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Can I Survive Breast Cancer? What Is My Prognosis?

It may sound harsh to ask the question "Can I survive this?" But it's a question on most people's mind when they are facing a diagnosis of breast cancer. And the answer can be just as hard as asking the question.

Your chance of recovery depends on a number of things:

  • Type and location of the cancer

  • The stage of the cancer (how much cancer is present) 

  • How quickly the cancer is likely to grow and spread

  • Your age and general health

  • How you respond to treatment

Before discussing your prognosis with you, your doctor carefully considers all the things that could affect your disease and treatment. Your doctor will then try to predict what seems likely to happen. To do that, he or she will look at what researchers have found out over many years about thousands of people with breast cancer. When possible, the doctor uses statistics based on groups of people whose situations are most like yours to make a prediction.

If your cancer is likely to respond well to treatment, your doctor will say that you have a favorable prognosis. If the cancer is likely to be hard to control, your prognosis may be unfavorable. It is important to keep in mind, though, that a prognosis states what is probable. It is not a prediction of what will happen. No doctor can be absolutely certain about the outcome.

Some people find it easier to cope when they know their prognosis and the statistics for how well a treatment might work. Other people find statistical information confusing and frightening. Or they think it is too general to be useful. The doctor who is most familiar with your situation is in the best position to discuss your prognosis and to explain what the statistics may mean for you. At the same time, you should keep in mind that a person's prognosis may change. A favorable prognosis can change if the cancer progresses. An unfavorable one can change if treatment is successful. The decision to ask about your prognosis is a personal one. It is up to you to decide how much you want to know.

Can I be cured of breast cancer?

It's normal to worry about what breast cancer will mean for you and your family. You may have questions such as "What are my chances of being cured?" or "How long will I live?" Your doctor considers how likely these outcomes are for you when making your prognosis:

  • Your chance of being cured of cancer called recovery

  • Your chance of having the cancer come back called recurrence

  • Your chance of dying of the cancer

To make your prognosis, your doctor will use these facts:

  • The typical outcome for people with breast cancer similar to yours. (The average of all these experiences makes up breast cancer statistics.)

  • Your doctor's experiences with other patients who have breast cancer.

  • Your own case. Your doctor will look specifically at the type, stage, and traits of your cancer. Your general health is also considered, including whether you've had cancer before. Your age and whether you've reached menopause can also affect your prognosis.

Ask your doctor to help you understand what the statistics may mean for you. But keep in mind that even your doctor cannot tell you exactly what will happen to you.

It makes some sense to plan for every eventuality when you're facing a potentially deadly disease. Still, you should not allow statistics or a bleak prediction by your doctor dictate your future. There are people who have survived every stage of breast cancer. There are also people who have outlived their doctor's predictions. Your prognosis gives a perspective, but it is not etched in stone. Try to focus your thoughts on the tens of thousands of people who have survived breast cancer. 

What does the five-year survival rate mean?

Survival rates show the percentage of people with a certain type and stage of cancer who survive the disease for a certain period of time after they are diagnosed. A five-year survival rate is the percentage of people who are alive five years after they are diagnosed. These are the people it includes:

  • Those who are free of disease

  • Those who have few or no signs or symptoms of cancer

  • Those who continue to get treatment for cancer

Many people included in the five-year rate live much longer than five years after diagnosis. Also, because the statistic is based on people diagnosed and initially treated more than five years ago, it's possible the outlook could be better today. People who are more recently diagnosed often have a more favorable outlook. That's because of changes in the way cancer is treated.

Survival rates are based on large groups of people. They cannot be used to predict what will happen to a particular person. No two patients are exactly the same. Treatment and responses to treatment vary greatly.

What are the treatment statistics for people with breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a very treatable disease if you're diagnosed early. How long you live depends on the stage at which it's found. These are some of the statistics about the five-year survival rate for breast cancer:

  • The five-year survival rate for stage I breast cancer, meaning the tumor is small and contained within the breast or there are only tiny amounts in the lymph nodes in the arm pit, is 88 percent.

  • The five-year survival rate for stage IIA breast cancer, meaning the tumor is small, but affects the lymph nodes or is a little larger with no lymph nodes involved, is 81 percent.

  • The five-year survival rate for stage IIIA breast cancer, meaning the tumor has spread to lymph nodes, but not to distant sites, is 67 percent.

  • The five-year survival rate for stage IV breast cancer, meaning the cancer has spread to other organs, is 15 percent.

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