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Cancer survival statistics, 2020 update

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Released: 2020-11-27

Nearly one in two Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. The outlook for people who develop cancer can vary considerably depending on the type of cancer for which they are diagnosed. While the average probability of surviving some cancers for five or more years can exceed 95%, for other cancers it is 10% or less.

The net survival estimates presented here provide a measure of disease severity and prognosis. Specifically, five-year net survival refers to the percentage of people diagnosed with a cancer who survive five years past their date of diagnosis assuming that the cancer of interest is the only possible cause of death (see Note to readers for more information). Estimates are based on the most recent data from the Canadian Cancer Registry, covering cancer cases diagnosed from 1992 to 2017, linked to multiple sources of death information including the Canadian Vital Statistics — Death Database.

While the results provided herein pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic, they provide a baseline with which to eventually gauge the impact of the pandemic on cancer survival statistics. Delays in the diagnosis and treatment of some cancers as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic may result in a progression of disease to a point where the prognosis or survival outcome is less favourable for patients.

Survival highest for thyroid and testicular cancer

Five-year net survival for 2017 was highest for thyroid cancer and for testicular cancer, each at 97%. As the numbers would suggest, both of these cancers usually respond very well to treatment. Approximately three out of every four cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed among females, for whom five-year survival is slightly higher (98%) than it is among males (95%).

Testicular cancer is distinguished by its atypically young age at diagnosis. Almost two of every three cases are diagnosed in males under the age of 50, whereas for cancer in general it is less than one in ten. Five-year net survival for this cancer is consistently above 90% across different age groups.

Five-year net survival was also relatively high for cancers of the prostate (91%), breast (89%) and for melanomas of the skin (89%). The relatively favourable prognoses for these cancers is encouraging, especially considering that they are among the most commonly diagnosed cancers. While five-year survival for breast cancer is worse among males (76%) than females (89%), they constitute a small fraction of the cases. Five-year survival is also higher among females (92%) than males (86%) for melanomas of the skin.

Screening for cancer in asymptomatic individuals in the population can lead to the early detection and treatment of cancer which may lead to improvements in survival in some situations. The relatively high five-year survival for breast cancer may be attributed, in part, to the widespread use of mammography screening. Mammography is an X-ray of the breast used to help detect both cancerous and non-cancerous tumours. In 2017, 91.4% of women aged 50 to 74 reported having a mammogram in their lifetime, and 78.5% within the previous three years.

Survival lowest for mesothelioma and pancreatic cancer

At 9%, the five-year net survival was lowest for mesothelioma, a type of cancer that develops in the thin layer of tissue that covers a majority of the body's internal organs. Diagnoses of this cancer can be delayed because symptoms are often similar to those of less serious illnesses. The main risk factor for mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos.

Approximately four out of every five cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed among males, for whom five-year survival is poorer (6%) than it is among females (20%). One factor in this difference is likely the greater historical frequency of primary exposure or direct contact with asbestos among males, through construction and mining occupations. Among females, secondary exposure—which occurs when asbestos fibers are brought home on the workers' body and clothing—has historically been more common. In addition, females are more likely than males to develop a subtype of mesothelioma which has a more favorable prognosis than other forms of mesothelioma.

The five-year net survival among those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer was similarly low at 10%. Pancreatic cancer often does not cause symptoms until it has spread to other organs in the body. As a result, it is seldom detected at its early stages when it is most treatable. For this cancer, there is no overall appreciable difference in five-year survival between the sexes.

After mesothelioma and pancreatic cancer, the cancers associated with the next lowest five-year net survival were esophageal (16%) and brain (20%) cancer.

Improved survival greatest for blood cancers

The individual cancers associated with the greatest improvements in survival over the last 23 years are all blood cancers. From 1994 to 2017, the five-year age-standardized (see Note to readers) net survival for chronic myeloid leukemia increased 25 percentage points to 60%. This form of leukemia is a type of cancer of the bone marrow, where blood cells are made. Two other types of blood cancers were associated with the next highest increases in survival over time. Five-year age-standardized net survival for myeloma has increased 23 percentage points to 50% since the early 1990s, while for non-Hodgkin lymphoma it increased 21 percentage points to 69%.

Improvements in survival for blood cancers have been mainly attributed to improvements in treatment such as targeted cancer therapies. These are drugs or other substances that block the growth and spread of cancer by interfering with specific key molecules.

The largest improvement in five-year age-standardized net survival among solid tumour cancers was observed for cancer of the small intestine, for which it increased 20 percentage points to 58%.

  Note to readers

Data are from the Canadian Cancer Registry (CCR), with mortality follow up to the end of 2017 through record linkage to the Canadian Vital Statistics – Death Database (CVSD) and tax files. The CCR is a population-based database that included data collected from every provincial and territorial cancer registry. The goal of the CCR is to collect information about each new primary cancer diagnosed among Canadian residents from 1992 onward. The CVSD is a population-based database containing annual demographic and cause of death information from every provincial and territorial vital statistics registry on all deaths in Canada. Both the CCR and CVSD are maintained by Statistics Canada.

Population-based cancer survival includes all people diagnosed with cancer in a defined geographic area. It provides useful "average" estimates of survival and does not reflect any individual's prognosis. The survival estimates presented here are based on cases aged 15 to 99 at diagnosis. Cases from the province of Quebec were excluded because cancer incidence data from this province have not been submitted to the CCR since the 2010 data year. The cancers considered in this analysis are the 30 listed in Statistics Canada's table "Predicted age-standardized and all ages five-year net survival estimates for selected primary types of cancer, by sex, three years combined" (13-10-0790-01).

Five-year net survival refers to the percentage of people diagnosed with a cancer who survive five years past their date of diagnosis assuming (hypothetically) that the cancer of interest is the only possible cause of death. It is the preferred method for comparing cancer survival in population-based cancer studies because it adjusts for the fact that different populations may have different levels of background risk of death. Net survival was derived using the Pohar Perme estimator. Net survival estimates indicated for 2017 cover the three-year period from 2015 to 2017 to increase the precision of the estimates. Likewise, estimates indicated for 1994 cover the three-year period from 1992 to 1994.

Net survival estimates for the 2015 to 2017 period were predicted using the period method. Predicted survival provides a more up-to-date estimate of survival by exclusively using the survival experienced by cancer cases during a recent period (for example, 2015 to 2017). When there is an increasing trend in survival, predicted estimates tend to provide a conservative measure of recent survival.

Comparisons of net survival over time were based on age-standardized estimates of net survival which adjust for potential differences in the age at which individuals are diagnosed with particular cancers over time. The standard population used was the Canadian Cancer Survival Standard population. For more information on the standard population, please see the article "Progress in net cancer survival in Canada over 20 years."

Information on the proportion of Canadians diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime originated from the Canadian Cancer Statistics 2019 (PDF, 3,947 kb) publication. Information on the proportion of women self-reporting having undergone mammography originated from Statistics Canada's Health Fact Sheet on Cancer Screening, 2017.

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