Cancer Remission: How Do You Get and Stay Cancer-Free?


When you hear that cancer is in remission, is that the same as cured? It isn’t, but remission is still great news.

It means you have either little or no sign of cancer in your body. It doesn’t show up on X-rays, MRI scans, or blood tests. Symptoms, like pain or fatigue, often ease up or stop.

You may be able to stop your treatments once you get there. Many people take smaller doses to keep cancer at bay. You might need to keep taking meds for weeks, months, or years to stay in remission.

Whether you take drugs or not, you’ll still see your doctor for regular appointments to make sure your disease doesn’t start up again.

Is All Remission the Same?

No. There are two types:

Partial: Treatments have killed off most of your cancer cells, but tests show you still have some in your body. Your tumor has shrunk at least to half of its original size or hasn’t grown bigger. Your doctor may also say it’s stable.

Complete: All signs of your cancer and its symptoms are gone.

How Do You Know You’re in Remission?

Tests look for cancer cells in your blood. Scans like X-rays and MRIs show if your tumor is smaller or if it’s gone after surgery and isn’t growing back.

To qualify as remission, your tumor either doesn’t grow back or stays the same size for a month after you finish treatments.

A complete remission means no signs of the disease show up on any tests.

That doesn’t mean your cancer is gone forever. You can still have cancer cells somewhere in your body. Regular checkups will help your doctor make sure the disease isn’t active again.

When cancer does come back, it’s called recurrence. There’s no way to tell if or when that will happen. This can happen weeks, months, or even years after remission. If and when a cancer comes back varies greatly depending on the cancer type.

How Do You Get to Remission?

You and your doctor can come up with a treatment plan to try to get you there. What’s in the plan depends on:

  • Your type of cancer
  • What stage it’s in
  • Side effects or risks of each treatment
  • Your age or other health problems

If your cancer is in an early stage and hasn’t spread to other areas of your body, you might choose an aggressive treatment. This may mean more short-term side effects, but you could kill off the cancer cells or tumor.

You can also choose treatments to go into partial remission. You’ll have fewer side effects, the tumor will either shrink or at stay the same size, and your symptoms will ease up.  

Different treatments can help you go into remission:

  • Drugs like chemotherapy or targeted therapies
  • Radiation
  • Surgery
  • Hormone therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Bone marrow or stem-cell therapy

You may need to combine two or more treatments to go into remission. You could have surgery to remove a tumor, then take medicine or radiation to kill cancer cells left behind.

Every cancer treatment has risks and side effects. Some drugs and radiation can lower fertility or make it hard to get pregnant later on. Talk to your doctor to decide which treatments are right for you.

How Do You Stay There?

One way is called maintenance therapy. That means you take lower doses of cancer drugs or hormones to keep the disease from coming back. You’re still in remission, and these treatments help you stay there.

Take these healthy steps to keep your cancer at bay:

  • Eat a healthy diet, with lots of fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
  • Don’t smoke, or quit if you do.
  • Stay at a healthy weight.
  • Skip alcohol, or drink only moderate amounts.
  • Exercise.
  • Try to manage stress, or join a cancer survivors support group.