Cancer survival rate: What it means for your prognosis

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Cancer survival rate: What it means for your prognosis

One of the questions many people ask when first diagnosed with cancer is about their prognosis. You might want to know whether your cancer is relatively easy or more difficult to cure. Your doctor can't predict the future, but an estimate is possible based on the experiences of other people with the same cancer.

It's up to you whether you want to know the survival rates related to your cancer. The numbers can be confusing and frightening.

What is a cancer survival rate?

Cancer survival rates or survival statistics tell you the percentage of people who survive a certain type of cancer for a specific amount of time. Cancer statistics often use an overall five-year survival rate. For instance, the overall five-year survival rate for bladder cancer is 80 percent. That means that of all people diagnosed with bladder cancer, 80 of every 100 were living five years after diagnosis. Conversely, 20 out of every 100 died within five years of a bladder cancer diagnosis.

Cancer survival rates are based on research that comes from information gathered on hundreds or thousands of people with a specific cancer. An overall survival rate includes people of all ages and health conditions who have been diagnosed with your cancer, including those diagnosed very early and those diagnosed very late.

Your doctor may be able to give you more specific statistics, based on your stage of cancer. For instance, 53 percent, or about half, of people diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer live for at least five years after diagnosis. The five-year survival rate for people diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer that has spread (metastasized) to other areas of the body is 4 percent.

Overall survival rates don't specify whether cancer survivors are still undergoing treatment at five years or if they've become cancer-free (achieved remission). Other types of survival rates that give more specific information include:

  • Disease-free survival rate. This is the number of people with cancer who achieve remission. That means they no longer have signs of cancer in their bodies.
  • Progression-free survival rate. This is the number of people who still have cancer, but their disease isn't progressing. This includes people who may have had some success with treatment, but their cancer hasn't disappeared completely.

Cancer survival rates often use a five-year survival rate. But that doesn't mean that cancer can't recur beyond five years. Cancer can recur many years after successful treatment. Discuss your risk of a cancer recurrence with your doctor.

How are cancer survival rates used?

You and your doctor might use survival statistics to:

  • Understand your prognosis. The experience of other people in your same situation can give you and your doctor an idea of your prognosis — the chance your cancer will be cured. Other factors include your age and your general health. Your doctor uses all of these factors to help you understand the seriousness of your condition.
  • Develop a treatment plan. Statistics can also show how people with your same cancer type and stage respond to treatment. You can use this information, along with your own goals for treatment, to weigh the pros and cons of each treatment option. For instance, if two treatments give you similar chances for remission, but one has more side effects, you might choose the option with fewer side effects. In another example, a treatment may offer a chance for a cure, but only for 1or 2 people out of every 100 who go through the treatment. For some, the chances with this treatment are promising enough to put up with many side effects. For others, the chance for a cure isn't worth the side effects of the treatment. Your doctor can help you understand the potential benefits and risks of each treatment you're considering.

What can't cancer survival rates tell you?

Cancer survival statistics can be frustrating, because they can't give specifics about you. The survival rate for people with your particular cancer might be based on thousands of people. So while cancer survival rates are meant to give you a general idea about most people in your situation, they can't give you your individual chances for cure or remission. This can be frustrating, and for that reason, some people choose to ignore cancer survival rate statistics.

Survival statistics don't take into account other medical conditions you have. If your health is otherwise perfect, you're likely to have a greater chance of survival than the statistics suggest. If you have other very significant medical conditions, you may not have the chance of survival suggested by the statistics. Your doctor may be able to help adjust the statistics for your specific situation.

Survival rates have other limitations. For instance, they can't:

  • Give you information about the latest treatments. People included in the latest cancer statistics were diagnosed more than five years ago. The effects of any recent treatment discoveries won't affect survival statistics for at least five years.
  • Tell you what treatments to choose. That's entirely up to you and your doctor. For some people, the treatment with the greatest chance for remission is the one they'll choose. But many people figure other factors, such as side effects, cost and the treatment schedule, into their decision.

Understanding the numbers

Survival rates are usually given in percentages. You might find that it's easier to understand the numbers in terms of people, not percentages. For example, the five-year survival rate for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is 67 percent. It might be easier to comprehend if you say it this way: For every 100 people diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, 67 survived for at least five years after diagnosis. Conversely, 33 people died within five years of a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis.

If your doctor talks about statistics and you don't understand, ask for an explanation that makes sense to you. Ask questions if you need more information.

It's up to you and your doctor to interpret the numbers. You might think a 63 percent survival rate is positive, or it may frighten you as you think about your future. Your doctor can help you put the statistics in perspective and help you understand your individual situation.

Survival rate

To help you better understand survival rates, think in terms of people, not percentages. Each of these 100 circles represents someone diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The 67 yellow circles ...

Visual representation of five-year survival rate 

You might choose to ignore cancer survival rates

It's entirely up to you whether you want to know the survival rates associated with your type and stage of cancer. Because survival rates can't tell you about your situation specifically, you might find the statistics are impersonal and not very helpful. But some people want to know everything they can about their cancer. For that reason you might choose to know all the statistics that pertain to you.

The more you know about your type, grade and stage of cancer, the more closely you can predict your risk. If you have a very localized cancer and you are using statistics that include many people with a more widespread cancer, then that data may not apply to you.

Knowing more about your cancer can reduce the anxiety you feel as you analyze your options and begin your treatment, but survival statistics can be confusing and frightening. Tell your doctor if you'd prefer not to pay attention to the numbers. And if you have any questions or concerns about the statistics associated with your cancer, talk about it with your doctor.

Last Updated: 2011-04-06
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