What can't cancer survival rates tell you?

Cancer survival statistics can be frustrating. The survival rate for people with your particular cancer might be based on thousands of people. So while cancer survival rates can give a general idea about most people in your situation, they can't give your individual chances for cure or remission. For that reason, some people 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 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 take other factors, such as side effects, cost and the treatment schedule, into their decision.

Understanding the numbers

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Survival rates are usually given in percentages. For example, the five-year survival rate for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is 68 percent.

You might find that it's easier to understand the numbers in terms of people. For the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma example, the survival rate can be stated like this: For every 100 people diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, 68 survive for at least five years after diagnosis. Conversely, 32 people die 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. Ask questions if you need more information.

It's up to you and your doctor to interpret the numbers. You might think a 68 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 understand your individual situation.

You might choose to ignore cancer survival rates

It's 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, you might find the statistics impersonal and not helpful. But some people want to know everything they can about their cancer. For that reason, you might choose to know all the pertinent statistics.

The more you know about your type, grade and stage of cancer, the more closely you can predict your risk. If you have a localized cancer and you are using statistics that include many people with a more widespread cancer, that data may not apply to you.

Knowing more about your cancer can reduce your anxiety 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. Some people prefer to know the "big picture," rather than detailed statistics. Let your doctor know how you prefer to receive the information. And if you have any questions or concerns about the statistics associated with your cancer, talk to your doctor.

Apr. 15, 2014 See more In-depth