What Cancer Stats Tell You About Your Chances Of Recovery And Survivorship?

Understanding what data means can help you be better informed about cancer and its impact.

A cancer diagnosis often comes with little warning but with an over supply of information that can be scary. It's hard to know who to believe and what to do. However, you can safely assume that your oncologist is a reliable and trustworthy source of information but it may be hard to even figure out what questions to ask. There are some that need to know as little as possible to keep their sanity, while other patients often want to know everything and more regarding their cancer.

Cancer statistics tell us things such as how many people are diagnosed with and die from cancer each year, the number of people who are currently living after a cancer diagnosis, the average age at diagnosis, and the numbers of people who are still alive at a given time after diagnosis. Cancer statistics also help us see trends. By looking at cancer rates over time, we can track changes in the risk of developing and dying from specific cancers such as thyroid cancer or endometrial cancer as well as cancer overall. Here are some common stats and what they mean:

  • In 2020, an estimated 1,806,590 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 606,520 people will die from the disease. The cancer death rate rose from 1975 until 1991, then fell continuously through 2017, resulting in a 29% decrease in deaths that translates into an estimated 2.9 million fewer cancer deaths than would have occurred if peak rates had persisted. This is progress!

  • The 4 most common cancer types are lung, colorectal, breast, and prostate. These 4 cancers, together, also account for the greatest numbers of cancer deaths.

  • 1 in 8 U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime and about 1 in 14 men will develop lung cancer over the course of his lifetime.

  • Cancer survival rates have increased dramatically over the years, thanks to earlier detection and better treatments. The five-year relative survival rate for patients diagnosed with any type of cancer in 1975 was 50 %; the rate jumped to 69 % in 2012. Relative survival rate is a way of comparing the survival of people who have a specific disease with those who don’t, over a certain period of time. This is usually five years from the date of diagnosis or the start of treatment for those with the disease. The relative survival rate shows whether the disease shortens life.

  • For all stages combined, survival is highest for prostate cancer (98%), melanoma of the skin (92%), and female breast cancer (90%) and lowest for cancers of the pancreas (9%), liver (18%), lung (19%), and esophagus (20%). Survival rates are lower for black patients than for whites for every cancer type except for cancers of the kidney and pancreas, for which they are the same.

  • Incidence means how many people get a particular type of cancer. It is often written as the number of cancer cases per 100,000 people in the general population.

  • Cancer Prevalence means the number of people in the population who have had a diagnosis of cancer.

  • Cancer Survival means the percentage of people still alive after a particular amount of time. Survival statistics for cancer are usually written as: 1 year survival, and 5 year survival.

  • Disease-free Survival means everyone with a particular type of cancer who is alive and whose cancer has not come back (recurred) 5 years after diagnosis.

  • Mortality means the number of people who have died. It is often written as the number of people who have died of cancer per 100,000 people in the general population.

  • Cure versus Remission, cure means that there are no traces of your cancer after treatment and the cancer will never come back. Remission means that the signs and symptoms of your cancer are significantly minimized. Remission can be partial or complete. In a complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared. If you remain in complete remission for 5 years or more, the general consensus is that you are cured. It may be that some cancer cells can remain in your body for many years after treatment, undetectable by the common modes of monitoring including scans and blood markers. These cells may cause the cancer to come back in the distant future. For cancers that return, most do so within the first 5 years after treatment. But, there is a chance that cancer may recur decades later as well. Therefore, it is customary to say that you are cured at the current time when you no longer have any measurable disease but to continue to monitor your health for any signs of recurrence.

Reason to hope: The National Cancer Institute’s Healthy People 2020 target is to increase the proportion of cancer survivors who are living 5 years or longer after diagnosis to 71.7%. (Healthy People 2020 is a set of goals set forth by the US Department of Health and Human Services.)

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life for cancer survivors.
DOI: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-19-2348