Medically reviewed by Doru Paul, MD
Cancer is a disease that occurs when cells in the body start to grow and multiply at an out-of-control rate. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, you likely have several questions. Can cancer be cured? Yes, cancer is curable, but some types are cured more often than others. A cancer is cured when there are no signs of cancer, no further treatment is needed, and it is not expected to come back. There is no way to guarantee that cancer will never come back.
Most oncologists (medical doctors specializing in diagnosing and treating cancer) talk about remission rather than cure. Being in remission from cancer means that the cancer is under control and responding to treatment. After you have been in complete remission for 5 years, the risk of cancer coming back decreases.
To understand how curable a type of cancer is, most oncologists look at the 5-year survival rate. This rate describes the percentage of people who will still be alive 5 years after their cancer diagnosis. This rate varies widely by the type of cancer, the cancer stage, and a person’s overall health.
The Most Curable Types of Cancer
The current survival rates are highest for thyroid cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and melanoma. The survival rate for early-stage breast cancer is also high because of screening protocols.
Thyroid cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the thyroid, the butterfly-shaped gland located at the front of your neck. The thyroid secretes hormones that affect your metabolism and physical growth.
The 5-year survival rate for thyroid cancers in stages 1 and 2 is between 98% and 100%. This may be because thyroid cancers usually grow slowly. This makes them easier to diagnose early when they are more treatable.
Depending on the stage, thyroid cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy.
Breast Cancer (Early Stage)
Breast cancer is a relatively common type of cancer that begins in the breast tissue or lobules. The 5-year survival rate for breast cancers in stages 0 and 1 is 99% to 100%. Breast cancers classified as stage 0 or 1 are located in the breast tissue or lobules and have not spread to the lymph nodes or nearby tissues.
Early-stage breast cancer is often detected with screening tools such as a regular mammogram. Early detection is an important way to improve survival rates. Treatment options for breast cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy.
Prostate cancer starts in the prostate, the gland located under the bladder in people assigned male at birth. The prostate is responsible for producing fluid to transport sperm.
The 5-year survival rate for prostate cancers in stages 1 and 2 is 99%. Prostate cancers usually grow very slowly and are treatable with surgery and radiation therapy. Your healthcare provider may recommend additional treatments including hormone therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy for more advanced cases.
Healthcare providers can regularly screen for prostate cancer with blood tests and rectal exams.
Testicular cancer is another type of cancer that affects people assigned male at birth. It starts in one of the testicles (testes), the small organs located in the scrotum. They produce the hormone testosterone, as well as sperm.
The 5-year survival rate for testicular cancer is 99% for localized tumors. The 5-year survival rate for people with tumors that have spread to the lymph nodes is 96%. When diagnosed in the early stages, testicular cancer is usually treated by removing the affected testicle.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that often appears as an irregular mole on the skin. The most common sites for melanoma are areas of the body that receive the most sunlight like the face, scalp, ears, neck, and hands.
The 5-year survival rate for stage 1 melanoma is 99%. Skin cancer is visible so it tends to be easier to detect early. Melanoma is often treated with surgery to remove the tumor.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in the United States. Fortunately, it is highly treatable. The 5-year survival rate for both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma is 99% when diagnosed before the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that begins in the lymph tissue, the tissue that is found in the lymph nodes, bone marrow, spleen, and liver. The 5-year survival rate for Hodgkin lymphoma is between 92% and 95% when diagnosed in stages 1 and 2.
Hodgkin lymphoma responds well to radiation therapy. Other types of lymphoma are not as treatable as Hodgkin lymphoma.
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the cervix, the organ located at the bottom of the uterus in people assigned female at birth. The 5-year survival rate for cervical cancer is 91% when diagnosed in the early stages.
Regular Pap smears (also called Pap tests) are used to screen for cervical cancer. This helps to diagnose the cancer in an early stage when it is more treatable. Cervical cancer is often treated with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
The survival rates for cancer vary widely depending on the type of cancer and when it is diagnosed. These rates are also affected by racial disparities. People who are Black have lower survival rates for many types of cancer, including melanoma and cancers of the lungs, breast, ovaries, uterus, prostate, bladder, and kidneys, compared to people who are white.
People assigned female at birth who are Black or American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) have the highest cancer mortality (death) rates in the United States. For example, breast cancer is more common in white women, but Black women are more likely to die from it.
Racial disparities in healthcare are a result of reduced access to quality care and longstanding systemic inequalities. Changing this system requires ongoing efforts to rectify injustices and work toward health equity, such as addressing social determinants of health.
What Determines Curability?
Cancer survival rates vary greatly because they are influenced by the type of cancer, when it was diagnosed, and your overall health. Several factors affect cancer survival rates, including:
Stage at diagnosis: The stage describes how far a cancerous tumor has spread from its original site. In general, tumors that are localized (in one area) are more treatable than regional or distant tumors that have spread to other areas of the body.
Tumor characteristics: Different types of cancer vary by how quickly they grow and spread. They also vary by which treatments they respond to. For example, certain tumors will shrink with hormone therapy while others will not be affected by it.
Available treatments: Recent advances in cancer treatment like targeted therapy and immunotherapy have improved the survival rates of certain types of cancer.
Individual risk factors: A person’s overall health, family history, and lifestyle choices greatly affect their cancer prognosis and treatment options. Avoiding risk factors like smoking will likely improve your treatment success.
Racial and ethnic disparities: Cancer survival rates vary by race and ethnicity, primarily due to unfair access to care, among other inequalities.
Why Early Detection and Screening Matters
Early detection is an important part of cancer treatment. In most cases, the earlier a case of cancer is caught, the more treatable it is. Cancer screening tests help with diagnosing cancer before the disease has started causing any symptoms.
Talk with your healthcare provider about the following cancer screening tools:
Colon and rectal cancer: People who are at average risk should begin regular screenings with colonoscopies or stool tests at age 45.
Lung cancer: People with a history of heavy smoking may benefit from annual lung cancer screening with a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan starting at age 50.
Recommended screening tests for people assigned female at birth include:
Breast cancer: People ages 40 to 44 should start annual mammograms, and people 55 and older should receive mammograms every other year.
Cervical cancer: People should start regular screenings with a Pap test or human papillomavirus (HPV) test at age 25.
Endometrial cancer: Once a person reaches menopause, their healthcare provider should talk with them about the risks and symptoms of endometrial cancer, including vaginal bleeding and spotting.
People assigned male at birth should talk with their healthcare providers about prostate cancer screening starting between the ages of 45 and 50. This can be done with a blood test or rectal exam.
A Quick Review
Cancer occurs when cells start to grow and multiply at an uncontrollable rate. The most curable cancers in the United States are cancers of the thyroid, breast, prostate, testes, and skin. These types of cancer are considered most treatable when diagnosed in the early stages.
Cancer curability is often measured by the 5-year survival rate. This rate measures the percentage of people who are expected to be living 5 years after diagnosis. Several factors affect the success of cancer treatment including the type of cancer, the stage when it was diagnosed, a person’s race or ethnicity, and individual risk factors.
Cancer is considered cured when there are no longer any signs of cancer, there is no need for further treatment, and the cancer is not expected to come back.
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