It has often been repeated, and indeed it is true - a diagnosis of breast cancer is not a death sentence. When breast cancers are caught in their early stages, the chances of survival are still excellent when treatment is started as quickly as possible.
However, when the subject is breast cancer survival, medical professionals do not speak of their patients being cured. Instead, the term used is 'in remission'. The goal of all cancer treatment is ultimately to send cancer into remission, and treatments for breast cancer are only considered successful when this status has been achieved.
But what is remission, and how is it different from an actual cure? Is there any point at which it makes sense to speak of breast cancer being cured? And what about the term 'cancer-free': is that something different than remission? These are just a few of the questions anyone diagnosed with breast cancer may want to have answered as they battle to reverse the advance of this disease.
The Definition of Remission
The first goal of breast cancer treatments is to halt the spread of the disease in the body. Once this objective has been accomplished, the next step is to continue treatments in order to send cancer symptoms and other physical manifestations of the disease into actual retreat. If these efforts are successful, and metastasis has been stopped and tumors have begun shrinking, it may be possible to start speaking of the patient's cancer as being in partial remission.
Remission in essence means that cancer symptoms and signs are in the process of disappearing. The logical conclusion to this process is reached when doctors can no longer find any signs of cancer in the body, at which point it is said that the cancer is in complete remission. So even though remission technically defines an ongoing process, the word will continue to be used even after no more signs of the disease are evident.
Why 'In Remission' Does Not Mean Cured
When it is said that the signs of cancer are no longer in evidence, this means that doctors cannot find any cancer cells using current methods of detection. Just because cancer cells cannot be detected, however, does not mean they are not there. Microscopic numbers of cancer cells may still be present and perhaps medical science will someday improve their detection technologies enough to find cancer cells that are currently being missed. This is important, because those remaining "hidden" cells could cause a future recurrence of the disease.
Because of this possibility, doctors resist using the word cured in connection with a breast cancer that is no longer detectable. Of course, to speak of cancer being in remission at this point is not really technically correct either, since the actual status of the cancer in the body is unknown. However, medical professionals tend to use this terminology because it helps communicate the idea that breast cancer is dynamic and unpredictable, and just because it is apparently gone now does not mean it cannot return at some future time. In a sense, a breast cancer patient no longer showing symptoms of her cancer is in a kind of limbo - and thus, the cancer is spoken of as being in remission rather being cured.