A cancer diagnosis brings with it a whole new vocabulary. And 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 treatment decisions. Here are some tips on deciphering them.
How Long Might You Survive After a Cancer Diagnosis?
Survival rates are often presented as five-year survival rates, which estimate the percentage of people with a specific cancer type — like colon or breast — who will survive for at least five years after 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 overall breast cancer five-year relative survival rate is 90 percent.
When you look at rates by stage, according to the American Cancer Society
- Stage 0 or I breast cancer five-year relative survival rate is close to 100 percent.
- Stage II breast cancer five-year relative survival rate is about 93 percent.
- Stage III breast cancer five-year relative survival rate is about 72 percent.
There are also estimated survival rates based on if the cancer has spread to other body parts and to which parts.
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 Treatment Options?
Cancer survival rates can also give you useful information about 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 (become 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 treatment.
- Progression-free survival (PFS) rate. The National Cancer Institute defines progression-free survival as “the length of time during and after the treatment of cancer that a patient lives with the disease but it does not get worse.” 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 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 about survival rates for your specific medical condition.
- Five-year survival rates are just that — five years old. Treatment advances are continually improving outcomes, but many of the latest innovations are not yet reflected in cancer survival rates.
And remember, these statistics are only one factor in making your treatment decision. Be sure to discuss all of the aspects of your diagnosis and health history that play a part in your cancer care.