What is Remission?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In medicine, remission is defined as an abatement in the symptoms of a chronic disease. People most commonly use this term in reference to cancers. When someone is in remission, it means that the condition is not getting worse, and it may be actively getting better, but a flareup of symptoms could occur. It is not a cure; the use of “cure” implies a complete freedom from the disease, with no return of symptoms expected.

Young patients with strong immune systems are more likely to experience spontaneous remission.
Young patients with strong immune systems are more likely to experience spontaneous remission.

There are two types of remission: partial and complete. In partial remission, the patient is making progress towards fighting the disease, but signs of the disease are still present. For example, when a cancerous tumor starts to shrink, the patient may be said to be in partial remission. In complete remission, the symptoms have stopped altogether, but the patient may not be cured, because the disease could still be lurking in the body.

An abatement in the symptoms of a serious disease, like cancer, is referred to as a remission.
An abatement in the symptoms of a serious disease, like cancer, is referred to as a remission.

Signs of a disease can reemerge after several years in complete remission, in which case the patient is said to be in “relapse.” If a patient fails to relapse after a set period of time, the doctor may go ahead and say that the patient has been cured, which indicates that the need for intensive monitoring and concern is over. However, doctors are usually reluctant to declare a full cure, because chronic diseases can be so difficult to manage and treat, and they may lie dormant in the body for an extended period of time.

As a general rule, when someone is in remission, it is a cause for celebration, but the battle is not over yet. Cancer patients especially may be given false hopes by such a period, especially if they mistake it for being cured. During a period of remission, patients still need to be tested regularly and monitored closely to check for signs of the return of the disease. Routine tests may include scans with medical imaging equipment and bloodwork, along with physical exams and casual interviews with patients to see how they are feeling.

Sometimes, a patient experiences what is known as spontaneous remission. When this happens, there is no known cause for the remission. This type is more likely in younger patients with strong immune systems, although it can happen in older patients as well. Despite efforts to explore the causes, medical researchers are unsure about why some people randomly fully recover from chronic diseases, while others sicken and die from the same conditions.

A patient in remission may still need to have regular bloodwork performed.
A patient in remission may still need to have regular bloodwork performed.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I am currently experiencing rheumatoid arthritis remission, and I am thrilled! I was afraid I would have to deal with the debilitating pain forever, but a combination of two drugs has helped me so much.

My doctor told me that because I had only had arthritis for two years, my chances of remission were greater than someone who has lived with it for longer than five years. He put me on a combination of etanercept and methotrexate to treat the pain and swelling.

I noticed an improvement within a few days. Instead of dealing with stiffness for hours after waking, I only experienced it for about the first fifteen minutes in the morning. My joints stopped swelling, and they weren’t even tender anymore.

I went back to my doctor after three months to renew my prescription. I was happy to report that I had experienced no swelling since I started taking the medications. He told me that I was officially in remission.


My niece got diagnosed with leukemia when she was only four years old. They caught the disease early on, so she had a good chance of survival.

She went to a children’s hospital for an extended stay. She and her mother lived there for about a month while she received treatment.

The cancer started to disappear after nearly three weeks. At the end of the month, the doctor told her she could go home, because as far as he could tell, she was cancer-free.

He did tell her to have exams once a month for the first year, just to be sure that she didn’t have a relapse. It has been six years since she left the hospital, and she is in complete remission.


My friend with lupus experiences remission for a period of a few months or a year, but it always returns. The nature of the illness is chronic, so she has to live with the knowledge that she will be dealing with its effects off and on for the rest of her life.

Her body has lost its ability to distinguish her internal organs from foreign invaders. It attacks her organs, and her white blood cell count soars. Her immune system is trying to eliminate parts of her own body.

I don’t know what causes her partial remission, but it only offers her a brief relief. She knows that the symptoms will return at some point.


A man in my church named Jeff developed cancer at the young age of 34. It was a really serious case of skin cancer.

He had to have chemotherapy. The disease had progressed to stage 3, and his doctor didn’t give him a whole lot of hope that he would make it.

Everyone in the church prayed for him, and I’m sure he and his wife did a lot of praying as well. Just when he seemed to be at his worst, he suddenly went into spontaneous remission.

The doctor didn’t understand how someone so ill could recover like that. We all believe that our prayers were answered. Today, he is still in complete remission. He hasn’t had any signs of the cancer in seven years.

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