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Understanding 5-year cancer survival rates

Cancer survival rates are the percentage of people who survive a particular type of cancer for a specific amount of time (most often a 5-year survival rate). These statistics do not represent your chance to beat cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer is 89.7 percent. [1] That means that of all people who have breast cancer, about 90 of every 100 are living five years after diagnosis. Conversely, 10 of every 100 are dead within five years of a breast cancer diagnosis.

2019 Cancer Facts & Figures

Overall survival rates factor all ages and health conditions — people who have been diagnosed with a specific type of cancer, including those diagnosed very early (Stage I) and late (Stage IV). Your doctor can give you more particular statistics based on your stage of cancer.

Also, overall survival rates do not specify if patients are still undergoing treatment at five years. They may be in remission.

J. Stegall

“I always tell my patients that it is important to look at survival statistics on the population level in order to know what we are dealing with, but it is equally important to realize that those statistics do not necessarily apply to them.”

Dr. Jonathan Stegall

Other types of survival rates for specific information include:

•    Disease-free survival rate – the number of people who have no evidence of cancer after treatment.

•    Progression-free survival rate – the number of people who have been treated for cancer and either has no signs of cancer recurrence or who have the disease that has remained stable without growing.

“It is important to discuss what 5-year survival means,” said Dr. Jonathan Stegall, founder of The Center for Advanced Medicine. “In the oncology world, 5-year survival measures the percentage of patients who are still alive five years from the date of diagnosis. It does not mean that they are cancer-free, and it does not say that they are entirely healthy. Instead, it merely means that they have not died from cancer (or any other cause) in the five years since diagnosis.

“Survival rates can be further broken down. For example, cancer-specific survival looks at the percentage of patients with a particular type of cancer and also can be broken down to look at survival rates for each stage of the disease. Using the 5-year survival statistic for breast cancer, we see that Stage 0 or Stage I breast cancer has a 5-year survival rate of nearly 100 percent.

“For Stage II breast cancer, the 5-year survival rate is 93 percent, while for Stage III breast cancer, the 5-year survival rate is 72 percent.

“Stage IV breast cancer has a 5-year survival rate of approximately 22 percent. Thus, when we look at survival rates for cancer, it is important to be as specific as possible with regard to cancer type and cancer stage since some cancers have very poor survival rates while others have very good ones.”

The 5-year survival rate does not mean cancer cannot recur beyond five years. You should talk to your doctor regarding which cancers are more likely to return.

How are cancer survival rates used?

Survival statistics may be used to: [2]

Understand your prognosis

The experience of other people in the same situation can give you and your doctor an idea of your prognosis. There may be a good chance your cancer can be treated, considering your overall health and age.

Develop a treatment plan

You also can compare how others responded to treatment with the same type of cancer. This is vital information for you and a doctor to discuss — however, no two people will react exactly the same! (Remember: Side-effects affect people differently.) It is essential to address the treatment plan; it is imperative that you choose a regimen that is best for your individual situation.

What overall cancer survival rates cannot tell you

Overall cancer survival stats are based off thousands of patients. None of them are in an identical situation as you, other than they have a particular type of cancer. The statistics should not dissuade you from considering a treatment. The stats do not represent your chance for remission. … In fact, many people choose to ignore the survival statistic.

Your lifestyle, habits, and other medical conditions are unique. To this end, your chance for remission may be higher than the statistics suggest.

Again, your doctor can diagnose you to weed out information that is not pertinent to your individual situation. Just as cancer should not define you, neither should overall cancer survival statistics.

These survival rates cannot:

Provide information on the most recent treatments. There is ongoing research that could be making information from five years ago irrelevant. Keep in mind that today's research will not impact survival stats for at least five years.

Tell you which treatments to choose. That's up to you and your doctor. For some people, the treatment with the most excellent chance for remission is the one they'll want. However, do consider cost, treatment schedule, and side effects.

Should you ignore cancer survival rates?

It's up to you to dig into the 5-year survival rates — but know these stats cannot tell you about an individual situation. Confounding factors in this group include age, ethnicity, tumor mutation status, cancer stage (unless otherwise specified), lifestyle, overall health, treatments, etc. Also, genders are usually kept separate.

The statistics also may seem impersonal, or not helpful. Still, other people want to learn everything they can about their cancer; they may choose to know all the pertinent statistics.

“I always tell my patients that it is important to look at survival statistics on the population level in order to know what we are dealing with, but it is equally important to realize that those statistics do not necessarily apply to them.” Dr. Stegall said. “Many factors contribute to treatment outcomes, and many of those are directly in the patient’s control.”

Knowing more about your cancer can reduce anxiety. As you analyze options before treatment, overall cancer survival statistics can be confusing. Do not be frightened.

If you only want to know the “big picture,” request your doctor not to discuss detailed stats. Likewise, if you're going to get into the minutiae of the numbers, discuss this with your healthcare provider. Regardless of which way you choose, talk to your doctor.

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  1. Cancer Stat Facts: Female Breast Cancer. National Cancer Institute.
  2. Cancer Statistics. National Cancer Institute.

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