Cancer survival rate: What it means for your prognosis

Find out what a survival rate can tell you and what it can't. This can help you put survival statistics in perspective.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

When first diagnosed with cancer, many people ask 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 can make an estimate based on other people's experiences 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 78 percent. That means that of all people who have bladder cancer, 78 of every 100 are living five years after diagnosis. Conversely, 22 out of every 100 are dead within five years of a bladder cancer diagnosis.

Cancer survival rates are based on research 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, 52 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 the cancer hasn't disappeared completely.

Cancer survival rates often use a five-year survival rate. That doesn't mean cancer can't recur beyond five years. Certain cancers can recur many years after first being found and treated. For some cancers, if it has not recurred by five years after initial diagnosis, the chance of a later recurrence is very small. 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 age and general health. Your doctor uses 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 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. For some, these chances are promising enough to put up with side effects. For others, the chance for a cure isn't worth the treatment's side effects.

    Your doctor can help you understand the benefits and risks of each treatment.

Apr. 15, 2014 See more In-depth