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The Big Secret of 5-Year Survival Rates

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Emotional Health related image Photo: Getty Images

We were in the doctor’s office to get the diagnosis following my wife’s first breast cancer surgery. We were told that, although they did remove the tumor, they weren’t able to get all of it so she was going to have to have a mastectomy. He went on to say that they had found evidence that suggested there was a high probability that her cancer had spread to other parts of her body.

Not something we wanted to hear.

My wife asked him, “Am I going to die from this? Is it that serious? If so, how long do I have?”

He told her that the 5-year survival rate for women in her situation was 50-60 percent. A 5-year survival rate is the percentage of women who were still alive five years after their diagnosis. We both thought "What?!" Chris went into hypoglycemic shock and I just about fainted at this news. When we got a second opinion, they put the survival rate at 70 percent; better, but still not great.

The second doctor told us something else about the 5-year survival rate, something that was obvious when it was pointed out but which we hadn’t considered; it’s the “big secret” and here it is: 5-year survival rates are based on 5-year old medicine.

Of course! If they are measuring how many women survived five years those women must have been treated at least five years ago. At the rate that medicine is advancing, five years ago is practically the Stone Age.

If you have received such a prognosis, remember that your chances of survival are actually better than the chances of people treated five years ago, and that’s because of the advances in medicines and medical technology.

Case in point: my wife just passed her ninth year since diagnosis and she is doing fine. The big difference for her was the introduction of a new medication four years ago that literally saved her life. I hate to type this out loud, but without it she would have probably been one of those 5-year statistics.

We can only imagine what they’ll come up with in the next five years.

Dealing with cancer, some other major illness, or life in general?

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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