Cancer Rates and Statistics: What Do They Mean?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on May 25, 2022

Cancer rates and statistics tell you how the disease affects others. They look at how many and what kind of people get a certain type of cancer, and how they respond to treatment.

Health and government experts study these numbers to understand cancer’s impact on society. This helps them develop ways to better control and manage the disease.

Doctors also use statistics to make predictions, like your risk of getting cancer and beating the disease. Although they can’t see what’s in store for your personal future, they can make an educated guess based on other people who’ve had the same cancer.

They’re recorded in databases called cancer registries. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, a specially trained person called a cancer registrar enters your details into a computer system. This includes your age, race, ethnicity, tumor size, and treatments.

Many hospitals have their own registries. Their data is used in national registries, like those from the CDC and the National Cancer Institute. These are called population-based registries. They don’t include your name, address, or other personal information. Each year, this information is combined into the United States Cancer Statistics.

Incidence rate. This is the number of new cases of a specific cancer in a certain population in 1 year. To get the rate, you divide the number of new cases by the number of that population. Then you multiply the result by a specific number of people. For cancer, that’s typically 100,000. For example, there are about 1.7 million new cases of cancer in the United States. The incidence rate is 439 per 100,000 people.

Mortality rate. This is the number of people who die from cancer in a year. Cancer mortality rates are usually counted per 100,000 people.

Common cancer types. These are the most often diagnosed cancers in the United States. To make the list, there must be 40,000 new cases or more each year. The three most common cancer types are breast, lung, and prostate cancer.

Lifetime risk. This is the chance you’ll get or die from a certain cancer. It’s given as a percentage or ratio. For example, women have a 13% risk -- 1 in 8 -- of getting breast cancer at some point in their life.

Survival rate. These statistics tell you what percentage of people live with cancer for a specific amount of time. Survival statistics are based on hundreds or thousands of people who have a certain kind of cancer. They may include people of all ages and health conditions. Some survival rates are narrowed by age or stages of cancer. The ones you’re most likely to see are:

  • Five-year survival rate. This is the number people who are alive 5 years after they were diagnosed or started treatment for a certain kind of cancer. It’s usually given as a percentage. Survival rates can also be broken into other time frames, like 1 or 10 years. But 5-year survival rates are the most common.
  • Overall survival rate. This is the percentage of people who haven’t died of any cause after a certain time. It includes those who are still getting treatment, as well as those who are cancer-free.
  • Relative survival rate. This is the percentage of people who haven’t died of a specific cancer after a certain time. It doesn’t include people who died of other diseases. Like overall survival, it includes people who are and aren’t cancer-free.
  • Disease-free survival rate. This is the length of time people live after a cancer treatment without any signs or symptoms. It’s often used to see how well a new treatment works. You might hear it called recurrence-free or progression-free survival.

Your prognosis, or outlook, is an estimate of how your cancer will unfold. Doctors use statistics to predict your chances of beating the disease and if it’ll come back. Along with your cancer type and stage, the doctor will also factor in your age and overall health.

Statistics can also help you and your doctor choose a treatment plan. They can show you how other people with your same cancer type and stage responded to treatments.

Statistics are based on large groups. While they can give you an idea of what happens to most people, they can’t predict your future. You may respond to treatment differently than someone else.

What’s more, some statistics don’t include important factors, like your cancer type, age, and overall health. For example, if you’re in perfect health, you may have a greater chance of surviving than what the numbers suggest. Ask your doctor if there are more specific numbers, or if they can make a better guess based on your circumstances.

Because statistics take years to collect, they don’t include the latest treatments. For 5-year survival rates, the patients were diagnosed at least 5 years ago. So the numbers don’t show the effects of new treatments. As a result, older statistics may not give the most accurate outlook.

You decide how much you want to know about your cancer statistics. Because they’re impersonal, you may choose to ignore them. Or you may want to learn as much as you can. Talk to your doctor about your statistics and what they mean.

Show Sources


National Cancer Institute: “Cancer Statistics,” “Common Cancer Types,” “Defining Cancer Statistics,” “Understanding Cancer Prognosis,” “What is a Cancer Registry?”

Mayo Clinic: “Cancer Survival Rate: What It Means for Your Prognosis.”

CDC: “How Cancer Registries Work.”

Cancer.Net: “Understanding Statistics Used to Guide Prognosis and Evaluate Treatment.”

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