The fight against cancer received a much-needed boost earlier this year when President Obama announced his “Cancer Moonshot.” The initiative aims to advance cancer prevention and research and to make more treatments available to more people.
As we are in the midst of Breast Cancer Awareness month, it’s exciting news for those in the cancer community, and it comes at a time when our ability to fight cancer seems to improve by the day.
In fact, the American Cancer Society recently found that the combined cancer death rate for men and women has decreased by a remarkable 23 percent from its peak in 1991 to 2012, the most current data available.
Considering the more than 100 types of cancer, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for this decline. But we’re proud to highlight several factors that have certainly had a major impact. And though we have yet to find a cure, we should be overjoyed at society’s recent accomplishments at battling one of the biggest epidemics in history.
1. Better Cancer Screening
Cancer is most treatable when it is detected at an early stage. Advancements in mammography, including new 3-D mammograms, allow us to detect more cases of breast cancer when they are localized to the breast.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), women should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms at age 40. Women ages 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year, and women 55 and older can switch to mammograms every 2 years or continue yearly screening, the ACS says.
Similarly, studies have shown that longtime smokers can benefit from lung cancer screenings with low-dose computed tomography (CT scans). These scans can detect small tumors that are often not visible on conventional X-rays, allowing lung cancer to be treated earlier.
Perhaps one of the greatest “success stories” in prevention has been the rapid decline in new cases of colon cancer. More people are pursuing screening colonoscopies, which can detect and remove colon polyps before they ever develop into cancer. Colon cancer screening should begin by age 50 for both men and women, the ACS says.
2. Better Chemotherapy
Traditionally, chemotherapy drugs have acted on the entire body, attacking cancer but with the potential of causing injury to healthy cells too. Newer types of chemotherapy target specific types of cancer based on genetic mutations without harming normal cells.
The classic example is the case of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML or commonly known as simply leukemia), a disease in which bone marrow makes too many white blood cells. Since the launch of a class of drugs known as tyrosine-kinase inhibitors (brand name Gleevec) in 2001, the five-year survival rate for CML has nearly doubled, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Also a class of drugs called epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors (brand name Tarceva) have shown a lot of promise in extending the lives of people with certain types of advanced pancreatic and lung cancers. The hope is that these drugs extend the lives of patients long enough that newer and even better treatments become available.
3. Treatment Advancements
Better surgical techniques and better radiation therapies have certainly contributed to the decline in cancer deaths. Techniques like robotic surgery and intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) allow even more precise destruction of tumors.
In just the past few years, some of the most exciting advances have come in the area of immunotherapy. Immunotherapy helps the body’s immune system destroy cancer cells. In essence, it turns off a tumor’s ability to protect itself, allowing the immune system to attack cancer as it would any infection, such as a common cold.
The goal of immunotherapy is not necessarily to cure cancer, but to turn it into a treatable, chronic disease that people can live with indefinitely — like diabetes, for example.
4. Better Supportive Care
In addition to better treatments for cancer, we’ve made great strides in treating problems that make cancer care more difficult. Advances in techniques for pain control, for example, can greatly improve a patient’s ability to tolerate cancer treatments.
Newer anti-nausea medications have greatly improved the delivery of chemotherapy. Medications such as aprepitant (brand name Emend) and palonosetron (brand name Aloxi) help prevent people from experiencing such negative side effects such as vomiting and dehydration, which can spiral downward into problems with the kidneys, heart and blood vessels.
We’re also better at treating a host of diseases — from heart disease to infection — that often claim the lives of patients weakened by cancer. Heart disease remains America’s No. 1 killer. Improvements in overall heart health reflect on the survival of many other types of disease, such as cancer.
Complementary services such as physical therapy and exercise programs are also helping patients improve their overall health and better endure cancer treatments — allowing for better outcomes.
5. Better Awareness
While it is more difficult to prove, I believe an overall better awareness of good heath has played a role in the decline we’re seeing in cancer deaths. Growing up, I remember drinking sugary sodas and eating fatty, sugary foods without even thinking about the health consequences. Today, we’re well aware of the consequences of those habits.
To see the progress we have made, you only have to look as far as the prevalence of fitness centers and the emphasis on eating more organic and natural foods. As a result, I also believe people are paying more attention to preventive health care and visiting the doctor more frequently.
We’re also making historic progress in stamping out cigarette smoking. Smoking is described by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the “most preventable cause of death” from illnesses like heart disease, stroke and cancer.
The smoking rates among U.S. adults dropped to 16.8 percent in 2014 from 25.5 percent in 1990, a decline that almost certainly has had and will continue to have an impact on deaths from lung cancer.
While the fight against cancer is likely to continue throughout our lifetimes, those of us in the cancer community are more hopeful than ever that the positive trends we’ve seen in cancer survival will continue.