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.
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.
Apr. 06, 2011
See more In-depth
- Understanding prognosis and cancer statistics: Questions and answers. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/support/prognosis-stats. Accessed Feb. 22, 2011.
- Cancer facts & figures 2010. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@epidemiologysurveilance/documents/document/acspc-026238.pdf. Accessed Feb. 22, 2011.
- Understanding statistics used to guide prognosis and evaluate treatment. Cancer.Net. http://www.cancer.net/patient/All+About+Cancer/Newly+Diagnosed/Understanding+Survival+Statistics. Accessed Feb. 22, 2011.
- Moynihan TJ (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. March 6, 2011.