Date: February 1st, 2006
New drugs and other treatments for cancer are helping more Americans survive the disease, even as it affects an increasing number of people, a trio of experts said at a briefing in Washington, D.C., in October.
"We are in the midst of a revolution," said J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, based in Atlanta. "Now there's real hope."
New therapies, in combination with higher screening rates and better diagnostics, have resulted in better medical outcomes for cancer patients, he said. At the same time, cancer remains a formidable challenge as the U.S. population ages, said Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research, an independent nonprofit that sponsored the briefing at the U.S. Capitol, the first of four to highlight chronic diseases in an aging population.
Cancer risk increases with age - about 75% of all diagnoses are in individuals age 55 and older - and the U.S. population over 65 years old is expected to double by 2030. One result will be more cancer diagnoses - and more cancer survivors, the experts predicted.
Already, innovative medical research has paid off in the form of new drugs, surgical techniques and other therapies that are helping patients live longer. The five-year survival rate for all types of cancer averaged 65% from 1995 through 2001, compared with 50% from 1974 through 1976, according to the American Cancer Society.
"Fewer women are dying from breast cancer today, even though more women are getting the disease," thanks in part to new drugs such as Herceptin, Lichtenfeld noted.
In fact, the development of new - and sometimes costly -- cancer drugs correlates strongly with increased survival rates, shows an analysis by Frank R. Lichtenberg, PhD, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York.
Some types of cancer have seen better survival rates than others, he said at the briefing. For example, the five-year survival rate for acute myeloid leukemia rose from 12.9% in the mid-1980s to 20.3% in the 1995-2002 time period. In contrast, western European countries that routinely use older cancer drugs have lower cancer survival rates than the United States, Lichtenberg said.
By the end of this year, cancer will strike 1.4 million Americans and kill another 564,380, the American Cancer Society says. There are also 10.1 million survivors. One of them is Christopher Millard, 40, who was diagnosed with sarcoma nine years ago.
The Annapolis, Md., resident, who participated on cyclist Lance Armstrong's 2005 "Tour of Hope" team, stressed the importance of early detection, clinical trials and education. "To eradicate cancer, we need all these things," he said at the briefing.
Millard said that he ignored a lump on his shoulder for a year, until it grew to the size of a grapefruit, before going to a doctor. By then, what turned out to be cancer had advanced. In a clinical trial, he underwent surgery and chemotherapy and got close monitoring of his health. "It allowed me to make up for lost time," he said.
Millard, today a healthy-looking biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said that he hopes his outreach efforts will convince more people to talk and learn more about cancer. More information about cancer and other chronic diseases can be found in the Alliance's Silver Book, a compendium of statistics and research findings. The Alliance's next briefing, on cardiovascular disease, is scheduled for early 2007.