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Understanding Breast Cancer Remission

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Understanding the meaning of breast cancer remission

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.

Cancer-Free and the Probabilities of Recurrence
While doctors do not like to tell breast cancer patients they have been cured, they can speak to their patients in remission about the odds of their cancer returning in the future. These probabilities are calculated in five-year intervals, and they are based on the particular type of cancer that the patient suffered from. So if a breast cancer patient in complete remission is told that her cancer has a five-year remission rate of 80%, this means there is a 20% chance she will become sick with breast cancer again within the next five years. Doctors can also calculate remission rates for 10, 15, or even 20 years.

'Cancer-free' is not really a medical term at all. This is more of a colloquial expression that breast cancer patients sometimes like to use as a replacement for 'in remission' because it reflects what the tests show; and also perhaps because it has more of an optimistic feel to it than 'in remission'. Positive mindset is of course very important for women who have been battling against the scourge of breast cancer, and anything that reflects a positive attitude can only be a benefit.

'In Remission' is a Very Good Thing
The concept of remission does reflect a certain caution on the part of medical professionals, who do not want to give their patients a sense of false hope or overconfidence. Nevertheless, when breast cancer is diagnosed as being in remission, this should be a cause of celebration for all breast cancer sufferers and the people who love them.

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