April 09, 2013
Is our evolution becoming a revolution? Am I in danger of becoming a victim of the same "hope and hype" that I derided as a young oncologist in the 1970's and 80's and is currently the focus of some vocal critics of recent glowing media reports on the successes of cancer research and treatment?
Those are the questions I am asking myself as I reflect on the experiences I have had over the past two weeks. And although I may be proven wrong, I am becoming even more convinced that we are truly at the tipping point, the place where the sweat and tears of failure and slow progress give way to truly significant change in how we view, diagnose and treat cancer. More...
March 20, 2013
I was sitting in a large lecture hall with about 1000 of my oncology colleagues this past week when I had one of "those moments." It wasn't a spectacular moment, and I doubt that anyone else in the room really paid much attention to the moment, but for me it was a significant moment--and frankly a bit chilling if not frightening.
In short, in answer to an audience response question--which admittedly is not a scientifically valid survey--over 1/3 of the oncology professionals sitting in the audience would have prescribed a treatment for advanced colon cancer that not only has been shown not to work, but also shorten lives. At that moment, I became very concerned about the implications of that response and what it may mean for patient care.
Maybe I am overdramatizing this a bit, but what happened pointed out to me that we may have a serious problem in cancer care, and it is imperative that we do something about it. More...
January 07, 2013
The positive news continues: cancer death rates have continued to fall in the United States, for men and women, maintaining a trend that began in the early 1990's. That's the essence of a report released today by the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
The report, titled in part "Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975-2009" also features a special section on the burden and trends in Human Papilloma virus (HPV) associated cancers and HPV vaccination coverage levels. Unlike the continuing decline in cancer deaths in the United States, we could be doing a much better job of getting young folks vaccinated against HPV and reducing the incidence and death rates from several HPV-associated cancers, according to the authors of the report and an editorial that accompanied the report.
This report comes out every year. It is a summation of what we know about the trends in incidence rates for the most common cancers in the United States among both men and women as well as the trends in death rates from those cancers that lead to the highest mortality in the general population as well as specific ethnic groups. It is in a real sense a report card on our progress, which in large part is good but in a number of cancers, not so good.
The good news is what we have come to expect: since the year 2000, the overall cancer death rates have continued to decline 1.8% per year in men, 1.4% in women and 0.6% per year in children. That may not sound like much, but when you consider the fact that this is an average change seen every year, those numbers begin to add up. More...
June 03, 2012
One of the things I enjoy about coming to meetings like the current annual session of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is that it gives me a chance to give thought to some larger questions that face cancer care. A presentation I attended Friday afternoon on the impact of genomics on cancer diagnosis and treatment in the future has offered just such an opportunity.
Most of you I suspect give little thought to the actual processes that we use to diagnose cancer. One has a tumor somewhere in the body, the doctors take a specimen, send it to the pathologist and the pathologist makes the diagnosis. Simple and straightforward. Get it done and get on with treatment.
But in fact it isn't so simple and straightforward. And in the world we live in, it is getting more and more complex.
Looking at cancer tissue under the microscope is something that has been done for over a century. More recently, we have seen the advent of special additional tests that tell us for example whether or not a cancer such as breast cancer is hormone sensitive or whether it has other markers such as HER2. We can send specimens of the cancer to a lab to find out whether or not it is more or less aggressive and we can even do tests to find out whether or not--for example--a woman with a breast cancer really needs to take traditional cancer chemotherapy. There are even special stains that can be applied to tumor tissue through a variety of techniques that can further refine the characteristics of a particular tumor and help us determine what kind of cancer it may be, or what subgroup of a family of cancers, such as lymphoma, a particular cancer fits in to.
All of that is well and good, but unfortunately that simple explanation does neither justice to how doctors diagnose cancer, nor does it say much about the problems that can occur in making cancer diagnoses, especially with all of the new tests that are available. I suspect that many physicians will agree that simply looking at the tissue under the microscope just doesn't tell us anymore all the things we should know about a particular individual's cancer. More...
May 02, 2012
As I write this, I am returning from a trip to Los Angeles where I participated yesterday in a panel discussion on the topic of cancer prevention and early detection. The occasion was the 2012 Global Conference sponsored by the Milken Institute. (If you are not familiar with this conference, it is probably one of the premier finance and investing conferences in the country, if not the world. And the luminaries in attendance--both as attendees and speakers--were a testament to the influence of the Institute and its founder, Michael Milken.)
I was on this panel through an invitation from the Melanoma Research Alliance and its chief executive, Wendy Selig, a former colleague of mine when she was at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. Other participants included Dr. Stephen Gruber, who is the recently appointed director for the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center in Los Angeles, Dr. Sancy Leachman who is the director of melanoma and cutaneous oncology at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, and Sherry Lansing who is the CEO of a foundation of the same name and a well-known cancer research advocate (she is very well known in the entertainment industry as the former head of Paramount Pictures and one of the people who conceived of Stand Up To Cancer which has done much to transform the landscape of cancer research in this country).
