The War on Cancer

Cancer is still a deadly menace, but more patients are surviving extra months and years, thanks to early detection and innovative treatments. The war is far from over, but hope is in the air

April 01, 2007|By Larry Williams | Larry Williams,Sun Ideas Editor

When Elizabeth Edwards told the world last week that the cancer that had attacked her body two years ago had returned and then added, with some conviction, that she and her husband planned to go forward with his presidential campaign, the news was greeted with a mixture of admiration and doubt.

Should someone with cancer and two small children be making plans for an enterprise likely to demand significant investments of time and energy over the next two years? What was she thinking? Katie Couric asked on national television.

Edwards' answer reflected the most public manifestation of a significant if subtle turning point in the long war on cancer. A cancer diagnosis is no longer necessarily the death sentence it long was. Growing numbers of Americans are living longer as they fight the disease and, in the last two years, the number of cancer cases has actually declined.

While the death rate from cancer is high -- accounting for at least 20 percent of deaths in the United States -- about 40 percent of the million Americans who are diagnosed with cancer each year get early treatment and live for many years after the diagnosis. Many are fully cured.

Still, the war on cancer is far from won.

The gains made have been hard-fought in a long and expensive battle with a disease that continues to be more feared than any. While the mortality rates from heart disease, stroke and pneumonia have been cut by half since 1950, the advances in the war on cancer have been minimal, despite a largely successful anti-smoking campaign and billions spent on new drugs and aggressive treatment regimes.

The more we learn about cancer, the more complicated the fight becomes. Earlier this year, two respected studies produced sharply differing conclusions about how some forms of lung cancer should be treated.

Cancer's challenge is so difficult because it takes so many forms. It is not one disease but more than 100 diseases, all with common factors. While only a small fraction of cancers are believed to be inherited, all cancers develop because something in a cell's genes has gone wrong; determining just what is a difficult challenge for each variation.

Still, researchers are optimistic because so much has been learned about the genetic roots of cancer. And hardly a week passes without the introduction of new drugs and new treatment strategies. There are more than 10 million cancer survivors living among us now, more than three times the 3 million counted in 1971.

In January of this year, the American Cancer Society reported that the number of cancer deaths in the United States has dropped for the second year in a row. Encouraged researchers said the statistical report suggests that this may be the start of a continuing decrease.

"This second consecutive drop in the number of actual cancer deaths, much steeper than the first, shows last year's historic drop was no fluke," said John R. Seffrin, the American Cancer Society's chief executive officer. "Everyone involved in the fight against cancer should be proud of this remarkable achievement. The hard work toward preventing cancer, catching it early, and making treatment more effective is paying dramatic, lifesaving dividends. Thirteen years of continuing drops in the overall cancer death rate have now overtaken trends in aging and growth of the U.S. population, resulting in decreased numbers of deaths."

The American Cancer Society projects there will be 559,650 deaths from cancer in 2007; 289,550 among men and 270,100 among women. The Society also predicts there will be 1,444,920 new cases of cancer in 2007; 766,860 among men and 678,060 among women.

In Maryland alone, the cancer society predicts, there will be 10,210 cancer deaths this year, with the largest number -- 2,900 -- coming from cancer of the lung and bronchus. Colon and rectum cancers and breast cancer are a distant second and third among likely causes of cancer deaths in Maryland this year.

Nationally, among men, cancers of the prostate, lung and bronchus, and colon and rectum account for more than half (54 percent) of all newly diagnosed cancers. Prostate cancer alone accounts for nearly a third (29 percent) of cases in men. American men now face a one-in-two chance of contracting prostate cancer in their lives.

The three most commonly diagnosed types of cancer among women in 2007 are expected to be cancers of the breast, lung and bronchus, and colon and rectum, accounting for more than half (52 percent) of estimated cancer cases in women. Breast cancer alone is expected to account for more than one in four (26 percent) new cancer cases among women.

Deadly lung cancer

Lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer death in women in 1987. Lung cancer is expected to account for 26 percent of all female cancer deaths in 2007. It is also by far the most significant cancer killer of men. About 30 percent of all cancer victims are smokers.

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