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Winning the war on cancer (quietly)

December 26, 2011

Forty years ago Friday, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on cancer.” And while no one would think of declaring victory, it’s rarely discussed how successful that war has been. Thanks to advances in screening, diagnosis and treatment, more people are alive today after beating cancer than ever before.

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong conquered testicular cancer in 1996. “Dexter” actor Michael C. Hall has been in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma for a year. E! host Giuliana Rancic is recovering from a double mastectomy performed this month, and Christina Applegate has been cancer free since her double mastectomy in 2008.

Cancer still claims 1,500 people a day. But in an increasing number of cases, it is evolving into a chronic disease, rather than a fatal one. In 1971, there were only 3 million cancer survivors in the US; today there are 12 million, and the number keeps growing.

In the mid-1970s, only 50% of people diagnosed with cancer lived five years. Today, it’s 68%, and much higher for certain forms of the disease, such as prostate cancer.

“When I started in this field 30 years ago, we were helping people die of cancer. Now it’s a question of living with the disease, embracing the future,” said Julia Rowland, director of the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Survivorship.


One of the primary reasons for the success is that doctors have gotten much, much better at finding the disease. The earlier cancer is caught, the easier it is to beat, and an increased awareness about such screenings as mammographies, Pap tests and colonoscopies have helped turn the tide.

Steady declines in breast cancer deaths are largely attributed to mammography, which detects about 80%-90% of breast cancers in women without symptoms. And colorectal-cancer screening has led to a decrease in cancers and a decline in cancer deaths.

Even heavy smokers are breathing sighs of relief thanks to improved screening techniques. One clinical trial found CT scans could detect earlier stage cancers in people who smoked a pack a day for 30 years, resulting in 20% fewer lung-cancer deaths in this high-risk group.

More than half of all cancer cases occur in people 65 or older, and as baby boomers age, doctors are bracing themselves for an onslaught. The National Cancer Institute estimates that there will be a 42% increase in the number of cancer survivors 65 or older between 2010 and 2020.

There is some hope, however: Baby boomers tend to be healthier than their predecessors, and are more likely to get screened early and to seek treatments at earlier stages.

Have a comment on this PostOpinion column? Send it in to LETTERS@NYPOST.COM!

Article source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/winning_the_war_cancer_quietly_adSon8cqTOP9EX22y1br3K?CMP=OTC-rss&FEEDNAME=


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