Breast cancer is a common type of cancer. It usually affects females but can also occur in males. In the past, it was nearly always fatal. However, thanks to medical progress, most people with an early diagnosis can receive effective, lifesaving treatment.
However, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), 90% of people who receive a diagnosis of breast cancer will live for at least another 5 years. This includes all types of breast cancer at any stage of diagnosis.
The survival rate for people who receive a diagnosis of breast cancer in the early stages (or localized cancer) is 99%.
Over 3.1 million females in the U.S. have a history of breast cancer. Ongoing advances in treatment are helping improve survival rates and quality of life for people living with breast cancer.
Breast cancer can develop at any age, but the risk increases as people get older. In the U.S., the average age at diagnosis is 61 years. Males usually receive a diagnosis between the ages of 60–70 years.
Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer can be challenging. Some people may feel overwhelmed and having a sense of unreality or numbness, while knowing that they needed to make decisions.
Often, the first thing a person wants to know when they or a loved one receives a diagnosis is what their chances of survival are.
Health authorities issue statistics that show how many people will make a full recovery and how long a person may expect to live.
However, it is worth remembering the following points when considering these statistics:
- The figures show the average experience of everyone with a diagnosis, not individual cases.
- Figures often show that a certain percentage of people will live at least 5 more years, but many people live far longer.
- Treatment is improving rapidly, but current estimates — based on data collected from 2008–2014 — may not reflect how recent improvements might increase survival rates.
- The estimates do not differentiate between types of cancer. Some cancers grow more slowly, increasing the chance of effective treatment. Others may be difficult to diagnose until the later stages, when it is harder to treat.
- The estimates do not take individual factors, such as age, overall health, hormone receptor status, or access and affordability of healthcare, into account.
Discussing these statistics and a person's situation with a doctor can help clarify what these findings mean for the individual.
The overall average 5-year survival rate for people with invasive breast cancer is 90%, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Invasive breast cancer is any cancer that has already or is likely to spread.
The ACS break down 5-year survival rates into stages, as follows:
Localized: There is a 99% chance of living at least another 5 years if the person receives a diagnosis before the cancer has spread. According to ASCO, 62% of all people receive a diagnosis at this stage.
Regional: If cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or other tissue, the person has an overall 85% chance of living another 5 years or more.
Distant: Also known as metastatic breast cancer, if cancer has spread to other organs, such as the lungs or liver, there is a 27% overall chance of living at least another 5 years. Around 6% of people receive a diagnosis at this stage.
Figures for the U.S. suggest that in 2019, 62,930 females and 2,670 males will receive a diagnosis of breast cancer. Statistics also predict that there will be 42,260 deaths to breast cancer, of which 41,760 will be females and 500 will be males.
5-year survival rates for males
Fewer than 1% of breast cancers develop in males.
Males have a 1 in 833 chance of developing breast cancer. White males have a 100 times lower chance having breast cancer than white females. The risk is 70 times lower among black males compared with black females.
The early symptoms can be harder to spot in males, and only 47% receive a diagnosis at this stage.
As a result, the 5-year survival statistics for males are slightly lower than for females:
- Localized cancer: 100%
- Regional: 75–87%
- Distant: 25%
The overall survival rate for males is 84%.
Learn more about male breast cancer.
On average, 83% of people who receive a diagnosis of breast cancer live for 10 years or longer.
However, fewer statistics or details are available for this period.
Various factors affect how long a person can expect to live when they have breast cancer.
During the diagnostic procedure, a doctor will collect information on how far the cancer has spread and which type of cancer cells are present.
These factors will affect the way the cancer will act and how it will respond to different types of treatment.
Factors that can help determine the stage include:
- the size of the tumor
- if it has spread to nearby tissue or lymph nodes
- if cancer is present in other parts of the body
There are different ways of assigning a stage to cancer, but they all describe how much of the body it has affected.
In general, the less it has spread, the easier it is to treat. The stage of breast cancer at diagnosis is one of the most important factors in predicting survival rates.
Metastatic breast cancer refers to breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Learn more here.
There are various types of breast cancer and different ways of describing them.
One distinction that doctors make is whether a cancer is in situ or invasive. They may also describe a cancer according to where it starts.
This is cancer that has not spread. It is also known as stage 0 cancer.
It may or may not spread in the future. A doctor will often recommend treatment, as they do not know which cases will spread. Ductal carcinoma in situ is a common example of this type.
This is cancer that has started to spread to other areas of the breast. Invasive ductal carcinoma is the most common form of breast cancer. It starts in the milk ducts and moves into surrounding tissue.
Other common types include lobular carcinoma, which can also be in situ or invasive. These types affect the glands that produce milk.
Inflammatory breast cancer
This is a less common type, accounting for 1–5% of cases. It does not usually involve a lump. This makes it harder to diagnose. In around 1 in 3 cases, diagnosis will occur in the later stages, making effective treatment difficult.
Doctors grade cancer cells on a scale of 1 to 3. The grade reflects how much difference there is between an individual's cancer cells and their healthy cells. It also indicates how quickly the cancer cells seem to be growing.
Grade 1 cells usually grow more slowly and are less likely to spread, and there is a better chance of effective treatment.
Proteins and hormones
Certain proteins and hormones in the body can affect a person's outlook. Knowing a person's HER2 status and hormone receptor status can help a doctor recommend the right treatment.
In around 1 in 4 cases of breast cancer, a gene known as HER2 makes too much of the HER2 protein. This can increase the chance of cancer spreading, growing, or recurring.
Medications are available to treat breast cancer that has this feature.
The doctor will discuss the person's HER2 status and what it means, and they will devise a treatment plan that takes this into account.
Hormone receptor status
In some types of breast cancer, hormone-related features can affect the chance of it growing and spreading. Knowing a person's hormone receptor status can affect their treatment options and outlook.
Hormone receptor-positive: These cancers will respond to therapy that affects how hormonal mechanisms work.
Triple-negative and hormone receptor-negative cancers do not have hormonal or HER2 involvement, so they will not respond to treatments that target hormones or HER2.
For now, this can make these types more difficult to treat. However, researchers are looking for therapies with an effective response.
The outlook for many types of breast cancer is good, especially if a person receives a diagnosis in the early stages.
One way to detect breast changes that may need treatment is by attending regular screening.
The American College of Physicians encourage females to start speaking to their doctor about screening from the age of 40 years. Females with an average risk should have a mammogram every 2 years from the age of 50–74.
Other authorities, such as the ACS, make different recommendations. The situation will be different for each person. The doctor can help the individual work out a plan to suit them.
The sooner a person receives a diagnosis, the better chance they have of undergoing effective treatment. Effective treatment usually means a longer outlook.