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Last updated: Jan 15, 2022
6 min read

5 factors that influence breast cancer survival rates

If you have recently received a breast cancer diagnosis, you are likely wondering about survival rates and what they really mean. Breast cancer survival rates vary from person to person and are affected by a number of factors including age, overall health, access to care and treatment, the type of cancer, and more.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Breast cancer affects both women and men and is one of the leading causes of cancer-related death worldwide. There’s plenty of information available online regarding survival rates, but it’s important that none of that information takes you and your specific situation into account. If you or someone you know has recently received a diagnosis of breast cancer, consult with a healthcare provider to get more information.

Information available online will always be a partial picture because every case is different. Still, the information is important and can be confusing, so we’ve broken it down for you. 

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What factors influence breast cancer survival rates?

Breast cancer survival rates vary from person to person and are affected by a number of factors. These include your age, overall health, stage of cancer, and more. We’ll take a closer look at these below (Alkabban, 2021). 

Scientists usually measure survival rates according to specific intervals, for example, what percentage of people diagnosed with breast cancer are alive after 5 years? Ten years? Twenty years? Of course, this information fails to take a lot of factors into account, making it a rough estimate at best. 

1. Breast cancer stage

Cancer typically begins as a single, tiny cell that then divides uncontrollably and invades surrounding tissues. If left untreated, invasive cancer cells can detach from the original tumor and spread to other areas of the body. During the early stages, before it has invaded surrounding tissues, cancer is considered to be “early-stage.” In contrast, cancer that has invaded tissues or spread to other locations is often called “late-stage.”

People with non-invasive, early-stage breast cancer (stages 1 and 2) have a higher survival rate than those with later stages (stages 3 and 4) or metastatic breast cancer. 

  • Stage 0: This is considered precancerous and non-invasive. This stage has the best outlook, with a 100% 5-year survival rate, meaning that 100% of people who receive treatment for a stage 0 lesion are alive after five years.
  • Stage 1: Breast cancer is most commonly diagnosed in this stage. Here the tumor is small and localized to the breast. Stage 1 breast cancer also has a 100% 5-year survival rate (Guo, 2019).
  • Stage 2: This stage of breast cancer is also considered early-stage. In stage 2, the tumor has grown larger but is still only in the breast and hasn’t spread elsewhere. Stage 2 has a higher survival rate than stage 3 or 4 breast cancer. 
  • Stage 3: This is called regional or later-stage breast cancer. It has a lower survival rate than earlier stages. In stage 3, the tumor has spread beyond the breast to nearby areas like the skin or lymph nodes. Stage 3 breast cancer is treatable and sometimes even curable, but the recurrence rate is high.
  • Stage 4: In this stage, cancer has spread to distant parts of the body like the bones, liver, or lungs. There are treatment options for stage 4 cancer, and they may extend a person’s life, but they typically will not cure the disease. 

2. Grade of tumor

The grade of tumor describes how fast the cancer is growing. Higher grade tumors are associated with lower breast cancer survival rates (Dong, 2014). The more the cancer has spread, the harder it is to treat, which is why regular breast cancer screening plays an important role. Early detection through mammograms can improve breast cancer survival rates (Seely, 2018). 

3. Type of breast cancer

Some cancers grow more quickly than others, which affects detection rates, survival rates, and treatment success. For example, inflammatory breast cancer is often diagnosed in later stages and has a lower survival rate. 

There are two main categories of breast cancer: invasive and non-invasive. In non-invasive cancer, the tumor hasn’t yet extended beyond where it began. You may hear non-invasive cancer referred to as “in situ,” which means “in its original place.” 

Non-invasive cancer can develop into invasive breast cancer, which is when the tumor spreads into surrounding tissues. Invasive breast cancer has a lower survival rate than non-invasive breast cancer. Within those types, breast cancer can be broken down even further (Alkabban, 2021):

  • Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS): This form of non-invasive breast cancer is localized to the breast lobule, which is the glandular tissue that makes up most of the breast. During lactation, the lobules are responsible for making milk.
  • Invasive lobular cancer: When LCIS spreads beyond where it started, it’s called invasive lobular cancer. This makes up around 10% of breast cancer cases. Because invasive lobular cancer spreads without causing significant changes to the surrounding tissues in many cases, it can be harder to detect in a physical exam or through a mammogram.
  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS): This is another type of non-invasive breast cancer. In DCIS, cancer cells are found in the milk ducts, which are tubes that transport milk to the nipple during lactation. There are four types of DCIS: papillary, cribriform, solid, and comedo. Papillary and cribriform are considered lower-grade and take longer to develop into invasive breast cancer. Solid and comedo DCIS are higher-grade and can become invasive more quickly. 
  • Invasive ductal cancer: This is the most common form of breast cancer, representing 50–70% of all invasive breast cancer cases. It may be felt as a lump on the breast and can be detected by a mammogram. There’s a specific sub-type of invasive ductal cancer called medullary ductal cancer. This is a very rare type of ductal cancer. About 5% of people with breast cancer have the medullary type.

