Cancer Patient Survival:

What Progress Has Been Made?

PEMD-87-13: Published: Mar 31, 1987. Publicly Released: Apr 17, 1987.

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Carl E. Wisler
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In response to a congressional request, GAO examined cancer survival rates, focusing on: (1) the accuracy, meaningfulness, and utility of the National Cancer Institute's (NCI) rates; (2) whether patient survival has actually improved; and (3) the factors contributing to any improvement.

GAO found that, although patient survival rates improved from 1950 to 1982 for most cancers, the improvement might not be as great as NCI statistics indicate because of changes in the: (1) point of progression at which the disease is diagnosed; (2) precision with which physicians categorize stages of the disease in patients; (3) classification of types of tumors as cancer; and (4) characteristics of patients included in survival-rate computations. GAO also found that: (1) major breakthroughs were infrequent; (2) treatment for leukemias and lymphomas showed the most improvement; (3) patient survival for carcinomas improved at a slow rate; (4) better and more extensive application of existing diagnostic and treatment procedures might improve survival rates; and (5) survival rates were greater on a numerical basis than on a proportional basis. GAO concluded that the factors most responsible for improved survival included: (1) earlier detection; (2) improved surgical and radiation procedures; and (3) the use of chemotherapy.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should include a description of the biases that can lead to misinterpretation of survival rate changes in future publications on patient survival to minimize misinterpretation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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