A cure for cancer is the holy grail for doctors working in oncology, but that’s unlikely in the near future. Cancer patients are increasingly living longer and better lives. Guest host Susan Page and panelists discuss what this means for our approach to the disease, and for those living with it.
The Definition of “Cancer Survivor”
For many years, the definition of a cancer survivor was someone who had been alive and disease-free following cancer for five years. But that changed in 1986 with the creation of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship. The new group felt that it wasn’t O.K. for an individual to have to wait for five years to call him or herself a cancer survivor. So they proposed a change that would allow an individual to call himself a cancer survivor from the moment of diagnosis, according to Dr. Julia Rowland. About 12 million people in the U.S. are currently called “survivors,” and about 15 percent of them have been alive for 20 years.
What Is Helping People Live Longer?
About 40 years ago, the survival rate for those diagnosed with any type of cancer was about 50 percent. Today, it’s about 66 percent, according to Dr. Louis Weiner. Doctors are able to detect and treat cancers at an earlier stage, when it’s easier to treat them, Dr. Weiner said. In addition, doctors have been more successful at effectively managing the diseases of people whose cancers may not be curable by surgery or other treatments.
Investments in Research
There have also been extraordinary investments in biomedical research at institutes like the NIH and National Cancer Institute in recent years. It costs $500 billion each year to fight cancer, said Dr. Ellen Sigal. But as our national politics have been paralyzed in recent months by fears over budget deficits, doctors and researchers worry about cutbacks to necessary funding. “There’s considerable concern…that there will be insufficient support to do the work that’s necessary to keep these advances coming and to be able to identify molecular targets, to have tailored medicine, that this is going to be a new challenge for us,” Dr. Rowland said.
Some Challenges Facing Survivors
While most of the individuals treated for cancer do return to the workforce, survivors worry about discrimination in the workplace based on their illness. The Americans With Disabilities Act protects cancer survivors from discrimination, but it can happen. Guest host Susan Page asked the doctors if patients who have survived cancer are often “haunted” by fears that the cancer will return. “If you looked at one thing that’s common across all individuals who are diagnosed with cancer, it’s that fear of recurrence,” Dr. Rowland said.
You can read the full transcript here.