Because of advances in cancer research, there are now more survivors of cancer in the United States than ever before.

According to an American Association for Cancer Research report, Wednesday’s publication showed that significant progress has been made in cancer treatment, diagnosis tools, and prevention strategies.

According to the annual Cancer Progress Report, death rates from cancer have fallen over the past 20 years, with a notable drop in recent years. There are now over 18 million survivors of cancer in the United States, up from 3,000,000 in 1971.

“This is an exciting time in cancer management,” stated Dr. Stephen Ansell (senior deputy director for the Midwest at Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center in Rochester), Minnesota. He wasn’t involved in the report. “We are seeing the death rate from lung cancer continue to decline.”

President Joe Biden launched his “Cancer Moonshot” initiative again this year. He also provided new steps last week to expand the program.

This initiative increases funding for cancer research, particularly immunotherapies.

Dr. Lisa Coussens is the president of the American Association for Cancer Research. She stated that funding basic research can’t be stopped now if you believe the current treatments are good enough. The public will reap the benefits of investing in basic science.

To fight cancer, harness the power of your immune system

Coussens highlighted immunotherapies’ increasing use as an example of the ways in which cancer treatment has improved.

Coussens stated that “our ability to use or leverage the power of the immune system to combat cancer is enormous.” It’s the reason you see higher survival rates for many cancers such as lung, kidney, and melanoma.

Immunotherapies are a way to combat cancer by using the body’s immune system.

“Cancer cells can be mavericks but they are your cells.” Your immune system is designed not to attack your own cells,” Dr. Larry Norton, medical director at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said. “But, new drugs called immune-checkpoint inhibitors allow the immune system to attack its cancer cells.”

In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first immune checkpoint inhibitor, a drug called ipilimumab. It is used to treat metastatic melanoma. According to the report, eight additional immune checkpoint inhibitors have been approved for 18 types of cancer.

The FDA approved the FDA’s first new immune checkpoint inhibitor after eight years in March. Reltimab is used to treat melanoma.

The agency also approved seven additional cancer therapies in the last year. This includes the first drug to treat uveal melanomas, which is the most common type of eye cancer in adults. The agency also increased the availability of 10 drugs for other types of cancer.

Coussens also highlighted the latest developments in cancer drugs, which target specific DNA mutations within cancer cells. However, he noted that there is still much to be done.

She said that while molecularly targeted drugs have been a game-changer, they have not been sufficient to make a significant impact on overall survival.

Early detection of cancer

Catching the disease early is also key to reducing cancer deaths.

Coussens stated, “Early diagnosis of cancer is essential.” A patient’s survival rate is highest if the cancer diagnosis is made early, in the premalignant stage, or before the primary tumor spreads to other parts of the body.

The efforts to increase routine screenings for common cancers such as prostate, breast, and colon cancer are having an impact. According to the report, colorectal cancer screening rates have increased by more than 12 percent in the four years since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Colorectal Cancer Control Program.

Researchers are optimistic about liquid biopsies, which would screen for cancer with a simple blood test rather than traditional imaging scans or biopsies.

The multi-cancer early detection blood test, which was presented at the European Cancer Conference ESMO 2022 this month, provided promising results. Norton stated that scientists around the globe are still working on the new diagnostic method. It is expected to play an important role in the future treatment and diagnosis of cancer.

Access to equal opportunity remains a challenge

Despite advancements in cancer treatment, there are still significant hurdles to overcome.

Black Americans have the highest mortality rate and the lowest survival rates for most types of cancers. Hispanic Americans, American Indian Alaska Natives, and other minorities are also excluded from the cancer management improvements that white and Asian Pacific Islanders have access to.

Norton stated that “all of these advances aren’t being spread uniformly throughout the U.S. population.”

Many new cancer treatments are only available at specialized centers. This makes it difficult for those who live far from them or don’t have the finances to travel to receive care. Ansell stated that they often require lengthy hospital stays which can cause them to miss work and increase the cost of lodging.

New therapies that can be delivered at home and not in a hospital are being developed. Both of these options could help to break down barriers.

Ansell stated that while it is exciting to see the progress made, there is still so much to do. “Until we beat cancer for everyone, we are not done.”

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