Cancer survival – the good, the bad and the reality

The Good

New research published today by Macmillan Cancer Support has shown that in most cases the length of time people survive after a cancer diagnosis has improved dramatically over the past 40 years. Back in the early 70s if you were diagnosed with cancer, the median survival rate (worked out as the time it takes until 50% of people diagnosed die) was just one year; by 2007 this had increased to almost six years (5.8years).

The graph that follows, taken from Macmillan’s report Living after diagnosis: median cancer survival times, shows the change in median survival over the past forty years:

The other thing to consider is that these are median rates, so the time taken until half of all people diagnosed die, therefore many people (the remaining 50%) will live longer than these averages. The good news doesn’t just stop there, some types of cancer have shown massive improvements in survival rates, for example Colon cancer (17-fold increase), Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (10-fold increase) and Rectum (7-fold increase).

As you can see from the graph above, Breast cancer survival rates doubled in the 70s and in the early 90s it joined six other cancers with median survival rates of more than ten years (since the early 70s) – Testis, Uterus, Larynx, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Melanoma and Cervix.

The Bad

It’s not all good news though.

Nine of the cancers looked at had median survival rates of three years or less. Some cancers showed very little or no improvement, with Stomach, Oesophagus, Pancreatic, Brain and Lung Cancer all having a median survival rate of less than a year. Macmillan also point out the limitations of focusing on survival rate as a standalone measure, we obviously also need to be mindful of quality of life.

The Reality

My Dad was diagnosed with Cholangiocarcinoma, Cancer of the Bile Duct, over four years ago (when we were told he was likely to live for three months depending on the success of treatment). Dad was told he was terminally ill last autumn. You’ve probably never heard of Bile Duct Cancer – there are only about 1000 cases diagnosed in the UK each year. Given how rare the cancer is, and how hard these things are to judge, his consultants have always been vague about Dad’s chances of survival, tending to work with estimates and talk has nearly always been about his chances of meeting milestones, e.g.whether he’d reach one or five years.

Dad’s odds of survival have varied throughout the past four years but one thing we’ve always known is that we couldn’t take anything for granted. His determination and fight has been crucial to him living as long as he has – that and the skills and care of the professionals who have supported him. Dad is away on a mini road trip this week, and tonight I popped round for dinner with my Mum and my brother and his girlfriend, in a strange way it was a little like a window into the future. The last time the four of us sat down to eat together without Dad was when he was hospitalised four years ago; as I drove to Mum’s I remembered how horrendous the first year after Dad’s diagnosis was. It’s almost easy to forget how difficult it is now we’re so familiar with cancer, the language, the reactions it gets from people, the options, the frustrations and the opportunity it presents. On balance I think we’re lucky, lucky to have the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the reality of what’s ahead.

I hope this report from Macmillan gives other people hope and perspective. There isn’t very much cancer good news around and this report should prove a cause for optimism for the many people, families and friends who will be touched by cancer. If nothing else, if you’ve stumbled across this post by accident, take hope from our family situation and my Dad’s own exceptional ability to outlive everyone’s expectations. Medians are after-all just average statistics, and someone has to be in the 99% group.

3 thoughts on “Cancer survival – the good, the bad and the reality

  1. Thanks for this George, I have a friend with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma who was given less than a year and is now in his 10th so good to know he is not a rarity statistically. Another friend has just been given the all clear from breast cancer but a neighbour across the road was diagnosed in August with stomach cancer and is in the last stages and probably will not make xmas; but he and his family are making damn sure it is quality time. He was still riding his bike 3 weeks ago and picking up the daily newspaper. So my friends seem to be following the statistical trend – makes a change. The uncertainty though is tough for all. x

  2. My husbands got stage m1 oesophagus cancer spread to nearby lymph nodes can anyone tell me he’s having chemo 1 day every 3 wks and on tablets his 2nd chemos next week what is his survival rate please anyone help read on websites 6mths is this right thanks for any comments

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