the greatest cause of mortality with cancer, researchers are actively looking for methods to decrease the risk. Those who are coping with the fear of cancer recurrence or progression understand all too well this risk, and anxiety about possible relapse or recurrence exists in the heart of many people who have experienced remission.

A Word From Verywell

While remission doesn't mean that a cancer is gone for good (cured) for most cancers (exceptions may include some leukemias and lymphomas) it is a very good sign in many ways. Cancer that has gone into remission, whether complete or partial, is usually responding to whatever treatment has been done. Even when treatment no longer works, however, there are often other ways to treat the tumor should it recur. For some tumors, the progressive use of different treatments when cancer is no longer in remission is allowing oncologists to treat cancer in a way similar to that of many medical conditions—as a chronic disease that will always require treatment but can be kept stable for an extended period of time.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Cancer Institute. Understanding Cancer Prognosis.

  2. National Cancer Institute. Definition of Partial Remission.

Additional Reading

By Lynne Eldridge, MD
 Lynne Eldrige, MD, is a lung cancer physician, patient advocate, and award-winning author of "Avoiding Cancer One Day at a Time."