4. Genes and hormones

Certain genes and hormones can affect breast cancer survival rates. 

For example, HER2 is a gene that produces too much of a protein that makes breast cancer more likely to spread or recur. If HER2 is found in cancer cells, it can lower survival rates. Roughly 1 in 5 people with breast cancer have a HER2-positive tumor (Cronin, 2010).

Cancer cells often need certain hormones to grow, and a healthcare provider can look at the cells from the tumor and determine which hormones the tumor cells respond to. This is called the hormone receptor status. For example, cancer cells might have receptors for estrogen or progesterone. 

This is important because there are treatments that mimic those hormones, binding to those receptors but “shutting off” the cancer cells instead of helping them grow. That’s why receptor-positive cancers (those that have the hormone receptors) are often more responsive to treatment and carry better survival rates.

Hormone receptor-negative breast cancers, on the other hand, are more difficult to treat and often have lower survival rates than receptor-positive ones (Dong, 2014).

5. Age

A person’s age at diagnosis can also affect their chances of surviving breast cancer. Women between the ages of 45 and 74 have the highest survival rates, whereas younger women diagnosed with breast cancer have lower survival rates (Assi, 2013).

These are some of the most common factors that affect breast cancer survival rates, but it’s not an exhaustive list. In addition to the above, a person’s overall health and individual response to treatment can impact their survival rate. 

Understanding breast cancer survival rates

When researching breast cancer survival rates, you may encounter the terms overall and relative survival rates. 

  • Overall survival rates: These are averages that represent how many people are still alive within a certain period of time after their diagnosis.
  • Relative survival rates: These compare the chance of surviving for a set period of time (usually five years) for those with breast cancer and those without. For example, if the 5-year survival rate is 95%, it means people with breast cancer are 95% as likely to live for five more years after being diagnosed as those without breast cancer. 

If you haven’t already noticed, survival rates commonly use five years as a timeframe. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean the person with cancer will only survive for five years. Rather, it’s used as a standard timeframe to gauge the outlook of a disease. Many people with breast cancer will live much longer than five years after diagnosis. 

People diagnosed with breast cancer today may have a better survival rate than those at the time of any studies you read since cancer research takes time to publish, and progress is being made constantly when it comes to understanding, diagnosing, and treating cancer. 

Thanks to clinical trials and ongoing research, survival rates from breast cancer have been improving significantly since 1991. In just the past ten years, rates of breast cancer have also declined, which may indicate that early detection before a lesion becomes cancerous, is working (Siegel, 2020; Alkabban, 2021).

If you have questions about treatment options and cancer care, speak with your primary care physician or an oncologist.

References

  1. Alkabban, F. M. & Ferguson, T. (2021). Breast Cancer. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29493913/
  2. Assi, H. A., Khoury, K. E., Dbouk, H., Khalil, L. E., Mouhieddine, T. H., & El Saghir, N. S. (2013). Epidemiology and prognosis of breast cancer in young women. Journal of Thoracic Disease, 5(1), S2–S8. doi:10.3978/j.issn.2072-1439.2013.05.24. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31040712/ 
  3. Cronin, K. A., Harlan, L. C., Dodd, K. W., Abrams, J. S., & Ballard-Barbash, R. (2010). Population-based estimate of the prevalence of HER-2 positive breast cancer tumors for early stage patients in the US. Cancer Investigation, 28(9), 963–968. doi:10.3109/07357907.2010.496759. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20690807/ 
  4. Dong, G., Wang, D., Liang, X., Gao, H., Wang, L., Yu, X., et al. (2014). Factors related to survival rates for breast cancer patients. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, 7(10), 3719–3724. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25419424/
  5. Guo, F., Kuo, Y. F., & Berenson, A. B. (2019). Breast cancer incidence by stage before and after change in screening guidelines. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 56(1), 100–108. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2018.08.018. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30573138/ 
  6. Seely, J. M., & Alhassan, T. (2018). Screening for breast cancer in 2018–what should we be doing today? Current Oncology, 25(1), S115–S124. doi:10.3747/co.25.3770. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29910654/
  7. Siegel, R. L., Miller, K. D., & Jemal, A. (2020). Cancer statistics, 2020. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 70(1), 7–30. doi:10.3322/caac.21590. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31912902/