Is there a magic five-year cancer cure?

Continuing with the theme of yesterday’s survivorship post, I want to look at the question today of cancer’s often-talked-of five-year survival rate.

When you first come out of treatment, you may count down the years until you reach this day. It takes on an almost mythical status –  if you get to five years you are “cured”.  I remember when I reached my own five-year milestone mentioning it to my oncologist at my check up and he swiftly replied there is no such thing as a magic “five-year cure”. 

So where did the idea of five-year survival come from? It goes back to the 1930s when very few people survived cancer. The five-year survival rates were introduced because cancer specialists back then considered five-year survival a nearly unattainable goal. Thankfully we have moved on since then as survival rates have steadily increased.

The term “five-year survival” is one used in medicine for estimating the prognosis of a particular disease, most commonly cancer. Cancer survival rates are based on research that comes from information gathered on large numbers of people with cancer.  Within this there are relative and absolute rates. While relative refers to patients who died of non-cancer causes (so have been removed from the survival rate for that treatment); absolute, describes the percentage of patients that are alive five years after their disease is diagnosed. Disease-free survival rate is the number of people with cancer who achieve a full remission; meaning means they no longer have signs of cancer in their bodies. Progression-free survival rate is the number of people who still have cancer, but their disease isn’t progressing.

While cancer survival rates are useful in giving you a general idea of your prognosis they can’t tell you about your situation specifically.  Numbers are tools, not rules. While some people choose to know everything about their type of cancer, including statistical survival rates, others will find that the statistics are just numbers and some may even feel bewildered and frightened by them.  You might wish to commemorate milestones and that is good, just don’t get hung up on the numbers.