Has anyone else seen the TV commercials for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA)? I was watching Cheers on some random satellite station the other day, when one of their commercials popped up. A patient gives his testimonial and talks about the wonderful services provided on the CTCA’s website. He says something like, “You can even look up survival rates for your type of cancer.”
Why would anyone ever want to find out from a website how long they might have left to live? Frankly, I find it irresponsible for CTCA to post this information.
Same Organ Different Cancer
We’ve learned that different types of tumors can form on the same organ. For instance, I have a slow-growing type of cancer that originated on my pancreas. In a general sense, I have pancreatic cancer. But, when the medical community talks about “pancreatic cancer,” they are referring to adenocarcinoma, which is far more aggressive than my neuroendocrine cancer. If I didn’t know that there was a difference, and I visited the CTCA’s survival rates page, I would be devastated, and I’d probably press for an unnecessarily toxic treatment. Four and a half years since my diagnosis, I have not undergone chemotherapy or radiation and my tumors have not grown at all. How much damage might I have done to my body had I gone nuclear on the tumors rather than watching and waiting?
Survival Rates Are Generic
Published survival rates don’t generally take into account demographics. Twenty-five-year-old patients are included in the same data set as octogenarians. But would a young, strong, otherwise healthy person with cancer really have the same survival rate as a frail elderly person? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that the survival rates can give a generic snapshot of someone’s chances, but each person and each tumor is different. Even within the same brand of cancer there are more and less aggressive varieties.
Obtain Information With Caution
I believe that as patients we need to arm ourselves with as much information as possible, and so research on the internet is incredibly useful. Sometimes though, we’re better off talking through the research with a doctor. When you read something like survival rates on the web, make sure you understand the context in which the stats are written.
CTCA states that they are one of the first cancer centers to provide survival rates to their patients on their website. Perhaps the other cancer centers believe that numbers with as much gray area as these stats are better off presented in context to patients in person — if at all.