Survival Statistics Can Your Physician Really Predict How Long You Have to Live?

One of the most common sources of distress after a diagnosis of cancer is being told that you have “X” number of months or years to live. This is often presented in the form of a risk-based percentage, such as “a 30 percent chance of surviving one year.” For anyone on the receiving end of such a dire prediction, such statements can seem tantamount to a death sentence, often resulting in profound grief and depression. In fact, some patients simply stop fighting and caring for themselves. Instead of finding ways to live, they focus on preparing to die.

Over the past four-plus decades, I have cared for numerous cancer patients who were told at the time of their diagnosis that they had only three to six months to live. And yet, years later, many of these same individuals are alive and doing quite well. As I told them when they first came to our Center for treatment, “forget all the talk of survival statistics. They don’t apply to you. Because all statistics, by definition, apply only to groups, not individuals.” In fact, I refer to them as “population statistics,” since they have little to do with the individual. Researchers use them to determine whether a therapy is likely to work or not, and physicians use them to help make choices among different therapies. However, as forecasts of any single individual’s lifespan, such numbers tend to obscure the immense variation in disease resistance that exists within any given population. Each of us is entirely unique in our ability to fight disease. Each of us has certain genetic, biochemical and physiological characteristics that can profoundly sharpen our “survivor’s edge.” And each of us makes decisions regarding diet, lifestyle and type of treatment, which can also impact outcome.

These daily life habits, such as eating a cancer-fighting diet, may place one firmly outside the statistical “norm” in any particular population study (by “norm” I mean that segment of the population that shares the most common characteristics, such as the typical American diet, a stressful lifestyle, lack of exercise, and so forth). In fact, changes in diet and exercise are two of the most powerful yet widely overlooked ways that those with cancer can step beyond the norm. The statistics on cure rates and five-year survival are mainly based on studies of cancer patients who are eating the typical American diet and living in the same manner that may very well have contributed to their initial diagnosis. As regular readers of my blog are aware, a sedentary lifestyle can result in a marked weakening of one’s anticancer defenses, and the typical American diet is high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates – both insidious promoters of tumor growth. In contrast, when you eat a low-fat, plant-based diet and exercise regularly, you’re taking steps to bolster your cancer-fighting resources. In addition, if you regularly practice yoga, meditation, visualization or other stress reduction techniques, and if you take specific nutritional and botanical supplements that are tailored to your individual biochemistry and the unique molecular features of your illness – in other words, if you are taking a truly integrative approach to treatment – I believe you will further distance yourself from the statistical “norm.”

As a physician who has spent a great deal of time studying innovative biological strategies in cancer care, I know that each one of us has a great deal of disease-fighting potential packed into our bodies. Many of our long-term cancer survivors – including those who were given up on prior to initiating care with us – are patients who did everything possible to bolster this potential. By implementing the diverse strategies described in Life Over Cancer, they have certainly stepped outside the norm. I believe they belong within a class of vital cancer survivorship that conventional oncology has only begun to glimpse. As time goes on more individuals will enter into this class; I believe they are skewing the national survival statistics in an ever more favorable direction.

Truth be told, not even the best cancer biostatistician on the planet can consistently predict the outcome of your treatment. Survival for any group of patients with identical diagnoses receiving identical treatment may vary from months to years to decades. Again, the inescapable compelling fact is that many cancer patients surprise their doctors and everyone else by outliving grim or dismal statistical expectations.

The take-home lesson is this: You may not be able to predict with certainty your own survival but with the help of an individualized (personally tailored) integrative program, you can buy better survival odds. You buy better survival odds by standing at the helm of your own care and by making choices which support your overall therapeutic program with specific health- optimizing practices.

Keith I. Block, MD

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