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Life After Lymphoma Treatment - Understanding Remission, Cure and Relapse

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Updated March 15, 2010

My Treatment Is Complete. How Am I?:

Treatment for lymphomas often takes months to complete. At the end of this ordeal you want to know where you stand. Are you cured? Why do some lymph nodes still feel enlarged? Is your disease still there? Can it come back again? Doctors try to explain the situation by using such terms as "remission," "relapse," and "cure." What do they really mean? A hundred questions fill your mind.

The First Follow-up Visit:

The day you receive your last treatment is not the day that the doctor will assess you for response. That is because cancer treatments often take some time to act. Usually, your doctor will call you in for a check-up after 4 to 8 weeks. This gives the therapy some time to complete its action on the cancer. The doctor then does some tests to evaluate you for remission.

Understanding Remission:

Remission means that your lymphoma has been either eliminated or reduced. When the tumor is completely gone, doctors call it "complete remission." When the tumor has been largely reduced but it still remains, it is called a "partial remission." For Hodgkin lymphoma and aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), doctors always aim for a complete remission. For indolent or low-grade NHL, often a partial remission will suffice.

When Is Remission Considered a Cure?:

Even if your disease stands eliminated after treatment is over, it is still not called a cure. Lymphomas have a chance of recurring, and the doctor will often wait for a few years before he is confident that your disease will not return. Only after that can he tell you that you are cured. For Hodgkin and aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphomas, the disease has the highest chance of returning within a couple of years. Indolent NHL can often return after many years.

Importance of Regular Follow-up Visits:

Regular visits to the doctor are the best way to keep a tab on your disease. The doctor will examine you at each visit. He may also order some tests and scans. Early detection of the return of your disease can often result in better outcomes with subsequent treatments. If no disease is found, you can be reassured about your health.

Disease relapse:

Lymphomas may come back (relapse) after initially being eliminated. This happens only in a minority of people. When it does, it can still be well controlled with subsequent treatment. Relapse can occur in the same areas that were previously involved, or it can occur in new areas of the body. You should report any new swellings or health problems to your oncologist.

Your Worries:

A complete remission after treatment is a very good sign. Most individuals remain free of disease. Thinking of putting off visits in fear that disease relapse will be discovered is understandable, as dealing with this journey can be quite worrisome. But do not delay seeing your doctor. These visits give you a chance to speak to the doctor and clarify your doubts. Even if a relapse occurs, don't panic. There are several effective treatments available to control your disease.

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