How To Think About Cancer Survival Rates

They’re Not (Quite) What You Think

What’s your friend or loved one’s cancer survival rate?

You’re worried and you want to know what’s going to happen. Will she be OK? Is he at risk of dying? If so, when? Is this type of cancer easy to cure—or isn’t it?

So many questions. You want to know more about her diagnosis, but you may be afraid to ask.

We’re here to help.

First, the facts. The following chart shows how many people are diagnosed with the type of cancer your loved one has, with the percentage of people who are alive five years after the diagnosis. After you find your friend’s cancer survival rate, there’s more you’ll want to know about what it means—and what it doesn’t.

What’s my loved one’s cancer survival rate?

This table from the National Cancer Institute shows the most current cancer statistics available, based on group data from 2008-2014. (Yes, this is the most recent data.)

We’ve included 20 common types of cancer here. If you don’t see the type you’re looking for, or if you want to know more about the National Cancer Institute’s statistics, click here.

Cancer SiteIncidence Rate

(per 100,000 people)


Survival Rate



Breast (in situ)16.4100
Corpus uteri13.382.5
Kidney and Renal Pelvis15.974.5
Leukemia: Lymphocytic6.879.7
Liver & Intrahepatic Bile Duct8.817.7
Lung and Bronchus54.618.6
Myeloid & Monocytic Lymphoma6.440.4
Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma19.471.4
Urinary Bladder19.576.8

We know these numbers may be terrifying. But take a minute to pause because these numbers can be deceiving.

A cancer survival rate is based on hundreds or thousands of people. “These are population statistics. They don’t apply to individuals,” explains Karen R. Brown, LMHC, a psychotherapist specializing in traumatic life experience. “A doctor cannot accurately determine how long people are going to live based on these numbers.”

How cancer survival rates are calculated—and what you may not realize

Researchers gather data about people with a specific type of cancer. They see how many people are diagnosed with it and how many are alive five years after diagnosis. For example, out of every 100 people diagnosed with myeloma, 51 are alive five years after being diagnosed.

Each group represents a wide variety of people with many differences. It includes people of all ages, in all types of health.

For example:

  • Some were diagnosed in advanced stages of cancer, while others were not.
  • Some were in early stages of treatment, while others completed treatment.
  • Some had treatments that were five years old (or more) and not as effective as today’s treatments.
  • Some chose treatment based on cost, side effects or schedule—not necessarily the most effective treatment available.
  • Some were in poor health aside from cancer, while others were healthier.

You can see that there are many variations—many!

Your loved one’s cancer survival rate can’t tell you what will happen to her. His future depends on his personal situation, like how advanced the cancer is, the effectiveness of his treatment, his overall health and so much more.

Thomas Sult, MD, a medical educator and author of Just Be Well, boils it down:

“As Mark Twain said, ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’. Statistics are about groups of people, not individuals. If I were to tell you that you had an 80 percent chance of a five-year survival, what does that even mean? It certainly does not mean you’ll be 80 percent alive in five years. It’s a meaningless number.”

Now what?

  1. Pause. Then take time to face your feelings.
    “Take a minute to process this info,” says Brown. It’s normal for our emotions to escalate when we first see these numbers. But you need time to digest what you just learned. The next step is to face it—head on. “Pretending not to be frightened, angry, lost or confused will not help,” says Brown. But don’t sit with your emotions all by yourself and let them fester. Find an outlet.
  2. Avoid rumination.
    Working through your feelings is important. But ruminating—thinking the same thing over and over again—isn’t. “Ruminating is our worst enemy,” says Brown. It distracts us from facing our feelings and doesn’t help us heal. You can tell you’re ruminating if your thoughts are circular, obsessive and negative.
  3. Change your self-talk.
    We can’t change cancer survival rate stats. But we can reframe how we look at them.
    For example, instead of imagining losing your loved one, bring it back to the here and now. Notice that she went to the gym today and mentioned how great her workout was. Look at the help she’s getting. Look at her resilience.
  4. Don’t add logs to the fire.
    “Don’t expose yourself to very distressing material. It’s not going to help you or your loved one,” says Brown. Step away from your device. “You go onto Google and what pops up is the worst possible most hideous thing,” she says. Instead, expose yourself to hopeful content. Think about what you can do to help your loved one feel good and be well.