What made this event more interesting was that the audience was made up of those same financial and investing folks I mentioned above. As you might imagine, almost all the sessions were devoted to topics very relevant to their professional interests. The topic of the session I participated in was a bit off the usual target of the meeting. This session was not about investing--it was about health. I must admit that I was surprised at the number of attendees who joined us for our discussion, and even more pleasantly surprised that they remained engaged throughout our 90 minutes.
In what would have otherwise been a fairly typical recitation of facts about how cancer prevention and early detection can reduce the burden and suffering from cancer, a theme emerged: we as professionals are not doing our best in clarifying our advice about the prevention and early detection of cancer through cancer screening.
When you are sitting in a room with some very intelligent people realizing that our lack of clarity and conflicting recommendations on advising people what they need to do about their health, you begin to understand that we are facing a dilemma that could have a significant impact on how successful we are going to be in getting people to take action to reduce the risk of cancer or finding it early. More...
March 29, 2012
I have a confession to make:
As soon as I finished reading the Annual Report to the Nation yesterday as I was preparing to write my blog, I got up from my desk and took a walk for 20 minutes.
What, might you ask, compelled me to do this?
The answer is what made me take a walk is the same reason I am writing this follow-up commentary to yesterday's blog: Sitting at my desk all day may kill me. It may be doing the same for you. More...
March 28, 2012
The "Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer" was released this afternoon as has been the case every year since the first report was issued in 1998. And, like many of the reports previously, we are fortunate to continue to see declines in the rates of deaths for many cancers along with a decrease in the frequency of some cancers.
However, the news is not all good.
Unfortunately, the incidence of some cancers continues to increase. And, as explained very clearly in this excellent report, this nation continues to suffer from an epidemic of overweight, obesity and physical activity that the authors suggest-but don't actually say-has the potential to overcome the favorable impact of declining smoking and tobacco use on cancer incidence and deaths. The implication is clear that if we don't do something-and do something quickly-to reverse the trend we will see incidence and deaths from certain cancers continue to increase in the future.
And I would stress the point that it is no longer just being oversized that increases your risk of cancer, but also sitting all day on the job (like I am doing right now) as another factor that plays into your cancer risk, independent of how large or small you may be. More...
January 04, 2012
Welcome to the New Year!
And as has been the case for many years in the past, the American Cancer Society takes the New Year opportunity of providing the nation with the latest estimates of cancer incidence and deaths, along with a measure of how well we are doing in reducing the burden of cancer in the United States.
The data is contained in two reports released today by the Society: the consumer oriented Cancer Facts and Figures 2012 and the more scientifically directed Cancer Statistics 2012. Both are available online.
It is never "good news" to realize that the burden of cancer in this country is immense. And with the country gaining in population and age, the extent of that burden is inevitably going to increase. But this year's report does contain some welcome information, namely that cancer death rates have declined in men and women of every racial/ethnic group over the past 10 years, with the sole (and unfortunate) exception of American Indians/Alaska Natives. In addition, the Society now estimates that a bit more than one million cancer deaths (1,024,400 to be exact) have been avoided since 1991-1992.
That one million number is actually more significant than it seems. Many of the people in that 1 million never heard the words "you have cancer." Maybe they had a colon polyp removed before it became cancerous, maybe they stopped-or never started-smoking. Maybe they had a pap smear that found a pre-cancerous lesion. And then there are the patients who have benefitted from the advances in cancer treatment that have occurred over the past number of decades.
But the 1 million number also means that these are people who have hopefully remained active and engaged in life, loved by their families, productive in their communities. In economic terms, the return on investment on avoiding those one million deaths may likely be incalculable. In human terms, it is an amazing accomplishment. More...
September 20, 2011
There are few times in life when one gets to watch history being made. Today is one of those times.
I am in New York with a number of colleagues from the American Cancer Society and other committed organizations to observe a UN High Level Meeting which will--at long last--put non-communicable diseases on the international agenda. The impact of the decisions made here over the next two days can indeed change the face of global health forever. More...
June 17, 2011
"Poverty is a carcinogen."
Those were the words of Dr. Samuel Broder when he was director of the National Cancer Institute in 1989.
As amply documented in the annual "Cancer Facts and Figures 2011" released today by the American Cancer Society, cancer shows that poverty remains one of the most potent a carcinogen-rivaling tobacco and obesity-as we have ever seen.
We have heard lots and lots about how cell phones and Styrofoam cause cancer. But do you hear anyone talking about the huge impact of poverty and limited education on cancer?
If you don't hear anything about a true carcinogen that statistics show causes 37% of the deaths from cancer in people between the ages of 27 and 64, then maybe you have the answer to a very important question: If we are serious about reducing the burden and suffering from cancer, why aren't we paying attention to those most in need? More...