What is a cure?
“Cure” may be one of the most important — and most easily misunderstood — words in medicine. At face value, cure means something simple. A cure is a remedy. Being cured of a disease means it’s gone and won’t come back.
For many people, “cure” means something more. It means having the peace of mind of not feeling sick or having to stick to a treatment plan or attend regular doctor visits. The stakes are higher with terminal illnesses, like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson disease and advanced forms of heart disease and cancer. Hope for a cure can mean living without fear of death or the burden of rearranging your life because of a diagnosis you can’t control.
This is where “cure” can become confusing. It’s not the single magic bullet that provides good health and the peace of mind that goes along with it. For example, many people with incurable diseases, like some forms of cancer, live full lives — free of symptoms.
Understanding what a cure is (and what it isn’t) can help you plan for the future if you’re diagnosed with an incurable condition.
The difference between a cure and a treatment
Treatments include medicines, procedures and therapies to improve your health and well-being. A cure is one potential treatment outcome that can lead to these improvements. Other treatment outcomes may also keep you healthy and allow you to live the life you want.
Treatment outcomes include:
- Cure: Gets rid of your disease or illness for good. For example, antibiotics can clear a bacterial infection. Antibiotics can’t prevent future infections if you’re exposed to new bacteria. But they can eliminate the particular bacteria causing your current infection.
- Disease prevention: Keeps you from getting a disease or condition. For example, getting an HPV vaccine can shield you from getting infected with particular strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cancer, including cancers of your anus, cervix, penis and throat.
- Disease management: Lessens disease severity and improves your general condition. For example, taking insulin helps regulate your blood sugar levels if you have Type 1 diabetes. Diabetes is still an incurable condition, but it’s one you can live with if you take your medicine as prescribed and check your levels regularly.
- Palliative care: Improves your quality of life as someone living with a disease or disability by relieving your symptoms and treatment side effects. For example, having a healthcare provider reposition you in bed if you can’t move on your own can prevent bedsores and provide the comfort of another person’s touch. Palliative care won’t cure your condition or lessen disease severity. Still, it makes your life better than it would be without it.
The difference between a cure and recovery
Many people use “cure” and “recovery” interchangeably because they’re both hopeful words that involve getting better. But you can recover from a disease without being cured of it. For example, people living with substance use disorder may be in recovery. Recovery means your health is improving and you’re not abusing substances, like recreational drugs or alcohol. But recovery doesn’t mean you’ll never have the desire to use these substances again. Instead, it involves choosing daily to commit to a life without substance use.
The difference between a cure and remission
Doctors who treat cancer, or oncologists, often measure treatment success based on whether cancer is in remission. While a cure means that a disease has gone for good, remission doesn’t come with that guarantee.
Remission can be complete or partial:
- Complete remission: Your oncologist can’t find a trace of cancer, and you no longer have any symptoms. You may still have cancer cells hidden in tissue that neither tests nor imaging can detect. It’s equally possible that you’re 100% cancer-free.
- Partial remission: You still have cancer cells in your body but less than you did before. You may have tumors that have gotten smaller or fewer cancer cells in your bloodstream.
Remission can be confusing because it doesn’t have a set time limit. Your cancer may be in remission for your entire life. When you eventually die, you may pass for reasons unrelated to cancer. Or you may be in remission for weeks, months or even years until your oncologist detects signs of cancer. When this happens, your cancer has returned (recurred). Recurrent cancer may require new treatments that may send your cancer into remission again.
Learning you’re in remission is good news. It can also be frustrating when you want a guarantee that your cancer is gone forever.
Can cancer be cured?
The short answer is no. Cancer can’t be cured, at least not yet. The longer answer is much more complicated. Cancer isn’t curable, but treatments for some types of cancer can likely eliminate it from your body completely. This is the answer most people care about.
Think of it this way. The word “cancer” makes it seem like a single disease, but it isn’t. There are over 100 types of cancer. These cancers affect your body differently, vary in severity, require different treatments and respond to these treatments differently. Cancer treatments are successful partly because researchers have studied specific cancers and tailored treatments to them. As a result, people survive cancers that would’ve been deadly a few decades ago. Some of these cancers go into complete remission following treatment and never return.
These treatment successes have led more oncologists to refer to select cancers treated at select times (usually in the early stages before cancer has spread) as curable. “Curable” in these instances means that your oncologist can get rid of the cancer if you receive the proper treatment early enough.
Other oncologists never use words like “cure” or “curable” when referring to cancer treatment outcomes. Even when it’s unlikely that the cancer will return, there’s never 100% certainty that a cancer cell that’s undetectable at one moment doesn’t cause a future recurrence.
What cancers have the highest survival (“cure”) rates?
Some oncologists may describe your cancer as “cured” if you’re in remission for five or more years. They’re more likely to use words like “cure” if you have a cancer associated with a high five-year cancer survival rate.
