About 6 out of every 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive the disease. But this is just the tip of the statistical iceberg. Find out how likely you are to survive for the next 10 years; and why it’s important to take survival statistics with a grain of salt - and understanding.
You’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. What’s the first thing that runs through your mind?
"Am I going to die?"
All of us facing a cancer diagnosis want to skip right to the end game, and know whether or not we’ll live - to see a child graduate from high school, celebrate a 30th wedding anniversary, hold a grandchild in our arms.
Our American culture has imbued in us the desire to control our lives, and a sense of entitlement: we don’t just want to know, we have a RIGHT to know: "Will cancer kill me?"
If you’re expecting to find that answer here, forget it. No one - no oncologist, no Harvard researcher, no faith healer - can tell you for sure whether cancer will kill you. At the end of the day, cancer is random; a roll of the dice. About 85% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no known risk factors for the disease; we’ve just drawn the short straw. And dying from breast cancer can be nearly as random.
"What are my chances?" is probably one of the first questions you’ll ask your oncologist - or research online, given you may not meet your oncologist until weeks after your diagnosis. If you ask your doctor this loaded question, you may notice s/he’s reluctant to answer - for good reason.
First, s/he doesn’t know (see above). And second, no doctor wants to predict (read: assure you of) either a totally happy ending" or death. The vast majority of us fall somewhere in between those two poles. And only surgery, followed by months and often years of treatment, can begin to clarify your personal outcome.
Still, there have been hundreds of studies trying to predict cancer survival based on all kinds of factors: race, age, stage of the cancer, family history, even what hospital you’re treated at. And the National Cancer Institute has come up with some statistical information that can give you an idea of what your chance is of surviving breast cancer - right now, before you’ve been through treatment.
After you’ve read the following information, please check out a post on statistics by my fellow patient expert on this site, Phyllis Johnson. When she learned she had cancer, Phyllis was shocked to hear that all of the women with her diagnosis (inflammatory breast cancer) treated at her hospital had died.
Phyllis checked into that fact, though, and found that only two women with her diagnosis had been treated at the hospital. Thankfully, the hospital’s statistics have changed - 13 years later, Phyllis is still with us.
Here’s a caution concerning statistics, from the National Cancer Institute Web site: "“The doctor uses statistics based on groups of people whose situations are most similar to that of an individual patient”. Because survival rates are based on large groups of people, they cannot be used to predict what will happen to a particular patient. No two patients are exactly alike, and treatment and responses to treatment vary greatly."
There are many ways to approach survival statistics. The following are some of the most common and useful ones. Data comes from either the National Cancer Institute, or the American Cancer Society.
First, here’s a very broad look at breast cancer survival rates, developed from 1988-2007 data collected by SEER (the NCI’s statistical wing, Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results). What’s the chance you’ll be alive next year, or in 3 years, or 10? Understand that these statistics don’t take into account the severity of your disease; just that you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Here’s another big-picture way of approaching breast cancer survival: relative survival, the percentage of women with breast cancer who’ll still be alive 5 years after diagnosis, compared to the general population, based on some basic facts of their diagnosis.
It’s important to know that some of the women with breast cancer who don’t survive 5 years may die of completely unrelated causes: a car accident, a heart attack, a drug overdose. And, this is a 5-year snapshot; it doesn’t predict survival 10 or 20 years down the road. So take it at face value, without using it as a predictor.
Localized (cancer confined to the breast, no lymph node involvement): 98.6%
Regional (cancer detected in lymph nodes): 83.8%
Distant (cancer has metastasized to other parts of the body): 23.4%
Once you’ve had surgery and your pathology report has come back, your oncologist will use the information to determine the stage of your cancer. The American Cancer Society has compiled the following 5-year survival statistics based on cancer stage:
*Yes, this is correct; survival rates are better for stage IIIC than stage IIIB.
You may be thinking, "It’s nice to know I have an 8 in 10 chance of surviving cancer for 5 years; but how about longer? Why are survival statistics always based on 5 years?"
Excellent question, and there’s a very good answer: treatment continues to evolve. It’s not useful comparing the life expectancy of a woman diagnosed with cancer 30 years ago, a patient who didn’t have access to today’s targeted chemotherapy, hormonal, and biologic therapies, to that of a woman being treated now.
Apples to oranges, plain and simple.
You may be relieved to find yourself in one of the statistical groups above; or you may be disheartened. But remember: you are NOT a statistic. As Phyllis says in her statistics post, "Understand that statistics don’t predict what will happen to you. They are a snapshot of a group of people in the past. You are unique."
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.