Of course, as with all things on the Internet, the information you gather (especially about medical topics) may not be accurate or, in fact, apply to you or your situation.
“As wonderful as the Internet is, and as well-meaning as friends and family members may be, patients in moments of fear and need seek out any resource imaginable,” says Steven Kalkanis, M.D., a neurosurgeon specializing in brain tumor treatment at Henry Ford Health. “The information that’s out there can sometimes lead people astray because they don’t take into account the specifics of an individual, like their age, ethnicity, whether or not they’ve been sick before, what treatments they used, where the tumor is located, or how big it is.”
Consequently, it’s important to take a step back, and remember that each cancer diagnosis is unique. That said, Dr. Kalkanis answers common questions below on how to understand the basics of different cancer stages and information on survival rates.
Understanding Cancer Stages and Survival Rates
Q:What are cancer stages and what do they indicate?
Dr. Kalkanis: Cancer is typically divided into stages 1 – 4, but there are often subdivisions within those stages dubbed A, B, and C. Essentially, staging has to do with the spread of the cancer cells. The higher the stage, the farther the cancer has spread beyond the tissue of origin – the breast, the lung, the pancreas, etc.
Q:Are stages different for every type of cancer?
Dr. Kalkanis: Yes, every stage is different depending on the tissue types. But the common feature across all staging is an indicator of whether or not the cancer is localized to the tissue of origin.
Q: Why are cancer stages important?
Dr. Kalkanis: Staging is important because it allows the team --- the oncologists and others – to understand how advanced the disease is when it’s diagnosed and what treatments we should start with. Oftentimes the drugs and radiation therapies and so forth can be toxic, so if it’s an early stage cancer, you can be more conservative. But if an analysis comes back with an advanced stage, you’re likely going to be more aggressive.
Also, if you can catch something early through screening or by being very vigilant about symptoms that might be occurring, it may have an impact on your survival because you’re identifying cancer before it’s had the opportunity to grow beyond its initial origin.
Q: How reliable are cancer survival rates?
Dr. Kalkanis: Patients and families should know that even though different stages have very different survival rates, those numbers are averages for a population. They really don’t tell a story about what will happen to an individual case or patient.
I tell people all the time that I have patients who have stage IV advanced disease, and they’re alive 10 years later for all kinds of reasons. On the other end of the spectrum, I have patients who have very low-grade, early-stage cancers that suggest they have a wonderful 5-10 year survival, but they recur to an aggressive form of cancer because of their particular molecular profile.
So staging and survival rates do not always mean a definite path to understanding how someone will do.
Q: Where can you find reliable information about staging and survival rates?
Dr. Kalkanis: Someone’s own physician is going to have the most complete picture of what a diagnosis means for that particular patient. I tell patients that staging is important to get a sense of how serious a cancer is and what we’re dealing with, but how they respond to that first round of therapy is often much more telling than the initial diagnosis. Even people with advanced stages can respond very well to initial treatment, as long as we find the right mix of treatment for them.
There’s nothing wrong with going online to get a lay of the land, but it’s highly unlikely that what you read is going to be relevant to your own case. There are so many variables that make information found online or whatever your neighbor experienced when they had cancer inaccurate. What might have been right for them for treatment or recovery may be radically different from you.
Dr. Steven N. Kalkanis is a neurosurgeon with Henry Ford Health. He serves as chair of the Henry Ford Department of Neurosurgery, CEO of the Henry Ford Medical Group and Senior Vice President and Chief Academic Officer of Henry Ford Health. He was also the founding medical director of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.