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A Guide to Understanding Cancer Survival Rate Statistics

A cancer diagnosis brings with it a whole new vocabulary. It also brings a lot of numbers to interpret.

One of the more confusing set of numbers has to do with cancer survival rates. They’re not quite as simple as they seem, but they are important for helping you understand your prognosis and making cancer treatment decisions. Here are some tips on deciphering them.

How Long Might You Survive After a Cancer Diagnosis?

Cancer survival rates are often presented as five-year survival rates, which estimate the percentage of people with a specific cancer type — like colon cancer or breast cancer — who will survive for at least five years after their initial cancer diagnosis. Overall survival rates don’t take into account the stage of cancer, but often you will find rates broken down by stage. Here’s an example:

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) reports that the average five-year relative survival rate for women with invasive breast cancer is 91 percent. 

When you look at rates by stage, according to the American Cancer Society  

  • Localized breast cancer has a five-year relative survival rate of nearly 100 percent.
  • Regional breast cancer has a five-year relative survival rate of 86 percent.
  • Distant breast cancer’s five-year relative survival rate is about 27 percent.
  • All SEER stages combined overall have a five-year relative survival rate of 90 percent. 

Of course, those rates are only based on the stage at the time of your initial diagnosis. There are also estimated survival rates based on:

  • if the cancer has spread to other body parts, and if so, which parts
  • present hormone receptors
  • the tumor grade and characteristics
  • any genetic components, such as HER2 status
  • if the cancer grows or spreads
  • how the cancer responds to treatment, or if it returns after treatment

As you can imagine, these numbers may vary widely, and none of them take into account your specific situation — your age, family history, overall health, and other factors.

What Are My Best Cancer Treatment Options?

Cancer survival rates can also give you useful information about the best cancer treatment options. While overall survival rates don’t take into account if cancer survivors are still receiving treatment at the five-year mark or if they are in remission (cancer-free). These survival rates provide more specific information:

  • Disease-free survival (DFS) rate. The number of people who have no evidence of cancer after their cancer treatment is completed.
  • Progression-free survival (PFS) rate. Progression-free survival is the length of time during and after the treatment of cancer that a patient lives with the disease but it does not get worse. In other words, the cancer is still present in the patient’s body, but it is not growing or spreading. The PFS rate is the number of people who have been treated for cancer and either have no signs of recurrence or whose cancer has not progressed.

These two types of survival rates help oncologists make treatment decisions based on whether the benefits of a specific treatment will outweigh the risks or side effects.

Being Realistic About Cancer Statistics

There is a lot of information on the internet about cancer survival rates, but it can be difficult to interpret without the help of a cancer expert. ASCO offers these additional tips about survival rate statistics for cancer patients:

  • Statistics are just estimates, which are based on large groups of people not on your specific cancer diagnosis. They help provide a general idea of survival rates, but can’t be used to predict what will actually happen to you.
  • You (your age, family history, and overall health) and your cancer (its type, location, stage, and when it was diagnosed) are unique. Talk with your oncologist or your cancer care team about survival rates for your specific type of cancer and individual situation.
  • Five-year survival rates are just that — five years old. Cancer treatment advances are continually improving outcomes; therefore, many of the latest treatment innovations are not yet reflected in cancer survival rates.

And remember, these statistics are only one factor in making your individual cancer treatment decision. Be sure to discuss all of the aspects of your diagnosis and health history that play a part in your cancer care with your cancer care team.

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