If you hear the words “you have colon cancer,” it’s completely natural to feel fear about your future. One of the first questions you may have is “What is my prognosis?” or “Is my cancer curable?” It’s important to remember that cancer survival statistics are complex and can be confusing. These numbers are based on large groups of people with cancer and cannot predict exactly how well you or any one person will do. No two people diagnosed with colon cancer are exactly alike.
Your doctor will do the best they can to answer your questions based on the information they have about your cancer. But prognosis and survival statistics are meant to be used as a guideline.
Colon cancer is currently the fourth most common cancer diagnosed in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 139,000 people were diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014. That same year, close to 52,000 people died from the disease.
The good news is the outlook for people with colon cancer has improved in the last several years. According to the Colorectal Cancer Coalition, the survival rate for people with colon cancer has increased by roughly 30 percent from 1991 through 2009.
If you’ve been diagnosed with colon cancer, many factors affect your prognosis. According to the National Cancer Institute, these factors include:
- Stage: The stage of colon cancer refers to how far it has spread. As reported by the American Cancer Society, localized cancer that hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes or distant organs generally has a better outcome than cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
- Grade: Cancer grade refers to how close the cancer cells look to normal cells. The more abnormal the cells look, the higher the grade. Low-grade cancers tend to have a better outcome.
- Lymph node involvement: The lymph system helps rid the body of waste material. In some cases, cancer cells travel from their original site to the lymph nodes. In general, the more lymph nodes that have cancer cells, the higher your chances are for the cancer to return.
- General health: Your general health affects your ability to tolerate treatment and may play a role in your outcome. In many cases, the healthier you are at the time of diagnosis, the better you may deal with treatment and its side effects.
- Colon blockage: Colon cancer can cause a blockage of the colon or grow through the colon wall and cause a hole in the bowel. Either of these situations can impact your outlook.
- Presence of carcinoembryonic antigen: Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) is a protein molecule in the blood. The blood levels of CEA can increase when colon cancer is present. The presence of CEA at diagnosis may affect how well you respond to treatment.
Colon cancer survival rates tell you the percentage of people with colon cancer who are still alive after a certain number of years. Many colon cancer statistics involve a five-year survival rate. For example, if the five-year survival rate for localized colon cancer is 90 percent, that means that 90 percent of the people diagnosed with localized colon cancer are still alive five years after their initial diagnosis.
Keep in mind, statistics don’t tell individual stories and can’t predict your individual outcome. It’s easy to get caught up in prognosis and outcomes, but remember that everyone is different. Your colon cancer experience may be different than that of someone else, even if you have the same staged disease.
It’s also important to understand new treatments, as clinical trials are continually developing novel treatment options. However, it can take several years to quantify the success and significance of those treatments on life expectancy. The impact of newer treatments on colon cancer survival rates is not included in the statistics your doctor may discuss.
According to data from the 2007–2013 Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program, the average five-year survival rate for people with colon cancer was 65.1 percent. More detailed results are as follows:
- Localized: Cancer that has not spread beyond the primary site, which is usually stage 0 and stage 1, has a five-year survival rate of 89.9 percent.
- Regional: Regional cancer is defined by the SEER program as cancer that has spread to nearby lymph nodes. The five-year survival rate for regional staged colon cancer is 71.3 percent.
- Distant: Distant spread of disease is considered if cancer has grown or metastasized to other parts of the body, such as the brain, liver, or lungs. The five-year survival rate for cancer that has metastasized is 13.9 percent.
- Unknown stage: In some cases, cancer may not be staged. For example, a person who has a cancer diagnosis may decide not to have further testing or undergo treatment. In that type of situation, the stage of the cancer may be unknown. The five-year survival for colon cancer that is not staged is 35.4 percent.
Five-year survival rates for colon cancer are generally broken down by stage. They don’t usually take into account other specific factors, such as grade, CEA marker, or different types of treatments. For example, your doctor may recommend a different treatment plan than someone else with colon cancer. How people respond to treatment also varies greatly. Both of these factors affect outcomes.
Lastly, survival rates for colon cancer can be confusing and even upsetting. For that reason, some people choose not to discuss prognosis or life expectancy with their doctor. If you want to know typical outcomes for your cancer, talk with your doctor. But if you don’t want to discuss it, let your doctor know. Keep in mind that these numbers are general guidelines and can’t predict your individual situation or outcome.