More than 14 million survived cancer

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 8638By: Tom Corwin


Betty Wells didn’t need to be told she faced long odds for survival in March 2002 after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer that had already spread across her abdomen.

“No one ever gave me a specific time I could live or anything like that,” said Wells, 88. “But I was knowledgeable enough to know.”

While only 27 percent with her advanced diagnosis survive five years, she is still cancer-free after 12.

“I have been very blessed,” she said.

And there are many more like her. There are now more than 14 million cancer survivors in the U.S. and new treatments mean many more could be joining them, the American Association for Cancer Research announced Tuesday in its fourth Cancer Progress Report.

“I think it is fair to say that many of us who take care of cancer patients are seeing responses to treatment that we have not seen before,” said Dr. Carlos Arteaga, president of the group and director of the Center for Cancer Targeted Therapies at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. “We know that we’re witnessing quite a transformative change in the way we treat patients with cancer.”

Just in the past year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved six new therapies for cancer, with five of them molecularly-targeted therapies, in addition to new cancer uses for five existing drugs and two new imaging agents, he said.

“As a result of advances like these, Americans today are more likely to survive a cancer diagnosis and then enjoy a higher quality of life than at any other time in history,” Arteaga said. Those approved drugs might just be the beginning, said Dr. Samir N. Khleif, director of Georgia Regents University Cancer Center.

“The expectation is it is going to be happening more frequently now because of the discoveries we had before and because of the plethora of drugs that are in clinical trials,” some of which are being tested at GRU Cancer Center, he said.

In particular, immunotherapies – such as the anti-programmed death-1 therapy that Khleif has conducted a clinical trial on and which a similar drug was recently approved for advanced melanoma – show promise, the researchers said.

“I think this is right now a very hot area,” Arteaga said. “We have many drugs in that space that are in a race for approval. We have seen very interesting and dramatic responses sometimes in tumors that used to be very lethal in the short term. We are just beginning to see the impact of immunotherapy in advanced cancers.”

But there could also be bigger problems in the future. The number of cancer cases is expected to increase from about 1.6 million a year to 2.4 million a year by 2035 as the population ages.

And future advances are being threatened by a lack of funding for the National Institutes of Health and specifically the National Cancer Institute, Arteaga said.

Since 2010, NIH funding has lost $3.5 billion when compared to inflation and took a big $1.6 billion cut due to sequestration last year, he said. While industry funds about half of the research, it does not fund the kind of basic research that results in new discoveries that can lead to new therapies and insights, Khleif said.

“If we lose the high-risk basic research, that will affect future discoveries, potential cures in a big way,” he said.

That is particularly disturbing in light of the current cancer burden – about $216 billion a year – and future increases, Arteaga said.

“This is to me scary,” he said. The group called on Congress and the administration to make a sustained commitment to funding in the future.

Since she finished her chemotherapy and went into remission, Wells said, she has enjoyed participating with fellow survivors through the CSRA Gynecological Cancer Support Group. And she especially likes talking to newly diagnosed patients about her experiences.

“They realize people can survive it,” Wells said. “I attribute a lot of this to my outlook, to my faith, to great doctors and nurses” at GRU Cancer Center.