The Five-Year Survival Rate for Cancer

What do these numbers really mean?

When I was first diagnosed with male breast cancer, I became aware of a magic statistic and miracle marker known as the "five-year survival rate." I quickly found out that male breast cancer has relatively little historical information to offer useful numbers for those of us living with it.

As a rare disease, research for male breast cancer is underfunded and sporadic at best.

But I’ve often wondered who it was that came up with the notion that one who survives cancer for five years is effectively "cured" of the disease. The first things we see when we’re newly diagnosed with cancer are numbers, lots and lots of numbers. Stage 1. Grade 3. Nuclear score 3. Mitotic score 2.

Statistics give us something graspable to drive us forward or backward, depending on how good the numbers look. Survival statistics for cancer are usually written as one-year survival, five-year survival or 10-year survival rates. These statistics can sometimes be difficult to understand. They refer to the percentage of people who are alive one, five or 10 years after their diagnosis.

Usually, these statistics don't mean that actual people experienced these exact results. It’s simply a calculation. For five-year survival, it doesn't mean that these people lived for exactly five years and then died. It doesn't mean that they were all cured, either. Some of these people will be cured and the cancer will never come back. In some people, the cancer may come back after five years.

Survival statistics usually give an overall picture, and the survival time for an individual person may be higher or lower, depending on various factors.

Statistics can't tell you exactly what will happen to you, personally. They are pieces of information that apply to a group or population of people from which the statistics were calculated.

This could be tens, hundreds or thousands of people.

You and your situation are unique. And since there is no one else quite like you, no statistics are able to give you exact answers about the outcome of your particular cancer.

As an example, the five-year relative survival rate for men with breast cancer is 84 percent. This means men with breast cancer are, on average, 84 percent as likely as men in the general population to live five years beyond their diagnosis. The 10-year relative survival rate for men with breast cancer is 72 percent.

We celebrate our five-year survival like the Fourth of July. It’s a big deal because we have created this measurement of life that is visible and memorable and worthy of celebration.

But here’s the point I want to make: Because current five-year survival statistics are based on patients who were treated at least five years ago, they may not reflect the most recent advances in treatment. And as a result, things just may be better than they appear.

And that is certainly a cause for celebration.

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