Data on cancer patient survival are an invaluable tool in the evaluation of therapeutic progress against cancer as well as other lethal diseases. As with all quantitative information routinely used in evidence-based clinical management--including diagnostic tests, prognostic markers and comparisons of therapeutic interventions--data on patient survival require evaluation based on an understanding of the underlying statistical methodology, methods of data collection and classification, and, most notably, clinical and biologic insight. This article contains an introduction to the methods used for estimating cancer patient survival, including cause-specific survival, relative survival and period analysis. The methods, and their interpretation, are illustrated through presentation of trends in incidence, mortality and patient survival for a range of different cancers. Our aim was to lay out the strengths and limitations of survival analysis as a tool in the evaluation of progress in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.