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Does 5 Year Survival Rate Mean You Have 5 Years to Live?

Five-year survival rates

The 5-year survival rate is a percentage indicating the proportion of people with a particular disease that will be alive after five years. No, it doesn't mean you have five years to live.
The 5-year survival rate is a percentage indicating the proportion of people with a particular disease that will be alive after five years. No, it doesn't mean you have five years to live.

A diagnosis of cancer is frightening. After the initial shock has passed, you want to know about your future, the treatment available, and the chances of survival. If you look for information, you will inevitably find mentions of 5-year survival rates. These rates are used to judge the danger of a cancer and assess advances in surgical techniques and chemotherapy. When asked what the 5-year survival rate is for lung cancer, it is hard to answer because the rate is constantly changing with advances in medical science. Such survival rates are used by researchers and your doctor, but are they useful to you?

No, it doesn't mean you have five years to live. The 5-year survival rate is a percentage indicating the proportion of people with a particular disease that will be alive after five years. With any cancer, there will be several five-year survival rates. There will be different numbers for survival without treatment and with treatment. There may be subsets for 5-year survival with surgery and no chemotherapy, 5-year survival with only chemotherapy, and survival rates based on cancer stages.

The 5-year survival rates are invaluable when comparing treatment. Any new chemotherapy medicine, or combination of medicines, is tested against existing cancer treatment by comparing survival rates. Unless the survival rates are better, the newer therapy does not become the standard of treatment. 

Survival rates are not the only criteria for judging a new therapy. People value quality of life and convenience as well. A slightly less effective treatment plan with pills to be taken at home may be more acceptable than one that requires hospitalization every week.

Survival rates are based on large numbers of people and are a statistic. They don't tell you about your own future, the success of treatment, or the likelihood of death. Your doctor, who is assessing you regularly, can tell you more about your particular situation.

A 5-year survival of 60% doesn't mean that the other 40% died after living for exactly 5 years. A few would have lived less than a year, and some for 2, 3, or 4 years. The surviving 60% are not all alike, either.

  • Some may have been cured. They're free of cancer and will live for their normal lifespan.
  • Some may still be taking treatment for cancer.
  • Some may have been cured but had a relapse and are under further treatment.

In other words, the 5-year survival rate doesn't tell a person with cancer much about their future.

What are 5-year survival rates for lung cancer?

Lung cancer is the most common cause of death by cancer among adults. The two common types of cancer are small cell cancer and non-small cell cancer (which has better survival rates). The survival rates depend also on the stage of cancer. Localized cancer (only in the lung) has the highest survival rates. Cancers that have spread regionally (to nearby parts and lymph nodes) have lesser survival rates. Lung cancer that has spread to distant sites, like the brain, bones, liver, or the other lung, have the lowest survival rates.

The 5-year survival rates for lung cancer depend on the type of cancer and the stage at which it was detected. Localized non-small cell cancer has the best prognosis. 64% of these people will live for 5 years. Localized small cell cancers are not as favorable. Only 29% of people live for 5 years. Small cell cancers which have spread to distant sites have the worst outlook. Only 3% of people survive for 5 years.

Cancer treatment prognosis

When you are first diagnosed with cancer, your doctor will talk about prognosis. A prognosis is a forecast based on the experience with similar conditions. While your doctor can't give guarantees or accurate predictions, a prognosis is a rough guide to what you can expect. 

Five-year survival rates are important for prognosis. Your doctor uses the published data on similar cancers worldwide to estimate your progress as you begin treatment. Other things helping them make this forecast are the type of cancer, its stage and spread, your age and other health conditions, and your ability to tolerate the treatment.

Should you track 5-year survival rates?

These numbers can be chilling. When you see a survival rate of 60%, you know that 40% didn't live for five years. Some may have died within months of diagnosis.

Better survival rates may not always mean better treatment. They may also result from better diagnostic methods and more awareness among people. Cancers detected in the early stages have better cure rates. On the other hand, even a high 5-year survival rate tells you nothing about your individual prognosis.

The 5-year survival rates are a valuable tool for your doctor and for cancer researchers. Your doctor uses such information to plan the best possible treatment for you. Cancer researchers use these survival rates to improve the treatment options available for people with cancer.

If you have cancer, you may prefer not to look at these statistics but concentrate on getting healthy and living your best life. Discuss your treatment with your doctor, take the best available tfocus on improving your health, and the quality of your life, in multiple ways. 

Cancer survival

Cancer survival is constantly improving. The 5-year survival rate for your type and stage of cancer helps you understand your situation's seriousness. But it can't tell you what will happen in your particular case. 

Cancer survival rates are very encouraging now. The 5-year survival for all cancers combined is about 69%. Survival rates are somewhat better for women (71%) than for men (67%).{National Institutes of Health.National Cancer Institute: "Survival." https://progressreport.cancer.gov/after/survival}.

The 5-year survival rates available now are based on treatment plans and medicines available at least five years ago. Science may have progressed in that time, and the treatment available today may be better. 


Cancer survival rates sound brutal and heartless. If they disturb you, consider ignoring them. They guide your doctor in planning the best possible treatment for you, considering your general health, the type and stage of your cancer, and the established and novel medicines and methods available. These survival rates are also a tool for researchers to improve the treatment of cancer. 

Talk to your doctor, who will be able to guide you about your particular situation and future. Focus on taking their advised treatment and doing all you can to have a serene and happy life. 


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