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Understanding your cancer prognosis

Outcomes - cancer; Remission - cancer; Survival - cancer; Survival curve

Your prognosis is an estimate of how your cancer will progress and your chance of recovery. Your health care provider bases your prognosis on the type and stage of cancer you have, your treatment, and what has happened to people with cancer similar to yours. Many factors affect your prognosis.

For many types of cancer, the chance of recovery increases the more time passes after a successful treatment. Knowing what to expect can be helpful for you and your family. Of course, how much information you want from your provider is up to you.

How Prognosis is Determined

When deciding your prognosis, your provider will look at:

  • Type and location of cancer
  • Stage and grade of cancer -- this is how abnormal the tumor cells are and how the tumor tissue looks under a microscope.
  • Your age and general health
  • Available treatments
  • How treatment is working
  • Outcomes (survival rates) of other people with your type of cancer

Cancer outcomes are often described in terms of how many people survived 5 years after diagnosis and treatment. These rates are based on a specific type and stage of cancer. For example, a 93% 5-year survival rate for stage II breast cancer means that 93% of people diagnosed over a certain time lived for 5 years or more. Of course, many people live much longer than 5 years, and most who had made it past 5 years are cured.

There are different types of statistics that doctors use to estimate survival rates. The statistics are based on data collected for many years about people who have the same type of cancer.

Because this information is based on a large group of people who were treated a number of years ago, it cannot always predict how things will go for you. Not everyone responds to treatment the same way. Also, there are newer treatments available today than when the data was collected.

The statistics can help predict how cancer responds to certain treatments. It can also pinpoint cancers that are harder to control.

So remember that when you receive a prognosis, it is not set in stone. It is your provider's best guess about how your treatment will go.

Why it May Help to Know Your Prognosis

Knowing your prognosis can help you and your family make decisions about:

  • Treatment
  • Palliative care
  • Personal matters such as finances

Knowing what to expect may make it easier to cope and to plan ahead. It also may help give you more of a sense of control over your life.

Of course, some people prefer not to get a lot of detail about survival rates and so on. They may find it confusing or scary. That's fine too. You can choose how much you want to know.

Factors That Affect Prognosis

Survival rates are based on information from thousands of people. You may have a similar or different outcome. Your body is unique, and no two people are exactly alike.

Your recovery depends on how you respond to treatment and how easy or hard the cancer cells are to control. Other factors may also affect recovery, such as:

  • Your physical and emotional health
  • Diet and exercise habits
  • Lifestyle factors, such as whether you continue to smoke

Remember that new treatments are being developed all the time. This increases the chance for a good outcome.

Remission vs Cure

Being in complete remission after being treated for cancer means:

  • There are no traces of cancer found when your doctor examines you.
  • Blood and imaging tests find no trace of cancer.
  • Signs and symptoms of cancer are gone.

In partial remission, signs and symptoms are reduced but not totally gone. Some cancers can be controlled for months and even years.

A cure means that the cancer has been destroyed, and it will not come back. Most of the time, you need to wait a period of time to see if the cancer returns before considering yourself cured.

Most cancers that come back do so within 5 years after treatment has ended. If you have been in remission for 5 years or more, it is less likely that cancer may come back. Still, there can be cells that remain in your body and cause cancer to come back years later. You could also get another type of cancer. So your provider will continue to monitor you for many years.

No matter what, it is a good idea to practice cancer prevention and see your provider regularly for check-ups and screenings. Following your provider's recommendation for screening can help you have peace of mind.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your provider if you have questions or concerns about your prognosis.


ASCO website. Understanding statistics used to guide prognosis and evaluate treatment. Updated August 2018. Accessed March 30, 2020.

National Cancer Institute website. Understanding cancer prognosis. Updated June 17, 2019. Accessed March 30, 2020.


        Review Date: 2/11/2020

        Reviewed By: Mark Levin, MD, Hematologist and Oncologist, Farmington, CT. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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