Cancer Patient Survival

What Progress Has Been Made? Gao ID: T-PEMD-87-6 June 29, 1987

GAO discussed the results of its work on cancer survival rates, focusing on whether the reported improvement in survival rates reflected real advances in the detection and treatment of cancer, or was merely a result of the manner in which the National Cancer Institute (NCI) measured survival rates. GAO found that: (1) NCI introduction of the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results program seemed to improve the accuracy of survival rate information; and (2) survival rates only provide information on the probability that any single patient will live for a specified length of time. GAO also found that the improvement in survival rates might not be as great as statistics indicate because of changes in the: (1) point of progression at which physicians diagnose cancers; and (2) types of cancers that physicians diagnose. GAO believes that the Secretary of Health and Human Services should include in all future publications on patient survival, a description of the biases that can lead to the misinterpretation of survival rate changes. GAO concluded that: (1) advances in the detection and treatment of cancer from 1950 to 1982 extended patient survival in all but 1 of the 12 cancers it examined; (2) the improvements in patient survival have been most dramatic for the rarer forms of cancer and least dramatic for the more common cancers; and (3) the number of cancer patients whose lives have been extended is small compared to the total number of cancer patients.

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