One of the first questions that many people have after receiving a cancer diagnosis is how long breast cancer survivors live.

Most breast cancer cases are highly treatable, especially when a doctor diagnoses them at an early stage. Many people survive for years or even decades after getting a breast cancer diagnosis and receiving treatment. Typically, the earlier a doctor diagnoses and treats the condition, the better a person’s outlook.

Regular follow-up appointments are important for monitoring a person’s health after breast cancer treatment.

Read on to learn about the importance of follow-up care and the long-term outlook for breast cancer survivors.

After receiving treatment for breast cancer, a person should attend regular follow-up appointments to allow their doctor to:

  • monitor their recovery
  • check for signs that the cancer has returned or started to grow again
  • identify and manage side effects from treatments

Their doctor will ask them about their health and conduct physical exams to check for treatment side effects or signs that the cancer has returned or started to grow. They may order blood tests, imaging tests, or other tests if necessary.

Checking for cancer recurrence and growth

The National Cancer Institute (NCI)’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results database classifies breast cancer into three stages:

  • Localized: This means that the cancer does not appear to have spread outside of the breast.
  • Regional: This means that the cancer has spread from the breast to nearby lymph nodes or structures.
  • Distant: The means that the cancer has spread from the breast to distant parts of the body, such as the bones, liver, or lungs.

Most cases of localized and regional breast cancer are curable with treatment. In some cases, however, breast cancer returns after initial treatment. This is known as breast cancer recurrence.

If breast cancer spreads to distant organs, it is not curable. That said, treatment can help slow the growth of tumors and sometimes shrink them. Tumors may start to grow again if the treatment stops working.

Doctors may prescribe long-term medication and recommend lifestyle changes to help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence or growth.

If someone experiences cancer recurrence or tumors start to grow again, their doctor can help them understand their treatment options. Early diagnosis and treatment are important.

Managing treatment side effects

Breast cancer treatments can cause a variety of side effects. Some side effects may be short-lived and resolve on their own. Others may require treatment to manage.

For example, a person’s doctor may:

  • adjust their medication regimen if they develop side effects from medication
  • refer them to a physical or occupational therapist if their physical function declines after treatment
  • recommend breast reconstruction surgery if they are dissatisfied with the shape or look of their breast following breast cancer surgery

Breast cancer and cancer treatments may also affect a person’s mental health. If they are experiencing mental health challenges, their doctor may prescribe medication, counseling, or a combination of both.

A person should let their doctor know about any changes in their physical or mental health during follow-up appointments, even if they are not certain that the changes are related to breast cancer or cancer treatments. Some treatment side effects may take months or years to appear.

Scientists use relative survival rates to help people with breast cancer learn about their outlook.

For example, the 5-year survival rate indicates how many people with breast cancer are still alive 5 years after getting a diagnosis compared with people without breast cancer.

Such survival rates are estimates that scientists develop using data on breast cancer. Some breast cancer tumors have characteristics that make them more treatable than others, which affects a person’s outlook.

Overall survival rates

The NCI reports the following relative survival rates for breast cancer:

5-year survival rate10-year survival rate
Overall breast cancer89.9%84.4%
Localized breast cancer98.8%96.4%
Regional breast cancer85.4%75.8%
Distant breast cancer27.7%14.4%

This means that most people with breast cancer survive for at least 10 years after getting a diagnosis.

Survival rates are lower for distant breast cancer than for localized or regional disease. Even so, more than a quarter of people with distant breast cancer live for at least 5 years.

Research suggests that survival rates for people with distant cancer have improved with treatment advancements. As treatment options continue to improve, survival rates may improve as well. Current survival rates may be higher than the latest data show.

Individual outlook

Doctors cannot know for certain how long a particular individual with breast cancer will live. However, they might estimate the person’s outlook based not only on cancer stage but also on the following factors, according to the NCI:

  • The size of the tumor: Larger tumors are more likely to recur than smaller tumors.
  • The grade of the tumor: Healthcare professionals examine tumor cells under a microscope to learn how likely a tumor is to grow and spread. Low grade tumors typically grow more slowly and are less likely to spread than high grade tumors.
  • Hormone receptor status: Some breast cancer tumors are hormone receptor-positive, which means that they need estrogen, progesterone, or both to grow. Thanks to hormone-blocking therapies, these tumors tend to be more treatable than hormone receptor-negative tumors and are less likely to recur within 5 years after treatment.
  • Human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) status: Some breast cancer tumors have a lot of HER2 protein. This causes them to grow and spread more quickly. These tumors tend to be aggressive, which reduces survival rates and increases the risk of recurrence.

Breast cancer treatments also affect a person’s chances of survival and risk of recurrence. A person’s doctor can help them understand and weigh the potential benefits and risks of different treatment approaches.

Doctors may use specialized scoring systems, software programs, or other tools to estimate an individual’s outlook.

Many people with breast cancer live for decades following diagnosis and treatment. According to a 2019–2020 report from the American Cancer Society, the 15-year relative survival rate for people with breast cancer is 80%.

Long-term survival rates are much lower for distant breast cancer than for localized and regional breast cancer. According to the NCI, under 15% of people with distant breast cancer live for 10 years or longer. However, scientists are continually improving treatments for distant breast cancer.

Many people with localized or regional breast cancer survive for 20 years or longer after receiving a diagnosis and treatment.

It is rare for someone with distant breast cancer to live for 20 years. However, scientists are continuing to improve treatments for distant breast cancer.

Multiple factors affect a person’s short- and long-term outlook with breast cancer. In addition to the tumor characteristics above, these factors include demographic and lifestyle factors such as:

  • Age: Research suggests that women who develop breast cancer under the age of 35 years tend to have aggressive, fast-growing tumors that have often spread by the time of diagnosis. Their outlook tends to be poorer than that for older, postmenopausal women with breast cancer.
  • Race and ethnicity: According to a 2019 report, Black women with breast cancer are more likely than white women with breast cancer to die from the condition. This likely reflects disparities in healthcare access as well as differences in tumor characteristics.
  • Weight: A 2018 review found that obesity raises the risk of breast cancer recurrence and death from breast cancer. Obesity also increases the risk of many other health conditions that may impact survival as well as the risk of mortality from any cause.
  • Physical activity: A 2021 study linked physical activity to a reduced risk of recurrence and increased survival among women with breast cancer. Survivors who exercised 2–5 days per week were 63% less likely than inactive survivors to have a recurrence.
  • Diet: A 2018 review found limited evidence to suggest that a low fat diet may help prevent breast cancer recurrence. Eating a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet also has benefits for overall physical and mental health.
  • Alcohol: According to a 2016 review, some but not all studies on alcohol consumption among breast cancer survivors have linked drinking to increased risk of recurrence.

Although some of these factors are not modifiable, others are. Overall, research suggests that practicing healthy lifestyle factors may help reduce the risk of recurrence and improve survival among people with breast cancer.

Thanks to early diagnosis and treatment, many people with breast cancer can live for decades after learning that they have the condition. Survival rates are particularly high for people with localized or regional breast cancer that has not spread to distant organs. However, survival is improving for people with distant breast cancer.

Following treatment for breast cancer, it is important for survivors to attend follow-up appointments with their doctor. This allows doctors to manage potential side effects of treatment and check for signs that breast cancer has returned or started to grow again.

A person’s doctor may also share tips for reducing their risk of recurrence and improving their overall outlook through lifestyle changes.