Cancer treatment has come a long way, but doctors can’t eliminate all cancers. But in many cases, treatment can control the disease for months or even years. This means that more people are living long term with cancer.

This article looks closely at what it means to live with cancer as a chronic illness, including what to expect with treatment.

The way doctors treat cancer has changed significantly over the years, from the medications they use to detection and monitoring technologies.

Better screening for breast, cervical, and prostate cancers means more cases are caught during the early stages when they’re localized and more likely to respond to treatment.

Newer treatments like targeted therapies have also increased survival rates, and people with cancer are more likely to survive longer. And fewer people are dying from cancer. From 1991 to 2019, the cancer death rate fell by 32%, representing nearly 3.5 million fewer cancer deaths.

But even with all of the advances in cancer therapy, doctors can’t cure all cancers. Still, when caught early, it’s often possible to treat cancer as a chronic illness instead of an acute one.

Some cancers tend to be chronic, such as those more likely to spread to other body parts. The most common types of chronic cancer include:

  • chronic leukemia
  • some types of lymphoma
  • ovarian cancer
  • breast cancer
  • prostate cancer
  • some types of skin cancer

Even though doctors can’t fully cure these cancers, it may be possible to manage them over a long period.

The goal of chronic cancer treatment is to keep the cancer under control through treatment and regular monitoring. It also ensures you maintain a good quality of life by managing symptoms and side effects.

Chronic cancers often undergo multiple cycles of remission and recurrence throughout the disease.

Remission is an extended period — lasting at least 1 month — where the cancer is stable or controlled. That means there is either no detectable cancer or the tumor volume has shrunk.

Doctors may refer to it as stable disease if the cancer doesn’t shrink but isn’t growing.

After a certain amount of time, chronic cancers will begin growing again. This is known as progression or recurrence.

This happens because the cancer treatment can’t kill all cancer cells, which means they can continue growing in the body. How many are left and how quickly they grow will determine how long periods of remission or stable disease last.

Monitoring for recurrence

During remission, your healthcare team will monitor you for signs of recurrence. Regular monitoring ensures you start receiving treatment right away should the cancer return.

Doctors may use multiple tests to monitor disease progression, including blood and imaging tests. The types of tests they use and how often they order them depend on several factors, including:

  • the type of cancer you have
  • the stage of cancer at your diagnosis
  • the treatment you received (or are receiving)

Your healthcare team may also want to monitor you for possible long-term side effects of treatment. For example, your oncologist may recommend a yearly thyroid exam if you receive radiation therapy in the head, neck, or throat.

Even while your cancer is in remission, it’s important to listen to your body. If you start to feel sick or notice your cancer symptoms again, let your oncologist know. You know your body best, and advocating for yourself may help your healthcare team detect a recurrence of your cancer sooner.

Doctors commonly use chemotherapy medications to treat chronic cancers.

Sometimes, you may receive long-term chemotherapy to help keep your cancer under control, even during remission. This is known as maintenance therapy.

Alternatively, your oncologist may choose only to use chemotherapy when your cancer is active again. In these cases, your doctor will rely on blood tests and imaging results to carefully monitor your cancer and determine when to start treatment again.

Depending on how quickly recurrence occurs, your oncologist may choose to use the same treatment or a new medication to help get the disease back under control.

If you have undergone different treatment options without success, your oncologist may recommend participating in a clinical trial to explore new treatment options.

In addition to chemotherapy, other types of treatment for chronic cancer include:

  • immunotherapy
  • targeted therapy
  • radiation therapy
  • hormone therapy

The treatment choice will depend on factors related to your disease and personal preferences and goals.

Because you may be on these treatments for long periods, it’s important to talk with your oncologist about what to expect from treatment frequency and side effects.

You may feel many different emotions when you are diagnosed with chronic cancer. Embracing and managing those feelings can help you adapt to your “new normal.”

Your healthcare team can serve as a resource to help you understand the specifics of your disease and treatment and answer questions about:

  • your treatment options
  • what to expect long-term about your disease, treatment, and monitoring
  • additional specialists you may need to see
  • managing the financial costs of long-term care

Talking with a professional counselor or other people with chronic cancer in a support group may also help you process the emotional aspects of your disease and treatment. Your oncologist can help connect you with programs in your area, or you can look for in-person and online options through the Cancer Survivors Network website.

Other strategies to help manage and cope with your chronic cancer include:

  • deciding on your treatment goals (and realizing that these may change over time)
  • making healthy lifestyle choices related to diet and physical activity
  • developing healthy stress management techniques, such as mindfulness
  • attending follow-up appointments with your oncologist
  • getting recommended screenings and tests

Healthy coping mechanisms can help alleviate feelings of depression or anxiety, which are common in people with chronic cancer. But if your depression or anxiety makes it harder for you to enjoy your everyday life, professional support can also help.

Improved screening and treatment options mean that even when cancer can’t be fully cured, more and more people are living long term with cancer. Treatment is no longer simply about surviving but preserving quality of life while living with cancer.

Although you may have ups and downs throughout the process, it’s important to remember that hope and resources are available to support you through your cancer journey.