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Can I Survive Oral Cancer? What Is My Prognosis?

A prognosis is a statement about the prospect of surviving and recovering from a disease. It may sound hard to ask, "Can I survive this? But it's a question most people have when they learn they have oral cancer. Unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer.

Your chance of recovery depends on these things:

  • The type and location of the cancer

  • The stage of the disease

  • How quickly the cancer is likely to grow and spread

  • Your age

  • Your general health

  • How your cancer responds to treatment

Before discussing your prognosis with you, your doctor will consider all the things that could affect your disease and treatment. Your doctor will then predict what seems likely to happen. To do that, the doctor will look at what researchers have found out over many years about thousands of people with cancer. When possible, the doctor will use statistics for 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 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 might 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 with you and 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.

What does the five-year survival rate mean?

Survival rates show the percentage of people who live for a specific length of time after learning they have cancer. The rates are specific to people with a certain type and stage of cancer. Often, statistics refer to the five-year survival rate. That's the percentage of people who are living five years after diagnosis. The five-year rate includes people at different stages:

  • People who are free of disease

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

  • People who are receiving treatment for cancer

Most people with oral cancer live much longer than five years after diagnosis. Because the statistics we have for five-year rates are based on people diagnosed and initially treated more than five years ago, it's possible that the outlook could be better today. Recently diagnosed people often have a better outlook because of improvements in treatment.

Survival rates are based on large groups of people. They cannot be used to predict what will happen to a particular person. No two people are exactly alike, and treatment and responses to treatment vary greatly. If the five-year survival rate for a particular cancer stage is 80 percent, it is most likely that given 100 people with that particular cancer stage, 80 will be alive at five years. Based on this information alone, you can't predict anything about your particular course. 

Survival rates for oral cancer 

These are the five-year relative survival rates for cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx (throat), according to the National Cancer Institute. They are based on how far the cancer has spread when it is first found:

  • The five-year survival rate for cancers that are still in the area where they started is about 82 percent.

  • The five-year survival rate for cancers that have spread to nearby lymph nodes is about 56 percent.

  • The five-year survival rate for cancers that have spread to distant parts of the body is about 33 percent.

These survival rates are adjusted to account for the fact that some people may die of causes other than their cancer. 



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