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A doctor answers the question: What is remission?
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Dr. Charles Nash is the medical director of the Cancer Center at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. He is also an oncologist with The Longstreet Clinic Department of Medical Oncology and Hematology. Nash said that breast cancer is one of the top four cancers treated at The Longstreet Clinic, accounting for at least 25 percent of all cases, followed by lung cancer, prostate cancer and gastrointestinal cancers. - photo by Scott Rogers

Remission is different for each and every patient, but the definition remains the same.

Dr. Charles Nash, medical director for oncology at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said remission occurs when “the cancer appears to completely vanish to the point where you had something you could measure and then on subsequent studies, it's no longer there.”

“Complete remission is, of course, what we're all hoping to see,” Nash said.

But there’s also partial remission, when malignancies shrink by at least 50%, which he said they hope to see, too.

Both partial and complete remission are good things, but Nash said even complete remission “is not always equivalent to a cure.”

“A cure means the cancer goes away and never, ever comes back for any reason,” Nash said. “What we hope to do is through all of our treatments and our research and things like that, to convert complete remissions into cures. Which is only defined by following the patient for several years.”

He said “pop culture” sometimes puts a number on those several years when talking about remission. Typically, it’s something like a five-year mark when a patient can say they’re cancer free, but Nash doesn’t think of things that way.

“There really is no such thing as a five-year cure,” Nash said. “Some cancers will lie dormant for many, many years and then relapse.”

But in other cases, he said if a cancer doesn’t come back in two or three years, because of its aggressiveness it likely never will.

“All these cancers have different personalities,” Nash said.

And it’s because of those different personalities that Nash is careful to use the term cancer-free. 

“If you're in remission, you're only as good as your next visit,” Nash said.

So when it comes to remission, even though that’s his goal with each patient, he’s cautious in how he talks about it.

“We're one of those specialties where if you get too far out in front of your skis and promise too much, then you sometimes feel bad when the cancer does its thing,” Nash said.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t try to encourage patients once they can finally say they’re in remission.

“In cancer medicine we try to be both scientific as well as human, because we're really all on the same team,” Nash said. “I think I always tend to remain hopeful. A little bit of hope is really good medicine. It's a powerful thing.”

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