What does “prognosis” mean?

It’s natural to wonder how bad a serious condition is. Will treatment be effective? The prediction of recovery, in medical terms, is called a “prognosis.”

Many conditions are difficult to predictCancers, on the other hand, run a fairly expectable course. A cancer prognosis, for instance, depends on

  • the cancer. What type of cancer is it? What is its stage (size)? Grade (aggressiveness)? Where is it?
  • the patient. What is the person’s age and general health? How likely is he or she to bounce back from the stress of treatment?

A doctor can estimate treatment outcome by comparing your relative’s situation with the statistics of others in similar circumstances.

Prognosis is most often described in terms of survival rates five years after diagnosis. For example, the doctor might say that people who undergo a particular treatment have an 87% five-year survival rate. That means that 87 of every 100 patients who receive that treatment are still alive five years afterward.

At best, a prognosis is an educated guess. It’s an average across a lot of people. Bear in mind, no two people respond in exactly the same way to any one treatment.

For some people, hearing a prognosis helps

  • resolve uncertainty. Having clear-cut information can empower and motivate by revealing exactly what you’re dealing with.
  • define treatment options. Comparing survival rates can help people make treatment decisions, including the option of no treatment.
  • promote the best use of time. Knowing the survival rate can be the nudge to address lingering family issues or legal matters. And to move forward with what’s still on the bucket list.

For other people, discussion of prognosis is disturbing, even frightening. Some medical offices employ nurses or social workers to help patients cope with the emotional side of a prognosis discussion. Before talking about survival rates, though, determine your relative’s preference for how much he or she wants to know.