The Outlook May Be Better Than You Might Think

Patient Expert

“You have cancer.”

The doctor has just delivered the bad news. Sure, there were probably also some encouraging words to soften the blow: “I’m sorry,” “We do have lots of effective treatments these days,” etc. Nonetheless the stark message is: You have cancer, and you might die.

What’s the first thing you think?

I’m going to die.

Who’ll take care of my kids?

I’ll never hold a grandchild.

What will my husband do?

It’s natural for your imagination to take any stressful situation to the limit.

Health challenges are the worst. How often has some temporary fatigue brought on thoughts of fibromyalgia? Or a sore knee, the assumption of major surgery?

Notice the word “imagination,” though. Just because you assume the worst about any health situation doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

Such as: dying from breast cancer.

Most women survive breast cancer

The National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program tracks cancer statistics of all kinds, including survival rates. The good news? The latest results show the vast majority of breast cancer patients survive for at least five years. A significant majority live even longer.

According to SEER, an estimated 246,660 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016; it’s the second most common type of cancer a woman can get. It’s also the second-most fatal cancer for women (after lung cancer): SEER finds that about 40,450 American women will die from the disease this year, about 16 percent of the total number diagnosed.

But that statistic can be a bit misleading. There are many types and stages of the disease, some much more aggressive and ultimately serious than others. For instance, a woman who caught her disease early has a much better chance of surviving it than one who’s been diagnosed with advanced cancer. About 10 times better, according to SEER.

Survival statistics by stage: the breakdownOn average, nine of 10** women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive at least five years**. And that includes all cases, from those found earliest to the most aggressive and serious. So let’s break that statistic down further.

For analysis purposes, SEER divides breast cancer into four stages: localized, regional, distant, and** unknown.** (Unknown means there’s no information available about initial diagnosis.)

Localized breast cancer (stage 1 and some stage 2) is confined to the breast itself, with no underarm lymph node involvement. Sixty-one percent of women receive a stage 1 diagnosis; and** 98.8 percenill survive five years or longer.Regional cancer (stages 2 and 3) indicates spread to underarm lymph nodes; 31 percent of women receive this diagnosis, and 85.2 percent** will live at least five years.

Distant cancer (stage 3c and stage 4) has metastasized: spread to another part of the body, e.g., bones or liver. Some 6 percent of women are diagnosed with this type of cancer, metastatic, and it’s considered incurable. Still,** 26.3 percent** will survive for five years, with a good number living even longer.

Why just five years?

Why does SEER focus on five years as the benchmark for survival? Why not 10 years, or 20? After all, if you have cancer you want to believe your chance of living a long life is just as good as anyone else’s.

SEER, the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute. All these groups use five year survival statistics. According to the NCI, this is because longer-term data is necessarily based on women diagnosed many years ago. And since cancer treatment evolves so quickly, applying that data to women diagnosed today wouldn’t provide a useful comparison.

Nevertheless, the ACS -- after warning that “survival rates should be interpreted with caution” -- notes that of all women diagnosed with breast cancer, 83 percent are likely to be alive 10 years post-diagnosis; and 78 percent survive at least 15 years after initial diagnosis.

And those numbers are likely to get even better, given the mortality rate for breast cancer in America dropped by 36 percent between 1989 and 2012, according to the ACS.

So if you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, take heart. The ACS says that as of Jan. 1, 2014, there were more than 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in America. Statistically speaking, there’s every chance you’ll be a member of that survivor group for decades to come.


Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2015-2016. PDF. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, 2015.

"Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program." Cancer of the Breast (Female). 2015. Accessed May 28, 2016.

See More Helpful Articles:

Just Diagnosed? We Can Help

A Guide to Survivorship: Life After Treatment

Risks and Benefits: Understanding the Statistics That Affect You

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.