A prognosis is basically a prediction. When offered by a doctor, it is a prediction of how the course of a disease or condition may progress. It may include an estimate of the chance of recovery from a medical condition or disease.

Commonly, a prognosis will be based on statistics of how the general population has responded to the medical condition and treatment in the past.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, your first concern is often about your near and long-term future. You want to know about your chances for recovery, chances of cancer recurrence, and chances of survival.

A prognosis can offer a suggestion of the possible course and outcome of your cancer diagnosis.

With cancer, prognosis can depend on several factors, including:

  • the type and subtype of cancer
  • the location of the cancer
  • the stage of disease at diagnosis — has the cancer metastasized and, if so, how far has it spread?
  • the grade of the cancer — how abnormal the cancer cells appear when compared under the microscope to normal cells
  • the molecular profile of the tumor
  • the presence of chromosomal abnormalities
  • abnormalities in complete blood count (CBC)

Other contributing factors include:

  • general overall health
  • age
  • gender
  • response to treatment

Doctors use statistics to inform their prognosis for providing answers to their patients. Statistics are helpful in making predictions, but they are estimates that typically include information from large numbers of people.

When you ask your doctor for statistics about your situation, understand that although statistics can help with predictions, they cannot predict what will actually happen to an individual person. They do not look at individual variations.

Also, be aware that statistics can be dated. For example, the 5-year survival rates are a minimum of 5 years old. New cancer treatments may not be factored in when calculating those survival rates.

When discussing your prognosis, your doctor might use terms such as:

  • Survival rate. The percent of people who survive cancer for a specific period of time. For example, according to the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rate for thyroid cancer is 98.1 percent.
  • Progression-free survival (PFS). The length of time during and after treatment that the cancer remains stable (does not grow or spread further).
  • Disease-free survival (DFS). The length of time following treatment that a patient remains free of detectable cancer.
  • Median survival rate. Also called median overall survival, the time, starting at diagnosis date or treatment start, that half or a group of patients with a similar diagnosis are still alive.
  • Overall survival (OS). The length of time, starting at diagnosis date or treatment start, someone survives before death from any cause including cancer.
  • Mortality rate. For a specific population, the number of deaths during a specific time.
  • Clinical trial. A research study to test new treatments for viability, safety, and the possibility that they’re a better alternative to current treatments.

Along with carefully following your doctor’s treatment plan, it may be possible to improve your cancer prognosis by making certain lifestyle changes. This may include:

  • stopping unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol
  • eating a healthy diet tailored to your condition
  • getting regular exercise
  • soliciting support from family, friends, or a cancer community

Understand the limitations in the prognosis of cancer. It’s an educated guess.

A prognosis is based on statistics about the average outcome of a group of people, often based on information from the past. You are an individual and there are many other factors about you that can affect a prognosis.

If you need more information about your prognosis of cancer, your doctor can help you understand specific details and the possible meaning of statistics to your individual situation.