Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer affecting women. The incidence is growing, with about 2 million new cases worldwide every year.

When you receive a breast cancer prognosis, your doctor will estimate the likely course and outcome of your condition. This varies from person to person, and there are a number of factors that affect prognosis, including a person’s age and the type, grade, and size of the cancer.

In the United States alone, the American Cancer Society (ACS) predicts that 13 percent of women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that about 276,480 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, and about 42,170 will die of the disease.

The ACS also predicts that about 2,620 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, and about 520 will die from the disease.

There was a small rise in breast cancer incidence from 2007 to 2016, when it increased by 0.3 percent each year.

Thanks to earlier detection and improved treatment, deaths from breast cancer dropped 40 percent from 1989 to 2017, according to the ACS.

While breast cancer death rates have remained steady since 2007 for women under 50 years old, the death rate for older women decreased by 1.3 percent each year from 2013 to 2017.

Your risk of developing breast cancer increases as you age. The NCI reports that of the women who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States from 2013 to 2017, less than 2 percent of them were under 35 years old.

The median age that women are diagnosed with breast cancer is 62 years old.

Women's breast cancer deaths by year chart
Image source: National Cancer Institute / seer.cancer.gov/csr/1975_2013/browse_csr.php

Breast cancer survival rates compare the number of women with breast cancer to the number of women in the overall population to estimate the amount of time women with breast cancer are likely to live after they’re diagnosed.

For example, if the survival rate for a stage of breast cancer during a 5-year time period is 90 percent, it means that women diagnosed with that cancer are 90 percent as likely to survive for 5 years as women who don’t have the cancer.

Survival rates are based on information from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database, which the NCI maintains.

SEER doesn’t group breast cancers by stages 0 through 4. It groups them by the following stages:

  • localized: when the cancer hasn’t spread outside of the breast
  • regional: when it’s spread outside the breast to nearby lymph nodes
  • distant: when it’s spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver, lungs, or bones

The NCI reports that 90 percent of women with breast cancer survive 5 years after diagnosis. This survival rate includes all women with breast cancer, regardless of the stage.

The 5-year survival rate for women diagnosed with localized breast cancer is about 99 percent.

For women who are diagnosed with regional breast cancer, that figure drops to about 86 percent. Women who are diagnosed with distant breast cancer have about a 28 percent likelihood of surviving for 5 years.

A 2017 NCI study showed that from 1992–1994 and 2005–2012, the 5-year survival rate for women ages 15 to 49 years old diagnosed with distant breast cancer doubled, from 18 percent to 36 percent.

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Image source: National Cancer Institute / seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/breast.html

10-year survival rate

The ACS reports that the 10-year average survival rate for women diagnosed with breast cancer is 84 percent.

Another study of over 4,200 young women with breast cancer found that the 10-year survival rate for the women with tumors smaller than 2 cm was 89 percent.

For those with tumors equal to 2 cm, it was 86 percent, and for those with larger tumors, the survival rate was 81 percent.

30-year survival rate

The average rate for women surviving at least 15 years after being diagnosed with breast cancer is 80 percent. Statistics are not available for survival rates by cancer stage.

Researchers have found that women diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer have higher 30-year survival rates than those diagnosed with stage 2, 3, or 4 breast cancer. Each advanced stage has lower survival rates than earlier stages.

This was true regardless of whether the women had surgery, surgery with radiation therapy, or a combination of treatments including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and endocrine therapy.

The stages of breast cancer relate to how much the cancer has grown and how far it’s spread. Generally, the earlier breast cancer is diagnosed and treated, the higher the chances for long-term survival.

  • Stage 0. This is a precancerous stage with no invasive cancer cells.
  • Stage 1 (localized). The tumor is small and localized to the breast. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) reports that 62 percent of women are diagnosed at stage 1.
  • Stage 2 (localized). The tumor is either greater than 2 cm or has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm.
  • Stage 3 (regional). This stage includes cancers that have spread to the skin, chest wall, or multiple lymph nodes in or near the breast.
  • Stage 4 (distant). This is metastatic breast cancer, meaning it’s spread to one or more distant parts of the body, most commonly to the bones, lungs, or liver.

The stages are based on the following factors:

  • tumor size
  • whether the lymph nodes in the underarm area contain cancer
  • whether the cancer has metastasized, meaning it’s spread to other parts of the body

Since 2018, the following factors have also been used to determine the breast cancer stage:

  • whether the cancer cells have hormone receptors and need estrogen or progesterone to grow
  • whether the cancer cells have the HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) protein that helps them grow
  • tumor “grade,” meaning how aggressive the cells look under the microscope
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Image source: National Cancer Institute / seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/breast.html

White women in the United States are most likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Between 2013 and 2017, 131.3 per 100,000 white women were diagnosed with the disease.

There is, however, variation within that group: non-Hispanic white women were far more likely to have been diagnosed than Hispanic white women.

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Image source: National Cancer Institute / seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/breast.html

Black women are the second most likely group to get breast cancer (124.8 per 100,000 women), followed by Asian and Pacific Island women (102.9), Hispanic (99.1), and American Indian and Alaska Native women (79.5).

Survival rates also vary according to race and ethnicity.

From 2013 to 2017, Asian and Pacific Islander women had the lowest death rate, at 11.4 per 100,000 women. This was followed by Hispanic women (14.0), American Indian and Alaska Native women (14.6), white women (19.8), and non-Hispanic white women (21.0).

Black women had the highest death rate, at 27.6 per 100,000 women, despite being the second most likely group to get breast cancer.

This could possibly be due to a lack of access to care. Socioeconomic factors seem to affect disparity in breast cancer mortality. These include:

  • poverty
  • culture
  • social injustice

A 2018 study found that black women may have more difficulty than white women affording and obtaining endocrine therapy to help increase their survival rates.

To help reduce this racial disparity in breast cancer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that public health agencies are attempting to ensure that all women are able to receive screening and treatment.

The most important factor that affects breast cancer survival is whether the cancer has metastasized, or spread to other body organs. The earlier the diagnosis, the greater the chance of treating breast cancer before it advances.

Some types of breast cancer are more aggressive than others. Five-year survival rates tend to be lower for women diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).

TNBC is more likely to spread and recur, especially in the first 3 to 5 years. After 5 years, that risk may be lower compared to other subtypes of breast cancer.

Black women are more likely to get this more aggressive subtype of breast cancer.

A 2019 study found the rate of TNBC from 2010 through 2015 was highest for Black women born in the United States and Western Africa, followed by Caribbean-born Black women, and Eastern-African-born Black women.

Regular screening for breast cancer can help detect it in its earliest stages. Most organizations recommend screening with a mammogram annually starting around the age of 45 years old.

The ACS also recommends that women with a very strong family history or genetic predisposition to developing breast cancer should get a yearly MRI in addition to a mammogram.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, keep in mind that survival rates are only general statistics. They may not reflect the fact that methods to diagnose and treat breast cancer are improving all the time.

And everyone is different. Your personal outlook depends on many factors, so talk to your doctor about your outlook to get a better idea of what to expect.

Read this article in Spanish.