Objectives: During the course of the 1960s and 1970s, acute leukaemia in childhood ceased to be invariably fatal and was recategorized as curable. The meaning of cure in this case, however, was problematic, as it was impossible for physicians to be certain that cancer would not return. This paper uses historical methods to explore how remission was understood by families with children with acute leukaemia during the period in which the first cures were announced, roughly 1972-77.
Methods: These comprised documentary analysis of records of the Medical Research Council's leukaemia working parties, published papers and letters on treatments for childhood leukaemia, and interviews with eight UK paediatric oncologists practising in UK hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s.
Results: Two approaches to defining 'cure' in leukaemia can be identified. The first relied on statistical assessment of survival rates. I argue that the concept of 'indefinite remission' came to serve for researchers and clinicians as a proxy measure of cure. However, the concept of 'indefinite remission' left many patients and their families quite uncertain as to whether a cure had really happened. A second approach to defining cure therefore developed. Faced with uncertainty, patients, parents and psychologists sought to develop alternative measures of success--including the notion of 'psychological cure'--that brought forward the moment of cure and its relief.
Conclusions: Changing conceptualizations of leukaemia shaped and were shaped by negotiations over the meaning of 'remission' and 'cure'. On the one hand, the statistical definition of cure was not available for years. On the other hand, psychological cure could begin from the time of first remission, even if medical absolution was not available for years.