Cancer survival: ‘Progress is astonishing,’ expert says

September 19, 2013 | by

Science is paying off. Thanks to the significant progress in cancer research and scientific discoveries, more people are surviving cancer.

A million lives have been saved due to cancer advances, a new report says. More work remains.

More than a million lives have been saved due to advances against cancer, a new report says. More work remains.

The third annual cancer progress report from the American Association for Cancer Research found that there have been more than 1 million fewer cancer deaths since 1990. Further, the number of cancer survivors in the U.S. continues to increase, with more than 13.7 million current survivors.

"The progress is astonishing," said Cy Stein, M.D., Ph.D., Arthur & Rosalie Kaplan Chair in Medical Oncology at City of Hope in an interview with HealthDay. "Things have been getting better. That is the truth of this report.”

Part of the improvement can be traced to new drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These drugs, the result of decades of research, target specific defects in cancer. Known as targeted therapies, the medications are designed to attack genetic mutations in tumor cells and block their ability to grow.

“There are so many interventions now, because there are so many different forms of cancer,” said Stein in an interview with Time. “That’s why this is an exciting time to be a medical oncologist.”

However, even with the major developments and advancements, cancer still remains a worldwide problem.

The report predicts that more than 1.6 million people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer this year and that more than 580,350 will die from it. Globally, cancer diagnoses are expected to increase from 12.8 million to 22.2 million by 2030, with more than 13 million people losing their lives to a form of cancer.

Those numbers could be reduced. The report noted that up to 50 percent of all cancer deaths could be avoided if people refrained  from smoking, reduced their sun exposure, stayed active and maintained a healthy diet.

While most people are aware of tobacco’s link to lung cancer and the sun’s link to skin cancer, some are still in the dark about recent studies linking obesity to cancer.

“I’m not sure how much the link between obesity and cancer has penetrated the public awareness,” Stein said in the Time interview. “If we could eliminate that, another 20% to 30% of cancer deaths could be eliminated.”

The report also highlights the need for efforts to develop new tools, new analytics and new ways of thinking about cancer.

“One of the big lessons we learned over the last 20 years is how individualized cancer is,” Stein said in the Time interview. “The way I like to view cancer is like a great tree. What you see first is the big massive trunk that looks the same in all dimensions. But as you look upward, it arborizes into branches, and thinner and thinner branches until [you] get to the leaves. And that’s where the details are, in the leaves.”

The report covered many issues pertaining to cancer, but Stein told HealthDay that the authors didn't emphasize an important fact: "That people with cancer live better," compared to cancer patients of generations past.

"A lot of times, even those with advanced cancer on therapy are able to engage in everyday activities," Stein said. "A lot of that is [due to] the research that we did a long time ago that has been paying off for a long time."