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Does “remission” mean cancer is completely cured?

September 3, 2022
Shimon Slavin
Remission cancer patient

Humans like simple answers and stories with happy endings. Unfortunately, reality is not always what we want it to be. Oncology is a prime example of this. Having received an initial diagnosis, patients expect certainty: choosing the most effective method of treatment with precise terms of therapy and a guarantee of a final cure. However, even if treatment is successful, doctors are in no hurry to speak of a complete cure, but use the term “remission” instead. What does it really mean?

Cancer remission: What does this term mean?

When we talk about remission, doctors mean successfully cured oncopathology, which is not diagnosed by modern research methods.  For example, in remission, cancer cells cannot be detected using imaging techniques such as CT, MRI, or PET-CT.

Often, a sustained remission can be achieved with traditional treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

If a patient remains in remission for 5 years or more, physicians describe the patient as “cured,” although this does not rule out the risk of future recurrence.

Why is remission not the same as a cure?

Even after a long remission lasting over five years, the risk of cancer returning will always remain. After all, all it takes is one cancer cell, left behind by the patient’s own immune system, for the tumor to grow again. 

How high is the likelihood of residual neoplasm cells after remission? A tumor as small as 1 mm² cannot be detected by visual diagnostic methods. However, a mass of this size contains more than 1 million malignant cells! And among these, there may be cancer stem cells, which will initiate the development of a new cancerous tumor.

Can immunotherapy help prevent recurrence?

The key to reducing the risk of recurrence is to kill the cancer down to the “last malignant cell.” This includes cancer stem cells, which are not sensitive to chemotherapy. Currently, the most effective method of achieving this is immunotherapy, which not only kills all cancer cells, but also trains the body to fight the disease effectively.

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