What is a cancer prognosis?

A prognosis gives an idea about whether the cancer can be cured and what may happen in the future. Find out more about what it is and how doctors estimate a prognosis.

About your prognosis

When you are diagnosed with cancer, you might have questions. You may want to know if it is possible to cure the cancer or what is likely to happen in the future. This is called a prognosis.

A prognosis can tell you:

  • how likely the cancer is to be cured
  • what the chances are of a full recovery
  • how long you are likely to live if the cancer cannot be cured.

Your prognosis is based on different factors:

  • the type of cancer you have and where it is in the body
  • the stage of the cancer – the size of the cancer and whether it has spread
  • the grade of the cancer – how quickly the cancer may grow
  • your age and general health
  • how the treatment might affect you physically
  • how the cancer responds to treatment.

Estimating your prognosis

Your cancer doctor estimates your prognosis using statistics taken from research studies over many years. These studies include large groups of people who have the same type of cancer. The studies usually compare new treatments with current treatments.

It is important to remember that the studies cannot tell you what will happen to you as an individual. Everyone is different and can respond to treatment in different ways. But the research can give an idea of the likely outcome of treatment.

Your doctor’s estimate may change over time, based on new research, advances in treatment, and how you respond to treatment.

If you decide not to have treatment, it may be more difficult for your cancer doctor to estimate a prognosis. This is because survival statistics most often come from studies that compare treatments with each other, rather than ones that compare having treatment with not having treatment. But you can still ask them any questions you have.

Understanding your prognosis

Doctors may give you a general idea of what the prognosis is. For example, statistics may show that your cancer is likely to respond well to treatment. In this situation, your cancer doctor may tell you that you have a good outlook or prognosis. Or if the cancer is harder to control, they may tell you that you have a poor outlook or prognosis.

Some people may want to know exactly how long they have to live, so that they can make plans. But it can be difficult for your cancer doctor to give an exact prognosis. Usually, they will only be able to give a range of time. For example this might be a few months to a year. This is still only an estimate based on all the facts, and could be shorter or longer.

Survival statistics

Your cancer doctor may use survival statistics to give more information about your prognosis. Many research studies talk about 5 year or 10 year survival. This is because they look at the number of people alive 5 or 10 years after a cancer diagnosis. Some people will live much longer than this.

Statistics can be complex and difficult to understand. It may be helpful to have a family member or friend with you when you talk to the cancer doctor. Or you could write the statistics down and look at them later with someone you trust.

If you find the statistics complex, you can ask your cancer doctor to make the information easier to understand. You might want to use percentages, charts or diagrams instead.

You may also see different terms if you are looking for information on the internet or in research journals:

Cancer-specific survival

This is the percentage of people with a certain type and stage of cancer who have not died from their cancer during a period of time after diagnosis. 5 years is the time period most often used. But it could be any number of years. This does not include deaths from other conditions, such as heart attacks or strokes.

Overall survival

This is the percentage of people with a certain type and stage of cancer who have not died from any cause during a period of time after diagnosis.

Disease-free survival

This is the percentage of people who have no signs of their cancer during a period of time after treatment. It is sometimes called recurrence-free survival.

Progression-free survival

This is the percentage of people with cancer that is stable and has not got worse over a period of time.

Finding out more about your prognosis

Talk to your cancer doctor if you would like to know more about your prognosis. They will know the most about your situation and be in the best position to answer your questions.

If they tell you the cancer cannot be cured, it can be difficult to ask what will happen or how long you have to live. Think about how much you want to know. It might help to write down your questions. You do not have to ask everything all at once.

Knowing more about your prognosis can help you plan for the future. It may also help you to think about:

  • your treatment choices
  • how you would like to be cared for in the future
  • your finances and any legal matters
  • practical things you have to organise
  • things you might want to say to friends or loved ones.

You should be careful if you are making big personal or financial decisions based on your prognosis. Remember that your prognosis is only an estimate of what might happen, based on the best information available. This means it is possible for it to be wrong.

If you do not want to know your prognosis

Not everyone wants to know what will happen. Tell your cancer doctor and specialist nurse how much you want to know about your prognosis. It will not affect the treatment or care you have. It is also okay to change your mind and ask for more information later.

Getting support

It is natural to feel anxious or nervous when asking about prognosis. You may find it helpful to have someone with you when you talk to your cancer doctor.

Finding out you have a poor prognosis can be very difficult. You may feel shocked and numb, or you may be frightened or angry. These feelings can be hard to cope with, but your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can refer you to someone who can help if you need it. You might prefer to talk to someone close to you about your feelings. You can also speak to one of our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.