Cancer by The Numbers: Should I Read Statistics?
Many newly diagnosed cancer patients immediately want to know the statistics of their diagnosis. This is an understandable desire, but looking at cancer statics as a newly diagnosed patient can be misleading and cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. Even though being informed about your diagnosis and learning as much as you can from reliable sources is a good thing, it may be best to avoid looking at survival statistics all together. Statistics do not reflect or reveal your personal prognosis. Your oncologist, who knows your diagnosis and medical history, can talk to you about your prognosis in more realistic terms.
If you must look at statistics, keep a few things in mind. Every cancer diagnosis is unique, and most general statistics do not take into account the following:
- age of the individual
- overall health and/or comorbidities
- stage of disease at diagnosis
- genetic factors of a specific tumor
All of the factors listed above affect your prognosis. This is part of the reason why applying a general statistic to a specific patient can be misleading. An early-stage breast cancer patient in otherwise good health will have a much better prognosis than a metastatic breast cancer patient with a comorbidity of heart disease, for example.
When looking for cancer information on the internet, make sure you only consult reliable sources. If you wish to know the statistics of your specific cancer type, the National Cancer Institute’s SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) Program provides up-to-date statistics for many cancer types. However, the SEER Stat Fact Sheets are extremely detailed which can be overwhelming.
The most common statistic used for cancer is the five-year survival rate. This is the percentage of people diagnosed with a disease who are alive five years after diagnosis. It does not mean that the person has been cancer-free for five years. For example, according to SEER, the five-year survival rate for thyroid cancer is 98.1%. This means that roughly 98 people out of 100 are still alive five years after their date of diagnosis. The five-year survival rate is listed at the top right of all SEER Stat Fact Sheets in green.
Other reliable sources for cancer information include:
- government organizations such as the National Cancer Institute or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- accredited cancer treatment centers such as MD Anderson or Memorial Sloan Kettering
- organizations for medical professionals such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology
- trusted nonprofits such as the American Cancer Society, National Breast Cancer Foundation, or Leukemia Lymphoma Society
If you are not sure if a resource is reliable or not, check to see if the website provides the sources for the information or if the content is reviewed by a medical or scientific advisory committee.
As already stated, the best source of information on your prognosis is your oncologist. Reach out to your healthcare team with any and all questions. Before your next appointment, write down all your questions and take them with you so you don’t forget. For more tips on talking with your healthcare team, visit My PearlPoint.