Some survivors worry about whether cancer has affected their life expectancy- how long they will live after cancer treatment. Talking with your health care team can help you understand how cancer can affect life expectancy.
Life Expectancy: Detailed Information
This information is meant to be a general introduction to this topic. The purpose is to provide a starting point for you to become more informed about important matters that may be affecting your life as a survivor and to provide ideas about steps you can take to learn more. This information is not intended nor should it be interpreted as providing professional medical, legal and financial advice. You should consult a trained professional for more information. Please read the Suggestions and Additional Resources documents for questions to ask and for more resources
Everyone responds to treatment differently. There is no way to know in advance how effective cancer treatment will be. There is also no way to know how long anyone will live—with or without cancer.
Some survivors want to know right away about the chances of surviving their specific type and stage of cancer. Others begin talking to their loved ones and health care team about life expectancy during treatment. Some survivors focus on quality of life issues instead of cancer treatment. Still others choose never to talk about these things with anyone. You have the right to choose to discuss or not discuss the issue of life expectancy.
The health care team and your loved ones may wait for you to bring up the topic of life expectancy. Others might ask you to talk with them about it. You have the right to tell them if you are not comfortable discussing this matter. It is important to do your cancer journey the way that works best for you.
How are statistics about cancer used to define life expectancy?
Statistics are numbers and percentages that reflect research and measurements of historical data. Statistics about life expectancy or survival rates are often based on a group of survivors who participated in a study where their health status was observed and recorded. Most of these studies took place at least five or 10 years earlier. You may have received a completely different treatment or different amounts of chemotherapy or radiation than they gave a few years ago.
Statistics that your health care team shares with you should be related to:
- Your type of cancer
- The stage of your cancer when you were diagnosed
- The particular traits of your cancer (such as cell types and growth traits)
- The treatment you received
- Your unique physical and emotional health
By using these factors, your health care team is in a better position to talk to you about life expectancy and how to best manage your life after cancer. The numbers do not take into consideration your unique physical and emotional characteristics. There are many factors that can affect your life expectancy. The statistics used to estimate your life expectancy should be used as very general guidelines. They are not exact calculations of how long you are going to live.
What does survival rate mean?
Knowing about survival rates can give you a general idea about how long other survivors with your type of cancer have lived. Yet, your experience may be very different. Survival rates are only estimates. Many survivors prove them wrong.
Survival estimates are based on the experiences of survivors in studies done during and after treatment. There is no way of knowing how estimates will apply to your situation. Your treatment may be very different from the method used many years ago in a study. Medications may have changed. There may be new ways of doing radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
The life expectancy for a specific type of cancer is often reported as a five-year survival rate. This does not mean that survivors do not live more than five years. Some studies only follow up with survivors for that long. In addition, the concern about cancer recurring generally lessens after five years.
Survival rates are usually stated as a percentage. A doctor might say, "People with this type of cancer generally have a 60 percent five-year survival rate." This means that 60 out of 100 people who were treated for this type of cancer during the research studies were still living after five years. Cancer survivors often live much longer than these estimates. Every cancer survivor is different. Most importantly, you are not a statistic!
When is the best time to talk with the health care team about life expectancy?
There is no right or wrong time to discuss life expectancy with a member of your health care team. Because all of the statistics and information can be overwhelming, you might want to set up a separate visit. This allows you and a member of your health care team time to discuss the information.
Many survivors begin talking to their health care team about life expectancy when they finish their treatment and begin focusing on their quality of life after cancer. This is also a good time to discuss with your health care team how to minimize your risks for late effects of treatment. Experiencing side effects from treatment for cancer later in life may affect your life expectancy and your quality of life.
Life expectancy numbers are only estimates. They cannot predict how long you are going to live. Yet, receiving this information may be confusing. If you feel worried, set up a separate meeting to discuss your concerns with your doctor. This will allow both of you time enough time to talk until your questions are answered.
Your doctor can also refer you to a licensed counselor or social worker for help dealing with the stress of cancer. Some counselors specialize in working with cancer patients and their loved ones.
Many survivors find that it helps to share thoughts and feelings with others who are in a similar situation. If this interests you, find out about cancer support groups in your area. Keep in mind that each group may have a unique way of offering support. You may want to try several before deciding if one fits your needs better than others
A survivor may feel very upset if told that there is not a high survival rate for his or her type of cancer. Hearing this type of news can be overwhelming. Talking with loved ones, trusted friends, a social worker or a faith-based counselor may help.
This document was produced in collaboration with:
Pamela J. Haylock, RN, MA
Oncology Consultant & Doctoral Student,
University of Texas Medical Branch, School of Nursing
Harpham, W.S. (2003). Diagnosis: Cancer. Your Guide to the First Months of Healthy Survivorship, 3rd edition. New York, W.W. Norton & Company.
Munro, B.H. (2001). Statistical methods for health care research, 4th edition.
