What If I Get Cancer?
Cancer scares everyone, but getting it doesn’t necessarily mean you're not going to be okay—survival rates in many cases are higher than ever.
What If I Get Cancer?
We’ve all had the thought “What if I get cancer?” And though no one talks about it, many of us have even played the scenario in our mind: “If I had to get cancer, which one is the best of the lot?” “Which cancer could I survive?” To answer your questions about cancer, we did some research and found out a lot of interesting facts.
Survival Rates Are on the Rise
First, the good news: More people than ever before are surviving cancer. Death rates from cancer have been declining steadily since the early 1990s. Between 2000 and 2009, annual death rates went down 1.8 percent for men, 1.4 percent for women. Why? Less smoking and more early detection and treatment, according to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
However, pancreatic and liver cancer death rates are still going up for both genders. For men, there’s also more melanoma; for women, more uterine cancer. Why? Research points to ultraviolet exposure for melanoma. Obesity contributes to liver, pancreatic, and uterine cancers.
Overall, about 65 percent of people who are diagnosed with cancer are alive five years later.
Early Detection Saves Lives
“Cancers that can be detected early, for which we have a screening test, have the highest survival rates,” says Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., MPH, a professor of behavioral science at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. “Any cancer that can be caught early is easier to treat.” That's why it's so important to go for an annual mammogram, a colonoscopy and other tests. It’s not just what cancer you have, but when it’s found that matters. “I’d rather have an early stage colon cancer than a late stage breast cancer,” says Dr. Basen-Engquist.
Click here to find out which essential health screenings you should have. And read on to learn the statistics for specific kinds of cancers.
1. Cervical cancer
If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, as about 12,000 women are annually, the five-year survival rate is 69 percent—91 percent if it’s found early when it’s localized (meaning it hasn't spread). And thankfully, it's often a classic case of the dog that didn’t bark: Because of Pap smears, many cases are prevented entirely. “Physicians can identify pre-invasive lesions, and treat them, preventing cervical cancer,” says Dr. Basen-Engquist. Since the Pap smear was made available in the 1950s, death from cervical cancer has fallen by more than 60 percent, according to the National Institutes of Health. The HPV vaccine, introduced in 2006 for preteen girls, protects against the human papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer, so, according to doctors, rates should continue to plummet.
2. Cancer of the Blood and Internal Organs
The toughest cancers are often ones that start in internal organs or blood system, for which there are no good screenings at the moment, and which don’t show symptoms until they are more advanced.
“Ovarian cancers are often at stage three or four when they are diagnosed, and they frequently come back,” says Dr. Basen-Engquist. The five-year survival rate is 44 percent; if found early when it’s localized to the ovaries, it’s 92 percent.
The five-year survival rate for Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells: 71 percent. Leukemia, a blood cancer: 58 percent.
Pancreatic cancer may have the worst stats: Most patients die within a year of diagnosis, and only 6 percent are alive five years later.
3. Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is tough. An estimated 228,000 new cases of lung cancer are diagnosed annually, and only 17 percent of those people will be alive five years later. If the tumor is localized, five-year survival is 52 percent. Regional: 25 percent. Spread distantly in the body? Only 4 percent. “It’s an internal organ, and symptoms might be masked by other problems in smokers, such as chronic bronchitis,” says Dr. Basen-Engquist.
Because the medical community knows that early detection is crucial, a federal panel recently recommended a screening test—a low-dose CT scan—for smokers aged 55 to 79 who’ve smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for 30 years or more, even if they’ve quit in the last 15 years. If this might describe you, talk to your doctor.
4. Skin Cancer
Most skin cancers are curable, which is great news. The most common kinds of skin cancer are “basal cell” and “squamous cell” carcinomas. Millions get them every year. They’re worrisome, require regular treatments at your dermatologist, but you will not die from them. “Most cases of these forms of skin cancer are highly curable,” according to the American Cancer Society.
Even melanoma is eminently treatable. If localized, 98 percent of people diagnosed are alive five years later. If it has spread to the surrounding region when it’s caught, survival rate is 62 percent. Spread distantly in the body? Survival rate over five years drops to 15 percent.
5. Endometrial cancer
The five-year survival rate for cancer of the lining of the uterus—endometrial cancer—is 87 percent; localized, 95 percent. While there’s no good screening test, “endometrial cancer has a high survival rate because it often has symptoms,” says Dr. Basen-Engquist. “In post-menopausal women, vaginal bleeding may be an early sign and should be investigated.” With treatment—often hysterectomy, or hysterectomy plus radiation—“survival is very high.”
6. Breast cancer
An estimated 232,000 American women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. If the diagnosis is “ductal carcinoma in situ” — abnormal cells in the milk ducts —the five-year survival rate is 100 percent. Some prominent cancer experts don’t think it should be called cancer at all. The problem is, in some cases, this leads to invasive cancer, and doctors can’t know in advance for whom this will happen.
For invasive breast cancer, the five-year survival rate is 87 percent. “Whether breast cancer is estrogen- or progesterone-positive affects whether hormonal treatments are effective,” says Dr. Basen-Engquist. Another marker, “her2neu”, signals an aggressive form, which can be treated with the drug Herceptin. Breast cancers that are not positive for estrogen, progesterone, or her2neu are called “triple negative,” explains Basen-Engquist. “They are the hardest to treat.”
7. Prostate cancer
An estimated 239,000 cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed each year. Five years later, 100 percent of them will be alive—amazing! A different analysis was only slightly less optimistic: 97.6%. As with all cancers, whether it’s spread makes a big difference. If it’s local, or regional, five-year survival is 100 percent. But for those that have spread to distant sites in the body, the five-year survival rate is only 28 percent.
8. Colon cancer
Getting a colonoscopy makes a big difference. An estimated 102,000 new cases of colon or rectum cancer are diagnosed annually. Five-year survival is about 70 percent. If localized, it’s 90 percent. Regionalized: 70 percent. Distant: 12 percent. As with cervical cancer in women, however, many cases are now prevented. With colonoscopy, surgeons can remove pre-cancerous polyps before they ever become colon cancer. When doctors find and remove a pre-cancerous polyp, the risk of dying from colon cancer goes down by more than 50 percent.
Steps You Can Take
The best way to help prevent cancer? “Exercise, maintain a healthy weight throughout your life, and eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while limiting your intake of processed meats,” says Dr. Basen-Engquist. Obesity is linked with an increased risk of breast cancer after menopause, endometrial cancer, and cancers of the colon, pancreas, and liver. “Exercise decreases the risk of colon cancer, breast cancer, endometrial cancer, and perhaps others,” she adds. “And, of course, don’t smoke.”
Overall health matters, too—even if you do get cancer. “If someone is in good health and gets cancer, he or she may be better able to tolerate treatment and manage the experience."