Cancer Statistics Show Hope, But Statistics Are Still Bad For You

So… the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have now begun releasing survival rate statistics for patients with invasive cancer. And it appears to be pretty good news, especially for prostate, breast and colorectal cancer patients. Across the board, however, patient longevity has been on the rise and the one thing that the statistics do make clear is that what they term “survival rates” are increasing.

I am not a fan of “survival” as a description of continuing to live while dealing with cancer. Along with statistics in general, this sort of terminology paints a narrow and misleading picture of what a newly diagnosed patient  and that individual’s friends and family should expect. Cancer statistics, as I’ve discussed before, are often misleading because they are difficult to drill deeply into and often only cover broad strokes that obfuscate a patient’s actual demographic relevance to the figures. In spite of this general sentiment of mine, I am still excited that the CDC has begun releasing this sort of data and, more importantly, that they are committing to updating their statistics annually.

Part of the reason that the frequency of updates is important is that the data is already based on cases diagnosed at least five years ago.  In fact, the data covers the diagnosis of invasive cancers from 2003–2010, which means that it reflects treatments typically at least a decade old. As I have pointed out elsewhere in this blog, the past ten years have seen huge leaps forward in treatment options for many cancers, which renders these statistics somewhat obsolete in terms of predicting future survival rates (according to the accepted methodologies).  However, the data is still relevant for other reasons.

States and other localities are already making use of the deeper data involved in the statistics. The CDC effectively correlates cancer rates throughout numerous studies that cover the majority of the population, helping to determine geographic areas that may have higher risk for certain types of cancer as well as targeting more specific demographic information for cancer patients. The layman won’t see this information in the commonly published statistics, however. The layman will see that the prognosis is particularly good for 2/3rds of all people living with invasive cancers, in that they will likely still be around at least five more years (because that is as far as the statistics take us, not because oncologists lose count after one hand). The layman might also see that prostate and breast cancer patients have the odds pretty much in their favor even though the cancer has already spread to other tissue (remember, these are stats for invasive cancers). That is pretty awesome.

And by now, the news should be much, much better for them, too.

And excitedly for me, the paltry 18% of patients with invasive lung cancer who had lived long enough to get counted in that five-year sample is a vast improvement over the previous so-low-it-won’t-get-mentioned percentage that was floating around every stat-slinging web site a few months ago when my friends and family began looking at the figures, desperate for hope. Imagine, if the percentage could skyrocket to 18% for those diagnosed ten years or more ago, how much progress could have been made for the patients of today or those of tomorrow.

This highlights the amazing progress that medical science continues  to make. For a long time now, early diagnosis has allowed for a surgical cure for many cancers. Modern drugs have turned some terminal cancers into chronic conditions that, when managed correctly, are progressively easier to outlive. And that is the goal for most people living with invasive cancer, after all, to live long enough that they die of something else.

Just so long as it isn’t boredom from reading too many statistics.

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