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Survival rates tell you what portion of people with the same type and stage of cancer are still alive a certain amount of time (usually 5 years) after they were diagnosed. They can’t tell you how long you will live, but they may help give you a better understanding about how likely it is that your treatment will be successful. Some people will want to know the survival rates for their cancer type and stage, and some people won’t. If you don’t want to know, you don’t have to.

Survival rates are often used by doctors as a standard way of discussing a person's outlook (prognosis). Some women with breast cancer might want to know the survival statistics for people in similar situations, while others might not find the numbers helpful, or might even not want to know them.

What is a 5-year survival rate?

Statistics on the outlook for a certain type and stage of cancer are often given as 5-year survival rates, but many people live longer – often much longer – than 5 years. The 5-year survival rate is the percentage of people who live at least 5 years after being diagnosed with cancer. For example, a 5-year survival rate of 90% means that an estimated 90 out of 100 people who have that cancer are still alive 5 years after being diagnosed. Keep in mind, however, that many of these people live much longer than 5 years after diagnosis.

Relative survival rates are a more accurate way to estimate the effect of cancer on survival. These rates compare women with breast cancer to women in the overall population. For example, if the 5-year relative survival rate for a specific type of cancer is 90%, it means that people who have that cancer are, on average, about 90% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed.

But remember, the 5-year relative survival rates are estimates – your outlook can vary based on a number of factors specific to you.

Survival rates don’t tell the whole story

Survival rates are often based on previous outcomes of large numbers of people who had the disease, but they can’t predict what will happen in any particular person’s case. There are a number of limitations to remember:

  • The numbers below are among the most current available. But to get 5-year survival rates, doctors have to look at people who were treated at least 5 years ago. As treatments are improving over time, women who are now being diagnosed with breast cancer may have a better outlook than these statistics show.
  • The available statistics for breast cancer do not divide survival rates by all of the substages, such as IA and IB. The rates for these substages are likely to be close to the rate for the overall stage. For example, the survival rate for stage IA is likely to be slightly higher than that listed for stage I, while the survival rate for stage IB would be expected to be slightly lower.
  • These statistics are based on the stage of the cancer when it was first diagnosed. They do not apply to cancers that later come back or spread, for example.
  • Many other factors affect a person's outlook, such as age and health, the presence of hormone receptors on the cancer cells, the treatment received, and how well the cancer responds to treatment.

Your doctor can tell you how these numbers may apply to you, as he or she is familiar with your particular situation.

5-year relative survival rates for breast cancer by stage

The outlook for women with breast cancer varies by the stage (extent) of the cancer. In general, the survival rates are higher for women with earlier stage cancers. But remember, the outlook for each woman is specific to her circumstances.

  • The 5-year relative survival rate for women with stage 0 or stage I breast cancer is close to 100%.
  • For women with stage II breast cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 93%.
  • The 5-year relative survival rate for stage III breast cancers is about 72%. But often, women with these breast cancers can be successfully treated.
  • Breast cancers that have spread to other parts of the body are more difficult to treat and tend to have a poorer outlook. Metastatic, or stage IV breast cancers, have a 5-year relative survival rate of about 22%. Still, there are often many treatment options available for women with this stage of breast cancer.

Remember, these survival rates are only estimates – they can’t predict what will happen to any individual person. We understand that these statistics can be confusing and may lead you to have more questions. Talk to your doctor to better understand your specific situation.

Please note that these statistics come from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database. They are based on the previous version of AJCC staging. In that version stage II also included patients that would now be considered stage IB.

Last Medical Review: 06/01/2016
Last Revised: 09/13/2016