Medications

Cancer And The “Cure”

Words have meaning. And when it comes to cancer, especially advanced cancer, there aren’t many words that have more meaning than the word “cure.” Yet it is that very word and concept that is top of mind for some of us these days.

We clinicians are guilty as charged when it comes to reluctance declaring those who have had a remarkable response to treatments for advanced cancer “cured.” Experience has taught us over decades that we have misused the word and overpromised those we cared for. Our patients and loved ones have paid a price for our over optimism. Consequently, our culture has taught us to avoid the word, lest we be shown to have been less-than-truthful when a cancer returns with a vengeance.

And yet our world is changing: we are now seeing long term responses to treatments in diseases where until recently we had little hope of such success.

Recent reports of rapidly declining mortality in melanoma, normal life spans for many people treated for previously fatal diseases like chronic myelogenous leukemia, and the potential for impressive gains in outcomes for people with lung cancer are but a few examples that suggest we are indeed in … Continue reading →

The American Cancer Society Sets A Goal To Reduce The Burden Of Cancer: Are We Up To The Challenge?

Ever wonder what would happen to cancer in this country if we all did better at what we do every day?

The American Cancer Society has an answer in a recently published paper in our journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, and it may surprise you what we could accomplish if we set our minds to the task.

We recently reported that between 1990 and 2015, the cancer death rate declined by 27%. That’s a remarkable accomplishment. However, we still have a long way to go. Too many of us experience the burdens and losses from cancer. All of us want to see this disease in its many forms vanquished.

Our researchers looked at what would happen if all of us had the same cancer risk as college graduates in the United States, then came up with an estimate of how that would impact deaths from cancer from 2015 and 2035.

The answer: we could reduce deaths from cancer by close to another 40% beyond what we have already accomplished. That would be a total of over 54% from 1990. And it would mean 1.3 million fewer premature deaths from cancer between 2020 and 2035. Remarkably, it would mean … Continue reading →

A Cure For Cancer? Not So Fast

The news report in the Jerusalem Post regarding researchers’ claim that they have found a cure for cancer is certain to get our attention. And, it goes without saying, we all share the aspirational hope that they are correct. Unfortunately, we must be aware that this is far from proven as an effective treatment for people with cancer, let alone a cure.… Continue reading →

Cancer Statistics 2019: Cancer Death Rates Have Declined 27% In 25 Years, And We Still Have A Long Way To Go

Good news is always welcome, especially when talking about something as serious as cancer. And there is plenty of welcome information in the American Cancer Society’s release today of our annual report on “Cancer Statistics, 2019” and its accompanying consumer-oriented version of “Cancer Facts & Figures 2019.”

Among the good news in this report: A significant decline in death rates from cancer—especially among some of the most common cancers, significant improvements in early detection and treatment of cancer, and a decrease in the disparities in death rates between African-Americans and whites.

Despite the good news, unfortunately, there are also pieces of the puzzle that have not been solved. And to ignore that information is a disservice to those who struggle with cancer and those who have passed because of this dread disease. The reality is we can—indeed, we must—do better. And that fact is an equally important part of the information contained in this report.… Continue reading →

In Praise of Hope

In Praise of Hope

Reading the headlines in the morning newspaper lately can downright depressing. After all, this is supposed to be a holiday season, a time of celebration—not one of a continuing cacophony of conflict at every level.

It was with that feeling that I recalled three conversations I had recently with people who have various cancers. And I realized that despite all the chaos around us, maybe it’s time to say something in praise of hope.

Hope is very real, especially when you or a loved one or someone you know is diagnosed and treated for cancer. Hope is that to which we cling to get us through the difficult days and weeks. Hope is what keeps us looking forward, hope is what we pray for.

We know hope itself cannot change the physical world. It can’t create success. If it could, no patient would ever succumb to this dread disease. However, for the three folks I spoke to, there are very real reasons to be hopeful.… Continue reading →

A New Treatment With Immunotherapy Brings A Moment Of Hope For Patients With Lung Cancer

Lung cancer treatment is clearly the story of the week coming out of the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Chicago. And although media coverage of this emerging information about the role of immunotherapy in lung cancer has been extensive, there is—as always—more to the story, especially if you look closely at the numbers and in particular if you are a non-smoker with lung cancer.

