Understanding Breast Cancer Survival Rates
Prognosis (chance for survival) varies by stage of breast cancer.
Non-invasive (stage 0) and early stage invasive breast cancers (stages I and II) have a better prognosis than later stage cancers (stages III and IV).
Breast cancer that’s only in the breast and has not spread to the lymph nodes has a better prognosis than breast cancer that’s spread to the lymph nodes.
The poorest prognosis is for metastatic breast cancer (stage IV), when the cancer has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body.
Learn more about breast cancer treatment.
Overall survival rates
An overall survival rate shows the percentage of people who are alive after a certain period of time after diagnosis of a disease (such as breast cancer).
For example, say the 5-year overall survival for women with stage I breast cancer was 90 percent. This would mean 90 percent of women diagnosed with stage I breast cancer survive at least 5 years beyond diagnosis. (Most of these women would live much longer than 5 years past their diagnoses.)
Overall survival varies by breast cancer stage. People diagnosed with stage 0, I or II breast cancers tend to have higher overall survival rates than people diagnosed with stage III or IV breast cancers.
However, overall survival rates are averages and vary depending on a person’s diagnosis and treatment.
Breast cancer-specific survival rates
Disease-specific survival rates, such as breast cancer-specific survival, show the percentage of people who have not died from the disease over a certain period of time after diagnosis.
Five-year breast cancer-specific survival shows the percentage of people who have not died from breast cancer 5 years after diagnosis. These rates vary by breast cancer stage.
|Breast Cancer Stage*||5-Year Breast Cancer-Specific Survival|
|Adapted from Weiss et al. |
Breast cancer survival data in this table are from people diagnosed on or after January 1, 2018 who did not get neoadjuvant therapy.
Relative survival rates
Relative survival compares survival rates for people with breast cancer to survival rates for people in the general population.
For example, say the 5-year relative survival for stage II breast cancer was 85 percent. This would mean women with stage II breast cancer were, on average, 85 percent as likely to live 5 years beyond their diagnosis as women in the general population.
Say, the 5-year relative survival for women with stage I breast cancer was 100 percent. This would mean women with stage I breast cancer were, on average, just as likely to live 5 more years as women in the general population.
As with overall survival, relative survival rates are averages and vary depending on each person’s diagnosis and treatment.
Population survival rates
Summary cancer staging is the most basic way to stage any type of cancer, including breast cancer. It’s used to estimate survival at the population level.
Summary cancer staging is also called SEER staging because it’s used by the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program. SEER collects cancer data in the U.S. and compiles national cancer statistics.
Figure 4.8 below shows 5-year relative breast cancer survival rates based on SEER staging.
For example, the 5-year relative survival for localized breast cancer in the U.S. is 99 percent. This means women with localized breast cancer are, on average, 99 percent as likely to live 5 years beyond diagnosis as women in the general population.
These rates are averages and vary depending on each person’s diagnosis and treatment.
SEER breast cancer survival rates are vital to researchers, advocates and policymakers. They are less helpful in estimating survival for individuals because the stages are defined very broadly.
Figure 4.8: 5-year relative breast cancer survival rates for women based on SEER staging
|Summary/SEER Staging Category||Definition||5-Year Relative Breast Cancer Survival*|
|Local||The cancer cells have not spread beyond the breast (where they began to grow).||99%|
|Regional||The cancer cells have spread beyond the breast, but this spread is limited to nearby lymph nodes.||85%|
|Distant||The cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).||26%|
|Adapted from 2010-2016 SEER data .|
* Relative survival compares survival rates for women with breast cancer to survival rates for women in the general population over the same period of time.
Learn more about the SEER program.
Survival and mortality (death) rates
Survival depends on mortality. You start with 100 percent of the people in the group.
100 percent – mortality rate = survival rate
Say, the mortality rate in the group of people is 5 percent. Survival would be 95 percent (100 – 5 = 95).
Similarly, the number of people in a group who survive depends on the number of people who die. Say, 500 people are in the group and 1 person dies. This means 499 people survived (500 – 1 = 499).
Mortality rates versus number of breast cancer deaths
Sometimes it’s useful to have an estimate of the number of people expected to die from breast cancer in a year. This numbers helps show the burden of breast cancer in a group of people.
Numbers, however, can be hard to compare to each other. To compare mortality (or survival) in different populations, we need to look at mortality rates rather than the number of breast cancer deaths.
Examples of rates versus numbers
Say, town A has a population of 100,000 and town B has a population of 1,000. Over a year, say there are 100 breast cancer deaths in town A and 100 breast cancer deaths in town B.
The number of breast cancer deaths in each town is the same. However, many more people live in town A than live in town B. So, the mortality rates are quite different.
In town A, there were 10 breast cancer deaths among 100,000 people. This means the mortality rate was less than 1 percent (100 deaths/100,000 people = 0.001 = 0.1 percent mortality).
In town B, the mortality rate was 10 percent (100/1,000 = 0.1 = 10 percent).
Although the number of deaths was the same in town A and town B, the mortality rate was much higher in town B (10 percent) than in town A (less than 1 percent).
Let’s look at another example. In 2020, it’s estimated among women there will be :
- 100 breast cancer deaths in Washington, D.C.
- 690 breast cancer deaths in Alabama
- 4,620 breast cancer deaths in California
Of the 3, California has the highest number of breast cancers. However, that doesn’t mean it has the highest breast cancer rate. These numbers don’t take into account the number of women who live in each state. Fewer women live in Alabama and Washington, D.C. than live in California.
Other factors may vary by state as well, such as the age and race/ethnicity of women. So, to compare breast cancer mortality (survival), we need to look at mortality rates.
In 2020, the estimated mortality rates are :
- 27 per 100,000 women in Washington, D.C.
- 22 per 100,000 women in Alabama 22
- 20 per 100,000 women in California 20
So, while Washington D.C. had the lowest number of breast cancer deaths, the breast cancer mortality rate was the highest of the 3. And, while California had the highest number of breast cancer deaths, its breast cancer mortality rate was the lowest.
Comparing mortality rates, we can see women who live in Washington D.C. have higher rates of breast cancer mortality (and thus, lower survival) than women in California.
Find more breast cancer statistics.
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