language: breast cancer remission

In my 10 truths about breast cancer I mentioned the misnomer applied to successful treatment: cure. The misuse of the word cure is common, and it is very misleading. It is probably a major cause of the incorrect assumption that breast cancer has a cure. Again, to repeat and to launch today’s daily dose of awareness: breast cancer has no cure.

What it does have is a number of treatments, in the form of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal and biological drugs that can effect a remission. Remission can be partial or complete. Partial remission occurs when treatment succeeds in diminishing the symptoms or signs of cancer. Complete remission occurs when scans show no evidence of cancer. With metastatic breast cancer treatment continues, most often, continuously in order to achieve, at least, partial remission.

With some cancers cure rates correlate to a certain number of years of remission. Many people think of five years as being the magic number that determines one is cured of a particular cancer. As I noted in my previous blog, breast cancer, however, is notorious for recurring, or coming out of remission, seven, ten, fifteen and even twenty years later. What this simply means is that it was not cured but only in remission. Even though a cancer is in remission, it is still in the body though current technology has no means to detect it at that level. Only when the cancer cells group together to form a tumor are they detectible. At that time symptoms may have also presented: loss of weight, pain, shortness of breath, especially from no other discernible cause.

The main lesson today is that even though treatment may have reduced one’s cancer to a level that is not detectible, it does not mean the patient is cured. It means the cancer is in remission. Some advertisers are careful about the use of the word cure. You may notice they will advertise, instead, that their treatment caused a patient’s cancer to disappear; one common phrase is “my doctor could find no evidence of a tumor at all,” leaving the audience to conclude, incorrectly, that the patient is cured. That status or condition is remission, a word that has much less sex appeal in marketing and one which is avoided so as to sidestep the inevitable follow-up question: if it’s in remission, can it come back? Of course, the unfortunate answer to that question is yes, it can recur, or, in the vernacular, come back.

Despite the lack of a cure for breast cancer, the hope lies in the improvements in treatment over the past ten to twenty years. Patients who would have died much sooner are living longer, moving from one treatment to another, hoping that current treatments will be able to keep our cancer from progressing until the day when the cure for our own brand of breast cancer is born.

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© 2004–2011 Donna Peach. All rights reserved.

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