Everyone you meet has likely been touched by cancer in some way. They may have lost family members, are supporting a friend currently fighting the disease, or they may have even received their own diagnosis. With 1,658,370 new cancer cases expected to be diagnosed in 2015, the odds just aren’t in anyone’s favor.
However, for the harsh reality surrounding cancer’s effect on our world, there are glimmers of light that often shine through.
Survival rates are at an all-time high — and they keep increasing. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that the 5-year relative survival rate for all cancers diagnosed from 2004-2010 was 68%; that number was only 49% between 1975-1977. What’s responsible for these improved survival rates? The ACS attributes this upswing to the earlier diagnosis of certain cancers and improvements in treatment due to committed researchers.
Dedication to Cancer Research Continues to Grow
“Cancer” was not always a household word, and research was certainly not always a top priority. People often kept cancer quiet because of shame or embarrassment. However, things started to turn around in the 1950s when Sidney Farber, a pediatric pathologist, took action. Farber knew that if cancer was going to be cured, something had to be done to increase research funding and public awareness. He started The Jimmy Fund, raised large amounts of money for cancer research, and opened the Jimmy Fund Clinic in 1952. His efforts kick started research that has saved countless lives over the last 60+ years.
And the future of cancer research? We have so much to be optimistic about as advancements continue to be made. Here are just a few reasons why we should all have hope that cancer survival rates will continue to rise over the next few decades:
1. New Doctors Are Joining the Fight Every Day — and They’re Making Big Discoveries
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) will be honoring 3 researchers on December 3rd as they are awarded the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research. The award, which was first presented in 2001, “recognizes promising investigators aged 45 or younger for their efforts in advancing cancer research.” The 2015 winners are Bradley Bernstein, Howard Chang, and Daniel Durocher.
Bernstein is a professor of pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. His work focuses on epigenetics — changes in genes that are passed down from one generation of cells to another, but are not encoded in the DNA sequence. He has been able to identify epigenetic switches that turn genes “on” or “off” and has used that information to identify epigenetic defects in cancer cells. Bernstein says that one of his goals is to be able to characterize a patient’s tumor at the molecular level.
“The idea is to ensure that patients receive a drug regimen that eliminates all of the different types of cells in their tumor,” he said in an MSK blog post about the award.
Dr. Howard Chang is a professor of dermatology at Stanford University and a faculty member of its cancer biology PhD and epithelial biology programs. Cells have their own sort of GPS and Chang studies how cells know where they are located in the body. When metastasis occurs — tumor cells spreading — this is because the cells think they are supposed to be somewhere else. Chang is discovering how and why this happens, which will hopefully help prevent the spread of certain cancers in the future.
Durocher is Assistant Director of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, part of Sinai Health System, in Toronto and a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto. He researches how cells deal with a type of damage called the DNA double-strand break. In MSK’s blog post, Durocher explained:
“Double-strand breaks endanger the stability of our genome and can lead to chromosome rearrangements and mutations that cause cancer.”
The work of these 3 men, countless other researchers, and even future medical professionals give great to hope to the future of cancer treatment and prevention.
2. Immunotherapy Is Rising in the Ranks as a Promising Form of Treatment
Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that hasn’t hit the mainstream vocabulary yet — but it will soon. In fact, many experts feel that immunotherapy is well on its way to becoming the 4th pillar in cancer treatment, joining the ranks of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
How does immunotherapy work? Instead of directly targeting tumors on its own, it helps a person’s immune system to help fight the disease. This form of treatment can work in a few different ways, but it will usually either stimulate the immune system to work harder, or give the body immune system components to help the fight.
Because immunotherapy can vary, it can be administered to patients in a few different forms. It could be given through an IV, in a pill, intravesical (directly into the bladder), or rubbed on to the skin as a cream for people with very early skin cancer.
If you or someone you love is being treated for cancer, be sure to ask doctors if any immunotherapy options are available.
3. There Are More and More Ways for the Public to Donate & Support Cancer Research
There are 2 things we know for sure: 1) cancer research is essential and 2) it’s not cheap. Money fuels ongoing research, and various individuals, organizations, and companies work hard to secure donations and make sure the lights stay on in the research lab.
Right now, it’s easy to donate to a variety of cancer-related organizations — simply go to their websites and click the “donate” buttons. However, not all of us have a lot of extra money — but we still want to help the fight against cancer.
A new app created by Australia’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research and the Vodafone Foundation is using a fascinating idea to support cancer research. The Android app, called DreamLab, lets you help cancer researchers while you sleep.
To participate, you download the app, choose the type of cancer research you would like to support, and then type in how much mobile network or Wi-Fi data you can contribute to the scientists at the Garvan Institute. Connect your phone to your charger while you sleep and it will send power to the Garvan Institute, giving them the ability to process cancer data about 3,000 times faster than they are currently able to.
4. There’s a Focus on Prevention, Not Just “Curing”
In the first half of the 20th century, researchers used to believe that cancer was a single disease and that they were searching for a single cure. Today, we know better — there are countless types of cancer and there are treatments that may work for one variation, but may not work for another. Researchers are realistic about the many complexities of cancer and because of that, they work to not just “cure” people, but prevent the disease from occurring in the first place.
About 60% of cancer cases are the result of preventable causes like tobacco, alcohol, obesity, asbestos, sunlight, and radiation. If the general public implemented what’s currently known about prevention, it’s proposed by experts that there would be a 50% reduction in cancer deaths.
Researchers have made important discoveries regarding preventable forms of cancer. In the 1600s, Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini was able to associate certain cancers with specific occupations. For example, he discovered childless nuns had a higher rate of breast cancer, and coal miners were often afflicted by lung disease. In the 1950s, a concentration of rare lung cancers — like mesothelioma — in shipbuilders led researchers to asbestos exposure.
Researchers continue to look for preventable causes of cancer and work to educate the public about the risks involved with certain behaviors.
5. Hard Work Continues to Pay Off
In the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s 2015 Annual Report on Progress Against Cancer, the benefits of cancer research are quite clear. The organization writes:
“[In the last 10 years], more than 60 anti-cancer drugs have been approved by the FDA, and a deeper understanding of tumor biology has begun generating a whole range of new, molecularly targeted drugs that have transformed the care of thousands of patients with difficult-to-treat cancers. Entire new classes of drugs have emerged, each honing in on a specific molecule or group of molecules required for tumor survival, growth, or spread.”
The future is bright for cancer research, and we look forward to the groundbreaking discoveries that will undoubtedly come from the hard work and determination of these committed individuals and organizations.