Remission. It’s the goal for those diagnosed with cancer. But what does it mean and what steps can you take to prevent a relapse?
Dr. Sea Chen, medical director of the Franciscan St. Anthony Health-Michigan City Woodland Cancer Care Center, says remission doesn’t necessarily mean the patient is cured but that there is no clinical evidence of cancer.
“What remission means to me is that we can’t find the cancer by any testing available at a given point in time,” he explains.
For example, a patient is diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoes treatment—including surgery, radiation and possibly chemotherapy. If after all the treatments are over and doctors cannot find the cancer anywhere, Chen considers the patient to be in remission.
Once in remission, a patient will need to follow-up with their medical oncologist at regular intervals. The frequency of the follow-up appointments depends on the type and severity of cancer. In addition, Chen, a radiation oncologist, prefers to have a second specialist dedicated to a patient’s cancer care.
“I feel best to have two eyes looking at you,” Chen says, such as a surgeon or medical oncologist for breast cancer patients and a urologist for prostate cancer patients. He also recommends following up with your regular physician, as well, for general care.
Each type of cancer has different side effects from therapy, requiring different treatments or precautions. When it comes to lung cancer, oncologist Mohamad Kassar, MD, who is on staff at Community Hospital in Munster and St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago, tells patients it is never too late to stop smoking and recommends that everyone in the household also quit smoking to eliminate secondhand smoke.
In certain situations, Kassar recommends an increase in fiber intake for colon cancer patients. Additionally, he says certain research suggests a low dose of aspirin may reduce the risk of developing colon cancer but that the data is still in the early phases.
After breast cancer, women have a higher risk of lymphedema—swelling caused by blockage of the lymphatic system—in the arm on the same side of the body where she had breast cancer. A lymphedema clinic can perform and teach massage therapy for the arm to prevent this complication that can limit the activity of the arm.
“We recommend no heavy lifting and not pushing heavy objects with the arm that might be affected by lymphedema,” Kassar adds.
Masood Ghouse, D.O., who specializes in hematology and oncology at Porter Regional Hospital, says a healthy lifestyle is especially important for those in remission for both prevention and recovery purposes, and it has a big impact.
“Making changes like stopping smoking and having a good lifestyle with diet and exercise, and weight control is very, very important,” Ghouse said. “It is in their capability to stay healthy and avoid cancers in the future. If you’re recuperating from going through a rigorous regime, it also helps.”
Until recently, there wasn’t good data to prove diet and exercise would be beneficial for reducing the risk of cancer recurrence, Kassar says. One recent study of women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and undergone surgery offers solid evidence of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle during remission.
The study showed that women who increase their physical activity and have at least 30 percent less fat intake in their diet than the general population will have a better chance at remaining cancer free.
“This is the first data that showed for sure that changing your lifestyle—having a healthy diet, increasing physical activity and reducing fat intake in the diet—will actually have a positive impact on the cancer outcome,” Kassar says.