One of the first questions that most patients ask their doctor or ask themselves is “How long do I have?” 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 provide you with statistics for people with diagnoses similar to yours, but your case is your own!
SURVIVAL RATE TERMS
Doctors use different terms in discussing statistical chances for survival. Statistical information about survival helps in developing new treatments for cancer and deciding their effectiveness. But, survival predictions for individuals are not always reliable and they can significantly add to your worry.
- Five-Year Overall Survival: the percentage of patients alive at five years, including deaths from cancer and other illnesses
- Five-Year Relative Survival: the percentage of patients alive at five years, not including deaths from other illnesses.
- Median Overall Survival: the time at which 50 percent of patients are still alive after a diagnosis or particular treatment.
- Median Disease-Free Survival: the time at which 50 percent of patients are still alive without evidence of tumor recurrence.
- Progression-Free Survival: the time it takes from the start of a treatment for the cancer to grow or spread.
- 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.’)
Doctors give survival statistics based on historical information, so the numbers do not reflect the current standards of care or recent improvements in chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy. Improvement of the treatments you get today recently increased the relative survival for people diagnosed at stage III, and the length of time that people with metastatic cancer will live.