Survivors

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 Remarkable Story No One Is Talking About: The Substantial Decline In Deaths From Advanced Melanoma

Here is some news about cancer that isn’t widely known and is hiding in plain sight: Deaths from melanoma—a skin cancer that has lethal potential—have declined dramatically over the past several years. And while that fact alone is surprising, so is the reason behind the drop.

Let’s make something clear at the outset: too many people die from melanoma. It is not the most common skin cancer (the American Cancer Society estimates 96,480 people in the United States will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2019, and 7,230 will die from it), but it is much more likely to spread and lead to death than most other much more common forms of skin cancer. And it has too frequently been a fatal disease.

That is now beginning to change, thanks in part to public awareness and earlier diagnosis. However, we can’t ignore what may be the most important factor: much better treatments. In fact, improvement in treatments with targeted drugs and immunotherapies have now begun to have a considerable impact saving lives for those with advanced melanoma.… Continue reading →

Alex Trebek Is Diagnosed With Advanced Pancreatic Cancer–And We Are Reminded Of The Strength And Dignity Those With Cancer Offer To Others, Every Day

The news that Alex Trebek has advanced stage IV pancreatic cancer has been met with an outpouring of support and good wishes, as would be expected for someone who has been a part of our lives for so many years.

The fact is, pancreatic cancer is a difficult disease to treat effectively. That is due in no small part to the fact that—as the case with Mr. Trebek–pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed at a later stage, remaining undetected until it causes difficulties and symptoms by its spread. The reality is that for most people pancreatic cancer is too advanced to be treated with surgery and is not very responsive to currently available chemotherapy and targeted therapy medications. And newer forms of treatment such as immunotherapy and CAR-T haven’t shown particular success at this point.… 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 →

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 →

A Real News Story Of Hope: Impressive Decline in Melanoma Incidence In Young Women Will Result In A World With Less Cancer

A recent research report on melanoma from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received virtually no notice, yet one of the statistics in that report was—at least for me—stunning, and marked a rare public health win.

People in public health know all too well the gap between educating people about cancer risks and seeing actual results. Skin cancer is no different: We have known for many years that the risk of skin cancer is related to exposure to UV radiation, either from the sun of for indoor tanning.

Yet despite widespread efforts to educate people about this very real cancer risk, we haven’t made much progress reducing its frequency—at least until now.… Continue reading →

Millions Of Skin Cancers Occur Every Year, So Why Do Many Teens Still Use Tanning Beds?

4.9 million—yes, million— people are diagnosed with skin cancer every year in the United States. It costs an estimated $8.1 billion—with a “B— to treat those skin cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Do I have your attention? I hope so. The problem is we don’t have enough attention. There is no other way to explain why too many states still allow those under 18 to access tanning beds across this country.

Have we made progress? Yes, but not nearly enough according to a research paper and editorial published today in JAMA Dermatology.

The study, from the CDC, looked at surveys of high school students done every two years between 2009 and 2015. The researchers found that overall the frequency of tanning bed use in the previous year declined from 15.6% of all high school students in 2009 to 7.3% of all students in 2015.

That’s progress. However, when they took a closer look at different groups of students they found that among non-Hispanic white female students the numbers using a tanning bed the previous year dropped from 37.4% to 15.2%.

Sound good? Maybe—until you look at the percentages for those 17 and older: in … Continue reading →

We Order Anything From Anywhere In A Flash But Still Fill Out Paper Forms At The Doctor’s Office. Why?

In a world where in a moment I can order from thousands of items and have them delivered to my doorstep the same or next day at the press of a button without having to re-enter my name, address, and billing information each time, it would seem that filling out paper forms at the doctor’s office by hand to have someone else re-enter the information into a computer that doesn’t communicate with other computers in the same clinic system is craziness. And if someone doesn’t do it right, it can follow you everywhere forever–and you may never know.

After some recent personal medical visits, I can’t imagine what it is like for cancer patients and families dealing with serious illness trying to navigate the complex system we call healthcare. It’s time we get the technology working for the patients, not making their lives even more difficult.

In each of my encounters the setting was fairly typical for a large health system in a large metropolitan city. I needed to get care regarding two straightforward problems with two different clinics in the same system a couple of weeks apart. So far so good: the care was excellent, the support staff friendly … Continue reading →

Twenty Years Later, And We Still Don’t Routinely Offer BRCA Test To Women At High Risk For Breast Cancer

A report in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that too few women with recently diagnosed breast cancer and at high risk of a BRCA genetic mutation received appropriate genetic counseling and testing for the mutation—a missed opportunity not only to improve treatment for these patients, but also to prevent some breast, ovarian and other cancers in the first place.

This study makes the difficult point that when it comes to routine screening for genetic abnormalities in women (and men, for that matter) who may be at increased risk, we simply aren’t doing the job. The situation may well be worse than this report suggests, especially considering that in some areas of the country Medicare doesn’t even cover preventive testing for the BRCA mutation. And this is more than 20 years after the test was first discovered and placed into clinical practice.

I guess sometimes it takes a long time for the way we care for our patients to catch up with the science that we know works. But twenty years??? Uh, that seems like a long, long time.… Continue reading →

Need To Balance Innovation, Benefits and Restraint When It Comes To The Rising The Costs Of Cancer Drugs

Cancer drugs—especially the new targeted and immunotherapies—are very, very expensive.

No doubt about that, and there is also no lack of effort trying to cast blame on who bears responsibility for those costs. There is even a recent article in the British Medical Journal that analyzes the size of the vials those drugs come in and suggests for some companies at least that may be a strategy to increase costs even further. What most experts can agree on is that this is a complicated problem for which there are no easy solutions.

I recently wrote a short commentary on the issue which appeared in Healio’s “HemOnc Today.” Although not exhaustive in terms of analyzing the issue, it does point out that we need to find a balance that continues to provide the incentive to innovate and bring new treatments to the care of cancer patients, while maintaining some degree of restraint given the reality that these costs simply cannot continue to increase without limit.… Continue reading →