Cancer and the crystal ball: How long do I have to live?

how long do I have to liveThis is perhaps the hardest question we are asked at the Cancer AnswerLine: “How long do I have to live?” This is not the most pleasant of conversations we encounter, but the nurses at the Cancer AnswerLine don’t dodge this question. Simply, we don’t always have an accurate answer to this important question and cannot provide callers with an exact time frame for life expectancy. Your physician may not be able to answer this question, either – sometimes there is no concrete answer.

When asked this question, we consider the following:

Primary site of cancer: Where did the cancer originate? This is important in considering prognosis. Where the cancer originated is important to predicating response and behavior to treatment.

Stage of cancer: How far a cancer has metastasized (traveled) from its original site is also very important in predicting prognosis.

Cancer grade: The grade refers to how abnormal the cancer cells look and how quickly the cancer is likely to grow and spread.

We have a lot to consider when asked this question. Of course it starts with a basic understanding of the disease and its survival statistics, based on site of cancer and its stage. Then we also figure in the person’s age, general health, treatment availability and social support.

Cancer survival rates tell you the percentage of people who survive a certain type of cancer for a specific amount of time. Cancer statistics often use an overall five-year survival rate. Five-year survival rates include all people who are alive five years after a cancer diagnosis, including those who are in remission or still bill treated.

Cancer survival rates are based on research from information gathered on hundreds or thousands of people with a specific cancer. An overall survival rate includes people of all ages and health conditions who have been diagnosed with your cancer, including those diagnosed very early and those diagnosed very late.

Points to remember:

•Statistics are estimates that describe trends in large numbers of people. Statistics cannot be used to predict what will actually happen to an individual.

•Survival statistics for different cancer types, stages of cancer, age groups, or time periods can vary dramatically. People are encouraged to ask their doctor for the most appropriate statistics based on their individual medical condition.

The good news is that according to the American Cancer Society, cancer death rates have steadily declined (20%) for the past twenty years. New treatments and people living healthier lifestyles are contributing factors in this decrease. I wish we could give our callers specific information regarding prognosis, but there is so much information that needs to be addressed before anyone can answer that question.

Take the next step:

  • Learn more about cancer facts and statistics from the American Cancer Society.
  • See what the Michigan Department of Community Health says about the cancer burden in Michigan.
  • Still have questions? Call the nurses at the University of Michigan Cancer AnswerLine™. They can help patients or their loved ones find a clinical trial or provide insights into the newest and latest cancer treatments. Feel free to call at 1-800-865-1125 or send an e-mail.


2013 annette 1The Cancer AnswerLine™ nurses are experienced in oncology care, including helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer. These registered oncology nurses are available by calling 800-865-1125 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Your call is always free and confidential.



University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer CenterThe University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.