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Life Expectancy: Suggestions
The suggestions that follow are based on the information presented in the Detailed Information document. They are meant to help you take what you learn and apply the information to your own needs. This information is not intended nor should it be interpreted as providing professional medical, legal and financial advice. You should consult a trained professional for more information. Please read the Additional Resources document for links to more resources.
- Ask your doctor questions about life expectancy.
Even though statistics can be confusing and at times frustrating, health care professionals feel it is the easiest way to talk with you about life expectancy. Don't be afraid to ask for further explanation and to keep asking until the answer is clear to you.
- Did the people that the statistic is based on receive the same treatment that I received?
- If my life expectancy is 10-20 years, does this mean 10-20 years without the cancer coming back?
- If the cancer comes back, does that affect my life expectancy?
- Are there any special circumstances, such as other illnesses or late effects of treatment, that could affect my life expectancy?
- Is there anything I can do to increase my life expectancy?
- How does my treatment compare to that used in the study?
- Can other health conditions affect my survival rate?
- Are there other treatments that may be helpful?
- What types of healthy living habits might help me?
- Learn from the experience of others in dealing with survival rate information.
- Talk to your health care team about how to understand the statistics that they use to estimate your life expectancy and what they mean for your future.
- Talk to other survivors about how they deal with understanding life expectancy and talking to their health care team.
- Talk to a therapist if dealing with your life expectancy is causing you to feel depressed, anxious or overwhelmed.
- To find support services in your area:
- Ask your doctor to refer you to an oncology social worker.
- Find out if there are cancer support groups that meet in your clinic or hospital.
- Visit LIVESTRONG Navigation Services online at LIVESTRONG.org/Get-Help call 1.855.220.7777 for free support services during the cancer journey.
- Talk to a therapist if dealing with your life expectancy is causing you to feel depressed, anxious or overwhelmed:
Ask your health care team for a referral to a therapist who works with other cancer survivors. Most cancer centers employ oncology social workers who are specially trained to work with cancer survivors and their families. In some cases, even if you are not a patient at a cancer center, the oncology social worker may meet with you or refer you to someone else in the community. The Association of Oncology Social Work (AOSW) is also a good resource. Visit AOSW online at http://www.aosw.org or call 1-215-599-6093.
It is important to interview the therapist to find out if he or she is the right professional for you. Talk openly with the therapist, and let him or her know your thoughts about getting counseling.
Examples of questions to ask the therapist:
- What type of education background do you have?
- What license do you have?
- What is your experience working with people with cancer?
- What do you understand about the emotional response to this illness?
- Would my insurance cover your costs?
- Do you work with people who are anxious? Depressed?
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Life Expectancy: Additional Resources
The resources listed below provide more detailed information and support services to help you with life expectancy. Please read the Detailed Information and Suggestions document for more information and questions to ask.
LIVESTRONG Navigation Services
Online: Complete an intake form through the LIVESTRONG
Phone: 1.855.220.7777 (English and Spanish)
Navigators are available for calls Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Central Time). Voicemail is available after hours.
offers assistance to anyone affected by cancer, including the person diagnosed, loved ones, caregivers and friends. The program provides information about fertility risks and preservation options, treatment choices, health literacy and matching to clinical trials. Emotional support services, peer-to-peer matching and assistance with financial, employment and insurance issues are also available. To provide these services, LIVESTRONG
has partnered with several organizations including Imerman Angels, Navigate Cancer Foundation, Patient Advocate Foundation and EmergingMed.
American Cancer Society (ACS)
Email: Submit questions in English or Spanish from the "Contact Us" page.
TTY for deaf or hard of hearing callers: 1-866-228-4327
The American Cancer Society (ACS) offers information about many of the challenges of cancer and survivorship. You can search for information by cancer type or by topic. ACS provides a list of support groups in your area. You can join online groups and message boards. Some information on the website is available in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. ACS specialists can answer questions 24 hours a day by phone or email.
Cancer Hope Network
Phone: 1-877-HOPE NET (1-877-467-3638)
This number is answered Monday-Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (EST). Voicemail is available after hours.
Cancer Hope Network is a not-for-profit organization that provides free and confidential one-on-one support to cancer patients and their families. They offer support by matching cancer patients or family members with trained volunteers who have already undergone and recovered from a similar cancer experience. You can submit your request by phone or by email. A volunteer will try to contact you within 24 hours.
National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS)
Phone: 1-877- 622-7937
An information specialist is available from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (EST).
The NCCS website provides comprehensive information on a wide range of cancer topics. These include managing the side effects of cancer treatment, controlling pain, understanding clinical trials, maintaining good nutrition and exercise habits, getting the most out of your health insurance coverage and addressing employment issues. The NCCS also offers the Cancer Survival Toolbox, a free audio program created to help people develop skills to help with communicating, decision making, problem solving, finding information, negotiating, and standing up for your rights. They also offer a variety of publications that can be ordered free of charge. Information on the NCCS website is available in Spanish, and the Cancer Survival Toolbox is available in both Spanish and Chinese.
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