One of the first questions that most patients ask their doctor or ask themselves is “How long do I have?” Cancer and dying are closely linked in our minds, and, whether we want to ask the question or not, worry about dying from colorectal cancer is always in the back of our minds.
Don’t be surprised if your doctor doesn’t give you a firm answer. Survival, even when cancer has spread and is at an advanced stage, is remarkably individual. And treatment options are improving all the time. Your doctor may be able to average statistics for people with diagnoses similar to yours, but your case is your own!
Doctors use different terms in discussing what statistical chances for survival are. Remember that these are only statistics and you are an individual! Statistical information about survival helps in developing new treatments for cancer and deciding how effective they are. It also helps track public health efforts. But survival predictions for individuals are not always reliable, and they can add significantly to your worry. Take them with a grain of salt!
- Median Overall Survival: the time at which 50 percent of patients are still alive after a diagnosis or particular treatment.
- Five-Year Overall Survival: the percentage of patients alive at five years, including deaths from cancer and other illnesses.
- Median disease-free survival: the time at which 50 percent of patients are still alive without evidence of tumor recurrence.
- Recurrence: A return of cancer after it has been initially treated (for example, a person with stage II disease whose cancer comes back after treatment is said to have a ‘recurrence’).
Five-year overall survival after colon or rectal cancer diagnosis ranges from 93 percent for people treated at the earliest stage to around 8 percent for those whose cancer is diagnosed after it has spread to distant organs (stage IV disease). Recent improvements in chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy have increased relative survival for people diagnosed at stages II and III and the length of time that people with metastatic (stage IV or recurrent) cancer will live.