Should I talk to my friend about his cancer survival rate?

Don’t assume your friend or loved one wants to talk about his cancer survival rate. Many people choose to ignore it. Your friend may prefer not to know. Or maybe he’d rather focus on the big picture.

It’s also hard to predict how he’ll feel about the number. “For some people, a 30 percent chance of dying is great news, but for others it’s not,” says Brown. Some of us feel better and more in control knowing these numbers. If that’s you, it’s OK. Just don’t foist it on your loved one. “Don’t talk about it unless he brings it up,” Brown suggests.

“My suggestion is to lay off the topic completely—even side questions,” says Lisa Lefebvre, a survivor and the founder of Mend After Cancer. “I once had a relative ask me, ‘What’s your prognosis?’ To me, that was the equivalent of asking point-blank: ‘When are you going to die?’ I knew this was an innocent question from a kind person, but it still made me sick to my stomach to have this topic be addressed in such a cavalier way—In a group setting.”

Brown says many cancer patients she works with feel even more burdened by our concerns than their own. If you’re freaking out, it freaks them out,” she says. Your loved one is already dealing with heavy emotional and physical burdens. Your concerns may drag him down more.

On the flip side, resist using a cancer survival rate to give false assurance. “There’s nothing worse than false assurance,” says Brown. “Instead, simply listen and affirm.” If he wants to know more, it’s OK to share what you’ve learned. But don’t do it in a heavy-handed way. Share everything you just learned from us—like what these stats mean and what they don’t. It may be enlightening.

What we can do

Sometimes we want to do something instead of feeling afraid and powerless. You can help your friend live the healthiest life she can. Here’s how.

First, flip through Life Over Cancer by Keith Block, MD. It’s loaded with tips for body and mind to fight disease and optimize health.

Next, try these tips from Thomas Sult, MD, to help her boost her immune system.

  1. Help her rest and digest. Stress triggers a “fight or flight” response, which makes it harder to digest and absorb food and compromises immune system function, says Sult.

Help balance your friend’s autonomic nervous system by trying these things together:

  • Take a walk every day
  • Do yoga or try tai chi together
  • Learn mindfulness and meditate
  1. Help her find purpose, passion and joy. “Finding purpose, no matter what you’re doing, cultivating passion for it, and deriving joy from it improves the immune system,” says Sult. “This will help balance the autonomic nervous system.”
    Encourage your friend to indulge in her passion and joy. Help make it a reality. Take her to favorite activities. Make plans together. When you see her inner flame ignite, encourage her to do more of what she loves.
  2. Foster community. Research suggests people in tight-knit communities who live with multiple generations and have a sense of purpose are healthier, with lower rates of disease. The reason is simple, says Sult: “Humans are troop animals.”
    Help your friend find his or her troop. It may be a support group, a common interest club, a volunteer organization—or quite simply, family. This may be the most powerful thing you can do to improve your friend’s immune system, says Sult.
  3. Suggest your friend read this article. If (and only if) your friend has brought up his or her survival rate and sounds distressed, direct your friend to our Now what? section. 

“At one point in my cancer journey I had existing tumors that carried risk of metastasizing—and I was facing high risk of numerous new cancers because of a genetic mutation,” Lefebvre remembers. “I worked until 4 AM many nights, trying to build a statistical model that would help predict when I would die. Because I was ruminating, it was exhausting, and caused extra stress. And of course, there was no answer.”

Remember: Your friend’s future isn’t tied to his cancer survival rate. No one can say for sure what will happen. But you can play an active role in helping your friend or loved one by creating a sense of meaning and connection—right now. For tips on what to say (and not say) to a cancer patient, click here.


Kara Mayer Robinson is a freelance journalist published in a variety of publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and WebMD Magazine.

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