Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A 97% Survival Rate Ain't As Good As You Think

So many statistics regarding melanoma, and any cancer, refer to “survival rates.”  For instance, those with melanoma caught in the latter stages (Stage IV for instance) have a 15% survival rate (or less) whereas those that had their melanoma caught in the very early stages have a 97% survival rate.  Wow…so it seems like if one catches it early enough, melanoma is no big deal…right?  Well, yes and no.
Let’s talk about the definition of survival rate.  It basically means you have that percentage chance of being alive in 5 years.  That’s it…5 years…and being alive.  It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be cancer free.  It doesn’t mean you’ll not undergo surgery and other procedures and treatments.  It doesn’t mean you’ll be unscarred.  It simply means you’ll be alive.
When you have an early melanoma, there’s a good chance it can be removed with great success.  And your actual survival chance may go beyond those 5 years.  Or, it might not.  My brother had an early melanoma removed from his back.  It appeared to be a small mole, so he assumed a small incision would do the trick.  What was taken out looked like a good-sized divot left by a bad golfer (which I understand all too well).  In fact, he said if he lay on his stomach, a baseball could comfortably sit in his “dent.”  Yes, he made his five years as predicted, but he had a rather large scar to show for it.
I’ve read that scars should be seen as signs of survival.  I’ve also read that many melanoma survivors showcase their scars to encourage others to take preventative action.  I applaud such action...but I also know many others hide their scars.  My brother did.
And as many of you know, he survived his 5 years, but he didn’t make it to his 7th.  The melanoma came back as often happens, and this time, it won.
My point here is that people should not rest easy when they read about 97% survival rates.  It only means you might be alive in 5 years…it doesn’t mean you’ll be rid of melanoma’s impact.  You may experience months or years of illness.  You’ll possibly have disfiguring scars.  You may still have the cancer.  Melanoma is serious business and should not be taken lightly, no matter the stage when detected.
The only way to rest easy is simply to not get it.  Take preventative action…wear sunscreen and by all means, avoid tanning beds.


  1. Good post, important message. Have you ever read the essay by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called "The Median is not the Message"? He explains the concept of "median survival" to us non-statisticians battling cancer. I'm working on a blog post (and a song) on this topic. Keep up the good work!

  2. Great post, Al. You are so right. I recently met a woman who has a daughter who is in the early stages...She still goes to the tanning bed because she thinks it is no big deal! If only people knew the truth. Very important message and you shared it perfectly.

    Rich, I saw that article on one of your Facebook updates. I read it while I waited for my MRI and CT the other week. Great article.