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Breast Cancer: Your Chances for Recovery (Prognosis)

What is a prognosis?

Prognosis is the word your healthcare team may use to describe your chances of recovering from cancer. Or it may mean your likely outcome from cancer and cancer treatment. A prognosis is a calculated guess. It’s a question many people have when they learn they have cancer.

Making a choice

The decision to ask about your prognosis is a personal one. It’s up to you to decide how much you want to know. Some people find it easier to cope and plan ahead when they know their prognosis and the statistics for how well a treatment might work. Other people find statistics confusing and frightening. Or they might think statistics are too general to be useful.

A doctor who is most familiar with your health is in the best position to discuss your prognosis with you and explain what the statistics may mean in your case. At the same time, you should keep in mind that your prognosis can change. Cancer and cancer treatment outcomes are hard to predict. For instance, a favorable prognosis (which means you’re likely going to do well) can change if the cancer spreads to key organs or doesn’t respond to treatment. An unfavorable prognosis can change, too. This can happen if treatment shrinks and controls the cancer so it doesn’t grow or spread.

What goes into a prognosis

When figuring out your prognosis, your doctor will consider all the things that could affect the cancer and its treatment. Your doctor will look at risk estimates about the exact type and stage of the cancer you have. These estimates are based on what results researchers have seen over many years in thousands of people with the same type and stage of cancer.

If your cancer is likely to respond well to treatment, your doctor will say you have a favorable prognosis. This means you’re expected to live many years and may even be cured. If your cancer is likely to be hard to control, your prognosis may be less favorable. The cancer may shorten your life. It’s important to keep in mind that a prognosis states what’s likely or probable. It is not a prediction of what will definitely happen. No doctor can be fully certain about an outcome.

Your prognosis depends on a number of factors:

  • Type and location of the cancer

  • If and how far the cancer has spread (stage) 

  • Your age and overall health

  • How well your cancer responds to treatment

Understanding survival rates

Survival rates show how many people live for a certain length of time after being told they have cancer. The rates are grouped for people with certain types and stages of cancer. Many times, the numbers used refer to the 5-year or the 10-year survival rate. That’s how many people are living 5 years or 10 years after diagnosis. The survival rate includes people at these different stages:

  • People who are cancer-free or cured

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

  • People who are getting cancer treatment

What are the survival rates for breast cancer?

The relative survival rate (like the numbers used here) compares the percentage of people who live at least 5 years after being diagnosed (called observed survival) with what's expected for people who don't have cancer. This helps to correct for the deaths caused by other things besides cancer, and is a more accurate way to describe survival.

The 5-year relative survival rates are:

  • 100% for stage I breast cancer. Stage I breast cancer means the tumor is small and only in your breast. Or there are only a very small amount of cancer cells in your arm pit lymph nodes.

  • 93% for stage II breast cancer. Stage II means the tumor is small, but cells have spread to your lymph nodes. Or the tumor is a little larger but there are no cells in the lymph nodes.

  • 72% for stage III breast cancer. Stage III means the tumor is any size and has spread to lymph nodes, the chest wall, and/or to the skin over the breast, but not to distant areas in the body.

  • 22% for stage IV breast cancer. Stage IV means the cancer has spread to other organs.                                                                   

Talking with your healthcare provider

You can ask your healthcare provider about survival rates and what you might expect. But remember that statistics are based on large groups of people. They cannot be used to say what will happen to you. No two people are exactly alike. Treatment and how well people respond to treatment vary.