A doctor may talk with a person about their outlook following a cancer diagnosis. An outlook provides a general idea of how well a doctor or treatment team believes a person will respond to treatment.

Survival rates play a role in expressing a person’s outlook, but they are not without flaws.

Survival rates are estimates, which means they cannot tell a person how long they will live. However, they can show the percentage of people with the same type of cancer who have lived for several years following a diagnosis. Estimates typically consist of 5-year spans.

Outlooks and survival rates involve a number of factors, including the type of cancer, the stage of cancer at diagnosis, whether cancer has spread, the person’s age, and so on.

This article reviews the overall outlook for people who receive a diagnosis of colorectal cancer at various stages.

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Researchers and doctors typically determine survival rates based on the number of people still alive 5 years after receiving a diagnosis.

The American Cancer Society breaks down colorectal cancer survival rates into four basic categories or stages based on the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program. These stages include:

  • Localized: Cancer has not spread out of the colon or rectum.
  • Regional: Cancer has spread to local tissues or lymph nodes.
  • Distant: Cancer has spread beyond the colon or rectum to distant areas of the body.
  • Combined: The average rate based on all stages of the cancer.

Rates can sometimes include more specific breakdowns, including by gender and race.

The following is a breakdown of colon cancer survival based on SEER stages. Data come from the American Cancer Society unless otherwise stated.

Localized

The 5-year survival rate for localized colon cancer is 91%. In other words, 91% of people who receive a new diagnosis of localized colon cancer are still alive after 5 years.

Regional

When colon cancer has spread to surrounding tissue and lymph nodes, it lowers a person’s estimated 5-year survival rate. People who receive a diagnosis of regional colon cancer have a chance of survival after 5 years of 72%.

Distant

Distant colon cancer means cancer has spread to other areas of the body. The 5-year survival rate for a person with this stage of colon cancer is 14%.

Based on sex

There appears to be a difference in survival rates between males and females.

Though a separate breakdown is not available, research published in 2020 indicates that females have a higher survival rate than men. Researchers note that estrogen may play an important role in protecting females from colon cancer.

Based on race and ethnicity

Several studies have reported that people from different racial and ethnic groups may have a higher or lower likelihood of death from colon cancer.

For example, a 2018 study examined data from multiple cancer registries. The authors reported that the survival disparity for cancer in the proximal colon between Black and white people had increased between 1992–1996 and 2010–2014.

Studies have pointed to socioeconomic factors impacting survival rates.

A study published in 2021 found that racial differences have little impact on a person’s survival rate for colon cancer. Instead, they found that a person’s survival rate came down strictly to their economic situation and access to quality care.

The American Cancer Society elaborates on the differences in survival rates based on race. They note that among broadly defined racial and ethnic groups, non-Hispanic Black people have about a 40% higher chance of mortality from colorectal cancer compared with non-Hispanic whites. It notes the situation’s complexity but ultimately concludes that the various risk factors relate to socioeconomic differences.

Doctors and researchers also break rectal cancer survival down by stage at diagnosis. The following are 5-year survival rates based on data from the American Cancer Society.

Localized

The average 5-year survival rate for a person who receives a diagnosis of localized rectal cancer is 89%.

Regional

A person whose rectal cancer has spread to local tissue or lymph nodes has an average survival rate of 72% after 5 years.

Distant

A person who receives a diagnosis of rectal cancer that has spread to distant areas of the body has a 16% chance of surviving in 5 years.

Based on sex

Sex may play a role in the overall survival rate of a person living with rectal cancer.

The authors of a 2020 study suggest that males with the illness have a slightly worse outlook than females. They note that biological differences and environmental exposures may be to blame.

However, they also conclude that the gap in survival rates is closing. They indicate that further studies are required to fully understand how sex affects a person’s rectal cancer survival rate.

Based on race and ethnicity

As mentioned above, race and ethnicity may play a role in raising or lowering a group’s overall survival rate.

The American Cancer Society notes that socioeconomic inequities based on race and ethnicity play a crucial role in a person’s ability to get quality medical care. They also affect the ability to reduce risk factors for both rectal and colon cancers.

In assessing various groups’ survival rates, the American Cancer Society notes that socioeconomic inequities can play a role in a person’s likelihood of survival. In other words, a person’s access to healthcare and overall wealth can influence how likely they are to die from colorectal cancer.

Differences in outcomes between broadly defined racial and ethnic groups are complex. However, many attribute the differences in survival between these groups to socioeconomic issues.

Other factors, such as sex, may also play a role in survival. For example, females have a slightly higher survival rate than males, which research suggests may be due to the presence of estrogen.

Finally, other factors that can affect a person’s outlook include:

Metastasis refers to cancer that has spread beyond the original tissue the cancer grew in. SEER defines this as “distant,” while doctors may refer to it as Stage 4 or metastasized colorectal cancer.

According to a 2020 study, about 20–25% of new colorectal cancer cases present as metastasized.

Though chances of metastasis are difficult to calculate, some experts suggest that doctors are more likely to diagnose colorectal cancer after it has already spread. Screenings may help improve the likelihood of finding and treating it sooner.

Colorectal cancer can cause symptoms local to the colon and rectum. It can also cause symptoms in other areas of the body if it has spread.

Some common symptoms of colorectal cancer include:

If cancer has spread, it could cause symptoms related to other areas of the body, such as the lungs, liver, or brain. These symptoms will vary based on the area of the body affected.

When a person receives a diagnosis of colorectal cancer, they will likely have several questions they want to ask a doctor. Writing a list can help ensure a person does not miss a question.

Some questions to consider include:

  • What treatment options are available for me?
  • How will treatment affect my likelihood of survival?
  • Are there lifestyle changes I can make to improve my outlook?
  • What are the next steps?
  • What are my odds of survival based on my health, age, and other relevant factors?

When caught early, most people with colorectal cancer have a high chance of survival after 5 years. The later a doctor diagnoses the condition, the more these chances reduce.

A person should speak with a doctor about their outlook based on their unique situation.