One study stands out among the others in which immunotherapy along with chemotherapy significantly improved survival for patients with certain forms of lung cancer when compared to chemotherapy alone. Not only was that study reported at the Chicago meeting, it was also published simultaneously in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, offering us considerable detail into how the study was performed and the results.… Continue reading →

Few Boomers Get Hepatitis C Test Even Though It Can Save Lives

Are you a baby boomer? Have you been tested for hepatitis C virus (HCV)? Do you know why you should be tested for hepatitis C? Do you even know what hepatitis C is?

According to research published today by my colleagues from the American Cancer Society in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the odds are overwhelming that if you are in the boomer generation you have not been tested for the virus, and that has me wondering why that is the case. Could it be that we don’t know about hepatitis C? Could it be that our health professionals aren’t recommending testing? Could it be that the costs of treatment may be seen as a barrier to care?

Why is this important? Because if you do have hepatitis C you are at risk of dying from liver cancer and other diseases. The kicker: the deadly results of hepatitis C can be prevented with an effective, albeit expensive treatment. Deaths from liver cancer in the United States are increasing more rapidly than any other type of cancer, according to a recent report. And even when localized at diagnosis, liver cancer is most often fatal.

It doesn’t necessarily have … Continue reading →

Cold Caps May Prevent Hair Loss From Chemotherapy: What We Know–And What We Don’t

Some information just released is creating a lot of enthusiasm about the use of cold caps to prevent hair loss from chemotherapy in women with breast cancer. But a deeper look into the data shows that this welcome news is not nearly as clear-cut as it might seem. And I’m afraid doctors explaining the potential limitations of these devices to patients hearing enthusiastic reports are going to be left holding the bag if this new treatment doesn’t work as intended.

Let’s face it: losing one’s hair is traumatic, to say the least. For some folks, the risk of hair loss may affect their decisions about which chemotherapy treatment they should receive for their cancer, or whether they should receive it at all. No question: this is important to many women (and men) when faced not only with the trauma of treatment but with the very diagnosis of cancer itself.

Two articles and commentaries in this week’s issues of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and its companion JAMA Oncology present new information about an old approach to preventing hair loss, along with some new thoughts and suggestions as to what this may mean longer term. And along … Continue reading →

When It Comes To Breast Cancer, Doing More Tests Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Better Outcomes

When it comes to our health and our health care, we love the numbers. Sometimes, we even fall in love with the numbers, assuming that the numbers tell us the whole story when in fact that may not be the case. Cholesterol numbers, blood pressure numbers, body mass index, whatever. As patients and consumers, we are frequently defined by our numbers.

But what happens when those numbers and other medical tests such as CT scans really don’t tell the story we think they do? The recent evolution of prostate specific antigen (PSA) is a case in point: for decades we believed the numbers saved many lives. Turns out PSA did save some lives, but not as many as we thought and at the considerable financial and human expense of treating many men who probably did not benefit.

So in that vein an article and editorial in a recent issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology makes the point that just because we have numbers does not really mean they offer us the scientific certainty about the course of cancer we may think they do.… Continue reading →

Sometimes Bold Predictions Do Come True: The Lesson Of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia

Perhaps more than most, doctors struggle with memories that mark sad moments in their careers. For me, one of the most indelible was about a wonderful young man with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).

When I started my oncology career in the early 1970’s, CML was almost always fatal. It would start with a chronic phase which was treated with pretty simple medications. But those medications didn’t cure the disease.

The “almost always” scenario with CML was that several years on, it would morph into an acute phase, or “blast crisis,” that almost always ended in an untimely and frequently very premature death.

I came into contact with this young man just as he was diagnosed with CML. A couple of years later, he entered that acute phase. Rather than face the rigors of intensive chemotherapy, a regimen that was almost always futile, he took his own life. Moments like that live with us forever.

Decades later, (2003 to be exact) a prominent oncologist—who at the time was the director of the National Cancer Institute—made an audacious promise. Andrew von Eschenbach said that by 2015 we would end the suffering and death from cancer and convert it to a chronic … Continue reading →