One of the first questions typically asked by patients diagnosed with cancer is, “How serious is it?”

Your oncologist can’t predict the future, but he or she can make an estimate based on other people’s experiences with the same type of cancer. This is referred to as a prognosis.

“The prognosis of cancer often depends on the stage, which is the extent of the cancer. Is it contained or has it spread beyond the organ? It also depends on how aggressive it is,” says Willamette Valley Cancer Institute gynecologic oncologist Dr. Kathleen Yang.

Other factors that affect prognosis include:

  • The type of cancer and where it is in your body
  • The cancer’s grade, which refers to how abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope. Grade provides clues about how quickly the cancer is likely to grow and spread.
  • Certain traits of the cancer cells
  • Your age and how healthy you were before cancer
  • How you respond to treatment

“For example, endometrial cancer is often diagnosed very early and is highly treatable, making a patient’s prognosis generally better. On the other hand, ovarian cancer is typically diagnosed at a more advanced stage. All cancers are different,” says Dr. Yang.

Estimating prognosis
Doctors estimate prognosis by using statistics that researchers have collected over many years about people with the same type of cancer. Your oncologist, who knows the most about your situation, is the best person to discuss your prognosis and explain what the statistics may mean.

It’s important to understand that prognosis means only the probable outcome. It is based on the average outcome from a sample of people with your type of cancer. It does not mean that your outcome will be the same.

Understanding your type of cancer and knowing what to expect can help you and your loved ones make decisions, such as which treatment is best for you and how best to take care of yourself and manage treatment side effects.

“Facing a cancer diagnosis is a personal experience for each patient, and it can be scary. The first step is to have a consultation with your oncologist, so we can tailor the treatment and prognosis to your clinical situation,” says Dr. Yang.

If you need help coping with your prognosis, our oncology social worker and oncology care manager provide one-on-one counseling to help patients manage the emotional, psychological and social challenges related to their diagnoses. They also connect patients with support groups, financial aid and other assistance that may be needed.