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Prognosis and survival

Most people with cancer, and the people who love them, are very concerned about the future. They want to know what to expect. Will they recover? Will their cancer respond to treatment? What if their cancer does not respond to treatment or it progresses?

A prognosis is the doctor's best estimate of how cancer will affect a person. Many factors can affect a person's prognosis. Survival statistics are one tool that doctors use to develop a prognosis for a person with cancer. Doctors often look at studies that measure survival for a particular type of cancer, stage or risk group, when developing a prognosis.

There are different types of cancer survival statistics and different ways to measure and report survival. In general, survival is the proportion of people with cancer who are alive at some point in time (such as 1, 3, 5 or 10 years) after their diagnosis.

Five-year survival

Five-year survival is often used when talking about prognosis and survival.

  • It measures the effect of the cancer over a 5-year period. This number represents the proportion of people who, on average, are alive 5 years after their cancer diagnosis – whether they are disease-free, in remissionremissionA decrease in or the disappearance of signs and symptoms of a disease (such as cancer). or still having treatment.
  • The 5-year survival rate does not mean that the person is only going to live 5 years. Many live much longer, especially when their cancer is detected and treated early. Survival rates differ according to the type of cancer.

Factors affecting cancer survival statistics

Keep in mind that cancer survival statistics:

  • are very general estimates
  • can vary widely by the stage of cancer
  • are based on large numbers of people with cancer and cannot predict exactly what will happen to a particular person
  • are based on data that may be several years old and therefore may not reflect the impact of recent advances in early detection or treatment
  • may not account for other illnesses, varying responses to treatment or dying from causes other than cancer

Questions about survival

People with cancer should talk to their doctor about their prognosis. Prognosis depends on many factors, including:

  • the person's medical history
  • type of cancer
  • stage
  • characteristics of the cancer
  • treatments chosen
  • response to treatment

Only a doctor familiar with these factors can put this information together with survival statistics to arrive at a prognosis. Their doctor is the most qualified to answer questions about what the future might hold for people with cancer.

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