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Advanced cancer

Breakthroughs in cancer care improve quality of life.

Perhaps you’ve just found out for the first time that you have advanced cancer. Or maybe you’ve learned that the cancer has returned, has spread, or isn’t responding to treatment. However you receive the news, hearing that you have advanced cancer can be devastating.

But it’s important to keep in mind that having late-stage cancer can mean something different today than it did even ten years ago. Until recently, people with cancer and their doctors conceived of a cancer diagnosis in black-and-white, win-or-lose terms. Winning the fight against cancer meant finding a cure, and a diagnosis of advanced cancer — defined as a cancer that can no longer be completely cured — meant the fight had been lost.

But as the scientific understanding of cancer has evolved, the goals of cancer therapy have shifted. Many treatments now aim to keep the cancer from spreading and to control symptoms and side effects. Like diabetes, which can’t be cured but can be effectively managed, cancer is increasingly being considered a chronic disease.

Living better, for longer

One major victory is that researchers have uncovered the ways that different types of cancer spread, enabling specific new treatments to prevent their growth. For example, more than half of breast cancer tumors are fueled by the hormone estrogen, so using hormone therapy to cut off the estrogen supply can effectively stabilize a tumor for years. Several such drugs have been developed, so if a tumor builds up resistance to one drug over time, another can often take its place.

Today’s treatments are often less physically traumatic than they once were. Some drugs are able to distinguish between rapidly multiplying cancer cells and normal, healthy cells, targeting malignancies and preventing collateral damage to your organs. Also, doctors are often able to evaluate the genetic makeup of a tumor and predict which drugs are most likely to work best to treat it — protecting your body from harm caused by therapies that may not be effective for you.

Even if the cancer has stopped responding to treatment and continues to grow, many therapies can control the side effects and provide you with a much better quality of life, for longer. Your doctor may suggest a number of different treatments, like drugs to prevent nausea and fatigue or radiation to lessen pain caused by a tumor. Addressing the physical effects of the cancer will help you maintain your everyday routine and enjoy your life for as long possible.

Five-year survival rates

When you learn you have cancer, you will probably come across the five-year survival rate — a statistic representing the percentage of people with the same kind of cancer who have survived at least five years after diagnosis. These statistics can help evaluate the effectiveness of different treatments. However, it’s best not to think of them as a source of certainty about your situation. Here are a few things to keep in mind about statistical survival rates:

  • The rates are based on all people with the same kind of cancer, no matter their age, previous health problems, whether they received adequate treatment, or refused treatment altogether.
  • Five years isn’t a magic number. In some cancers surviving for five years is a landmark, while in others, like breast cancer, larger periods of time are required to predict effectiveness of treatment.
  • The rates are an average that includes people who may have outlived the survival rate by many years and others who may have survived a very short time.
  • The rates measure the outcomes of people who were diagnosed over five years ago — so it doesn’t reflect changes in treatment that you will benefit from today.
  • Survival rates don’t measure quality of life.

The bottom line is that a statistic can’t tell you what’s going to happen in your case. No matter what the survival rate, many people with advanced cancer have enjoyed an excellent quality of life for many years after diagnosis.