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Though there is still no cure for cancer, there are more cancer survivors than ever. With the most recent data, the National Cancer Institute estimated there were more than 16.9 million cancer survivors in the United States in 2019. This number is expected to grow to more than 20 million by 2030.

Advancements in treatment and diagnostic tools have enabled more people to achieve cancer remission, even in the face of rare cancers, such as mesothelioma. Although remission is a great milestone in one’s cancer journey, it shouldn’t be confused with being cured of cancer for good. Patients must understand the types of remission they may experience, as well as the likelihood of cancer recurrence.

What Is Cancer Remission?

In general, there are two types of cancer remission that patients may hear about in their own cancer care: partial remission or complete remission. Though any type of remission is considered good news, depending on if the remission is partial or complete, patients may see different:

  1. Post-treatment care plans
  2. Recurrence rates

What Is Partial Remission in Cancer?

Partial remission is also referred to as partial response. It is achieved when a patient’s tumors have shrunk by at least 50% in size and remain shrunken for at least one month.

Patients experiencing partial remission may also hear their doctor say “stable disease” or that the cancer is “controlled.”

For mesothelioma, partial remission often alleviates many signs and symptoms. However, the patient will still show some evidence of disease because the tumors are not completely gone.

In cases of partial response, patients may see a vastly improved quality of life as their symptoms lessen. For some, the cancer can then be treated and monitored more like a chronic disease. However, these patients are also more likely to experience cancer recurrence, with the tumors growing and possibly spreading again.

What Is Complete Remission in Cancer?

Complete remission, also referred to as complete response or no evidence of disease, occurs when the patient no longer shows any symptoms of cancer. In physical examinations and scans, the doctor won’t see any tumors or other signs of disease.

Complete remission is often achieved with early diagnosis and aggressive treatment, such as surgery. But, it’s also important to remember even with complete response, there may be cancer cells lingering that cannot be easily detected.

Even with mesothelioma, which typically brings a prognosis of about a year, some patients have been able to achieve partial or complete remission.

Heather Von St. James is a 15-year pleural mesothelioma survivor after undergoing a radical surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. She initially only had 15 months to live, and the aggressive treatment and continued care through her survivorship have allowed her to live beyond her best odds.

Again, an unfortunate reality of cancer is that even complete remission does not mean cured. Though more time in remission can mean a lesser chance of recurrence, some patients experience recurrence years after beating their initial diagnosis.

Understanding Cancer Recurrence

Cancer recurrence is when a patient who has been in remission experiences a return of the cancer. In some cases, this can be even more aggressive in terms of progression and spreading than what the patient experienced before treatment and remission. In the case of cancers such as mesothelioma, which are known to be aggressive and quick to grow and spread, recurrence rates can be rather high.

Undergoing cancer treatment and achieving remission again is possible even if the cancer returns. However, patients will often need a different treatment plan.

In the case of mesothelioma, patients who already underwent aggressive surgery like an extrapleural pneumonectomy in their first course of treatment may not be able to tolerate another surgery. The treatment plan may change to different combinations of chemotherapy and radiation. Patients may also seek a clinical trial for emerging therapies such as immunotherapy.

Mesothelioma Patient Experiences Remission Following Recurrence

Mesothelioma patient Mavis Nye was able to go into remission after participating in an immunotherapy clinical trial after recurrence. Initially, her tumors were shrinking from standard chemotherapy. But, she eventually stopped responding to that treatment and saw aggressive tumor growth.

Mavis has said she was essentially on her deathbed with just three months to live and the immunotherapy clinical trial was her last hope. Since having this treatment, she was in remission and is currently battling a recurrence.

When in remission, patients may want to consider speaking with their oncologist about their remission rate, sometimes called the cure rate. This is the likelihood of how long they may remain in remission in a certain time period. A remission rate may also help provide insight into the likelihood of recurrence for their type of cancer.

The Importance of Continued Care

Even in survivorship, cancer patients still need to be proactive about their health and continue to receive imaging scans to ensure the cancer hasn’t returned. Periodic check-ups with physical exams and scans can not only monitor for any signs of cancer but can also help patients be proactive about any long- or later-term side effects from the cancer itself or treatment.

Survivorship Health Monitoring

  • Regular physical exams
  • Frequent imaging scans
  • Monitoring for symptoms
  • Check-ins with a mesothelioma specialist

Even though Heather is now a long-term survivor, she understands the cancer could potentially come back and the importance of staying on top of her health care. Every six months, she goes to see her mesothelioma specialist and has scans to make sure there is still no evidence of disease.

Being in remission doesn’t mean being cured, but it can start the survivorship journey. Even in instances of recurrence, there is still hope and cancer research continues to strive for new treatments that may one day lead to a cure.