Fans of the morally challenged tycoon Gordon Gecko from the movie Wall Street are happy to learn that leading man Michael Douglas declares himself free of cancer.

Douglas recently completed treatment for late stage IV throat cancer. Cancer experts say that when caught early, throat cancer can be cured 85 percent of the time with surgery or radiation. In Douglas's case, the cancer had spread to his neck and head.

At the time of diagnosis, doctors interviewed about this type of cancer gave him survival odds of 80 percent. Douglas's tumor was too large to remove with surgery and he underwent seven weeks of intense radiation. His physicians report that he's had a complete response to the treatment. They can no longer detect cancer through physical exam or imaging.

So, does this mean physicians have cured Douglas of cancer? Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple.

Douglas is in remission. The National Cancer Institute defines remission as a decrease in, or disappearance of signs and symptoms of, cancer.

The goals of cancer treatment are to put a patient in remission, to control cancer (keep it from spreading and kill cells that have already spread), or to provide symptom relief (palliative care). Complete remission means that all observable signs of cancer have completely disappeared. In a partial remission, there are fewer measureable cancer cells.

Being in remission is not the same as being cured. The longer someone is in remission from cancer, the more likely we are to say that person is cured and the less likely he will have a recurrence. Being in remission does not always mean treatment eliminated all cancer, however; sometimes cancer recurs after a long remission.

It may be more accurate to describe cancer as chronic disease, much like diabetes. Many people live a long, productive life by managing diabetes with diet modifications, exercise, medications, and other lifestyle changes.

Most cancer survivors need some type of cancer-related surveillance and medical care for the rest of their lives. Douglas's physicians will monitor him closely so if his throat cancer does return, they can catch it early.

The good news is that uncovering throat cancer is becoming easier. We now have blood tests that detect proteins released by growing tumors. These tests offer physicians a tool for estimating the likelihood of remission. Throat cancer patients who demonstrate a decline in release of these proteins are more likely to remain in remission.

DeNoon, Daniel J. "Michael Douglas Has Stage IV Throat Cancer; Experts Weigh In." Medscape Medical News.Web. 2 September 2010.

DeNoon, Daniel J. "Michael Douglas: Throat Cancer Survivor." Medscape Medical News. Web. 18 January 2011.

National Cancer Institute. "Head and neck cancer." Web. 9 March 2005.

National Cancer Institue. "Blood Test May Help Signal Tumor's Remission, Return in Throat Cancer Patients." Web. 1 June  2007.