If you or someone close to you has lung cancer, one of your first questions probably is if you might be cured. That is, what are your chances of survival?
More Americans die of lung cancer than from the next three different cancers combined. Lung cancer also is one of the toughest to beat. Fewer than one in five people diagnosed with it are alive 5 years later. That’s about the same rate as for liver cancer and deadlier than any other type except pancreatic cancer.
But those numbers are averages. They don’t necessarily predict what will happen to you. Your prognosis, or chances of recovery, will depend on the specific traits of your cancer, how early or late it was caught, your overall health, and other things.
Understanding Survival Rates
These percentages are calculated by dividing the number of people who are alive after having a disease by the number of those who are diagnosed with the disease. So a 5-year survival rate of 19% means that 19 out of 100 people diagnosed with cancer live 5 years or longer.
The National Cancer Institute collects the data, and researchers analyze them in different ways. Their estimates may not reflect the latest breakthroughs in treatments that may improve your outlook. By definition, the current 5-year survival rate is based on people who were diagnosed and treated at least 5 years ago.
You also may hear another term, relative survival rate. It’s a different statistic to gauge how much your cancer may shorten your life, compared to if you didn’t have it. A 2-year relative survival rate of 70%, for example, means that people with the same type and level of cancer are 70% as likely to reach that milestone, compared to the general population. Because it’s adjusted for gender and age, the relative survival rate gives you an idea of how cancer may change what would have been your expected life span.
Survival doesn’t always equal a cure. Your cancer cells may be undetectable with tests but still remain in your body. Or they might go away and come back.
Relative Survival Rates by Stages and Type
No one, including your doctors, can say for sure how long you may live after your diagnosis. But one big predictor is how early your cancer was caught. Unfortunately, lung cancer grows fast, but you may not notice any symptoms early on. That’s why some 40% of lung cancers aren’t discovered until the most serious stage: IV.
Also, younger people tend to live longer after their diagnosis than those who are older.
Relative survival rates for non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC): Almost 90% of lung cancers are this type. The National Cancer Institute’s database breaks down the cancers by how far the tumors have spread. These relative survival rates are the average percentages of people who are alive 5 years after diagnosis. They don’t include people who died of something other than lung cancer.
- Localized (cancer is confined to one lung): 60%
- Regional (cancer has spread outside the lung or to lymph nodes): 33%
- Distant (cancer has moved farther, such as to the brain, the other lung, and bones): 6%
- All stages: 23%
Relative survival rates for small-cell lung cancer (SCLC): This is a rare but more aggressive lung cancer.
- Localized: 29%
- Regional: 15%
- Distant: 3%
- All stages: 6%
Survival Rates by Stages
Some doctors rely on a more detailed prognostic tool based on a staging system called tumor, nodes, and metastasis (TNM). These survival rates are the actual percentage of a sampling of people who were diagnosed with either NSCLC or SCLC and who were alive at 2 years and at 5 years.
- Stage IA1: 97% (2 years); 90% (5 years)
- Stage IA2: 94%; 85%
- Stage IA3: 92%; 80%
- Stage IB: 89%; 73%
- Stage IIA: 82%; 65%
- Stage IIB: 76%; 56%
- Stage IIIA: 65%; 41%
- Stage IIIB: 47%; 24%
- Stage IIIC: 30%; 12%
These survival rates for the most advanced lung cancer stages are estimated using a slightly different benchmark. The 2- and 5-year survival rates for all types of lung cancer are:
- Stage IVA: 23%; 10%
- Stage IVB: 10%; 0%
No two people with lung cancer are alike. You may respond differently to treatments.
The bright news is that the number deaths from lung cancer in the U.S. has been steadily dropping. At the same time, the average survival times for those who are newly diagnosed have inched up. Currently, researchers are running more than 1,500 clinical trials on lung cancer to test new therapies or new mixes of treatments.