What are cancer survival rates?
Cancer survival rates communicate the percentage of people with a specific cancer diagnosis who are alive after a period (usually five years). The five-year mark is an important milestone because most cancers that return do so within five years. Depending on your cancer type, if your cancer hasn’t returned by then, there’s a good chance it won’t.
One of the most important numbers oncologists use to predict your treatment outcomes is the five-year relative survival rate. It communicates how many people with a particular cancer diagnosis are alive five years following diagnosis compared to people who don’t have the diagnosis. These numbers can’t predict your unique experience, but they can provide a general idea of what to expect based on others’ experiences.
Many cancers diagnosed and treated early have five-year relative survival rates higher than 90%. This means that 90 out of 100 people are alive in five years, compared to people without the same cancer diagnosis. Many people with these cancers who receive treatment live long lives, often without signs of cancer.
Breast cancer forms in one (most common) or both breasts.
- Five-year relative survival rate: Approximately 99% of people with breast cancer that hasn’t spread beyond the breast tissue are alive five years later. Almost all people with pre-invasive or Stage 0 breast cancer, called ductal carcinoma in situ, are alive five years later. The outlook isn’t as good for cancer that’s spread.
- Why is the outlook good? Breast cancer screenings can help detect cancer early so treatment begins immediately, increasing the chances of being cancer-free. Thanks to cancer research, scientists have developed treatments tailored to target and eliminate specific types of breast cancer.
Cervical cancer forms in your cervix, the canal that connects your vagina and uterus.
- Five-year relative survival rate: Approximately 92% of people with cervical cancer that hasn’t spread beyond their cervix or uterus are alive five years later. Survival rates are also high following treatment for cervical dysplasia, abnormal cell growth that can progress to cervical cancer. Cervical cancer that’s spread to lymph nodes or other body parts is much harder to treat.
- Why is the outlook good? Cervical cancer progresses slowly. Getting regular Pap smears can detect cancer in the early stages when treatments are most effective.
Hodgkin lymphoma is a group of cancers that form in white blood cells called lymphocytes.
- Five-year relative survival rate: Approximately 92% of people with Hodgkin lymphoma that hasn’t spread to major organs, bone marrow or lymph nodes above and below their diaphragm are alive five years later.
- Why is the outlook good? Hodgkin lymphoma responds well to cancer treatments, like radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer.
- Five-year relative survival rate: Approximately 99% of people with melanoma that hasn’t spread beyond the skin’s surface are alive five years later. The outlook is worse if the cancer has spread to layers underneath.
- Why is the outlook good? Skin changes are easy to spot and catch early. Surgery often gets rid of melanomas growing on the top layer of skin. New advances in treatments like targeted therapy and immunotherapy have increased the likelihood of being cancer-free compared to 10 years ago.
Prostate cancer develops in your prostate gland.
- Five-year relative survival rate: Approximately 99% of people diagnosed with prostate cancer that hasn’t spread outside their gland are alive five years after diagnosis.
- Why is the outlook good? Prostate cancer grows slowly and usually gets diagnosed and treated early — before it’s spread. It’s much harder to eliminate prostate cancer that’s spread (metastasized).
Testicular cancer develops in one (most common) or both testicles.
- Five-year relative survival rate: Approximately 99% of people diagnosed with testicular cancer that hasn’t spread outside their testicles are alive five years after diagnosis. Testicular cancer treatments are highly effective, and many people with metastasized cancer (73%) are alive five years later.
- Why is the outlook good? Surgery to remove the testicle with cancer often eliminates it. This cancer is also highly responsive to chemotherapy treatments.
Thyroid cancer develops in your thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck.
- Five-year relative survival rate: Almost all people with thyroid cancer that hasn’t spread beyond their thyroid gland are alive five years later. A rare form of thyroid cancer called anaplastic thyroid cancer has a worse outlook.
- Why is the outlook good? This form of cancer grows slowly. Surgery to remove the thyroid gland often gets rid of the cancer.
Ask your healthcare provider for more information when they use words like “cure,” “treatment outcomes,” “survival rates” or “remission.” These words all communicate important information that can help you better understand your diagnosis and plan for your future. It’s essential that you and your healthcare provider are on the same page when it comes to your treatment goals.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Struggling with the ins and outs of language is the last thing most people want to do when trying to understand what a diagnosis means for their lives. Unfortunately, words like “cure” are complex, especially regarding diagnoses like cancer. If you have cancer, your provider may hesitate to use the word “cure” — even if you’re free of cancer and it’s unlikely to return.
Don’t automatically assume the worst if you learn that your condition is incurable. Instead, ask questions based on your priorities. You might ask: Can you recommend treatments that can eliminate signs and symptoms of my disease? Can treatment help me return to my routine? Are there habits I can put in place to feel better? Get the answers you need for your own peace of mind.
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