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.
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.
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.