By Joan Koerber-Walker
Cancer can be a very scary word when used in a health context. There was a time when “cancer” and “death sentence” were synonymous. Today, many cancers can be cured, and for many more people, cancer can be treated effectively.
One in three Americans will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. Thanks in large part to public health awareness campaigns, prevention efforts, early detection, and ground-breaking new therapies that are providing patients and their care teams with new treatment options, the number of cancer survivors is steadily rising.
“Cancer is an evolution,” explained Fernando U. Garcia, MD, a pathologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. “A cancer cell learns how not to die. Then it learns how to proliferate. Then it learns how to invade. Then it learns to metastasize. Cells are the building blocks of cancer.”
When we talk about cancer, we are speaking about a broad spectrum of diseases that can be either slow moving and less threatening or aggressive and very dangerous. Cancers are genetic. Something within the genes that make up some of our cells changes, and these cells begin to multiply in an abnormal way. There are 100 types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institutes (NCI). Within these types are often subtype classifications based on which genes have changed within the cells. Researchers have now classified more than 250 unique cancers.
PREVENTION IS THE BEST DEFENSE
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. It is also among the most preventable. To lower your skin cancer risk, protect your skin from the sun with a sunscreen rated 30 SPF or higher, cover up when you can, and avoid indoor tanning booths.
Lung cancer is the second-most common cancer and the most deadly for women. Cigarette smoking among U.S. adults has been reduced by more than half since the Surgeon General’s Report in 1964, yet tobacco use is still the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the United States.
When researchers continue to learn about what causes certain cancers, we have a better chance of developing preventive measures. The discovery of the linkage between the human papillomavirus (HPV) and certain cancers is one example. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses. In the U.S., HPV causes more than 33,700 cases of cancer in men and women every year. HPV vaccination can prevent over 90 percent (31,200) of these cases by preventing the infections that cause those cancers. The CDC estimates that 30,000 cases of cancer annually could be prevented with HPV vaccination.
DETECTION, DIAGNOSIS AND MORE-PRECISE TREATMENTS
Early detection of cancer greatly increases the chances for successful treatment. According to the World Health Organization, early diagnosis is particularly relevant for cancers of the breast, cervix, mouth, larynx, colon and rectum, and skin.
Self-awareness is one way to aid early detection. Recognizing possible warning signs of cancer and taking prompt action leads to early diagnosis. Early signs of cancer include lumps, sores that fail to heal, abnormal bleeding, persistent indigestion, chronic hoarseness, and unexplained weight loss. If something is different, talk to your doctor. Regular checkups are important, but communication is key. If something concerns you, it is vital that you let your health professional know.
Screening tests are a way to protect your health. It is important to understand that screening tests are not meant to diagnose cancer. Your mammogram, pap test, PSA test, colonoscopy, chest x-ray, MRI, CT-scan or other screening test is designed to identify the potential for cancer before symptoms appear. If a screening test result is abnormal, more tests may be done to check for cancer. The NCI offers this example: A screening mammogram may find a lump in the
breast, but a lump may be cancer or something else. More tests need to be done to find out if the lump is cancer.
Precision Medicine or personalized medicine leverages the knowledge gained by looking at the genomic makeup of a patient’s unique cancer. The NIH completed the full sequence of the human genome in 2003. Since then, we have learned how to better identify different types of cancers and how to target the right drug to the right patient at the right time. This knowledge helps identify patients who may carry certain genes that indicate their increased chances to develop certain cancers, helping doctors be proactive in monitoring health.
HOPE ON THE HORIZON
Substantial progress has been made in recent decades in the fight against cancer. Approximately 73 percent of survival gains in cancer are attributable to new medicines. Between 1988 and 2000, treatment advances in cancer have saved 23 million years of life and added $1.9 trillion to society based on improved productivity, extended life and other factors. And, since 1975, the chances that a cancer patient will live five years or more have increased by 41 percent across all cancers.
As of mid 2018, more than 1,100 new medicines and vaccines for cancer were in clinical trials or awaiting review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. New screening tests, diagnostics, and therapies are being developed here in Arizona and across the world.
Cancer is something that will likely always be with us. Working together, researchers, industry, patients and healthcare professionals have made significant progress, but there is so much more that needs to be done. Hope comes from the knowledge that the global cancer community is discovering the cures and treatments that may make a person’s diagnosis a lot less scary.
Joan Koerber-Walker serves as president and CEO of the Arizona Bioindustry Association (AZBio) and has lived in the Valley of the Sun for more than 25