Saturday, June 17, 2023

Author/N.Y. Times essayist points to possibility of lengthy extended life for cancer patients

A revolution in cancer treatment — involving multiple drugs — may be within the grasp of modern medicine. 

That's what's posited in a guest essay in The New York Times this week by Kate Pickert, author of Radical: The Science, Culture, and History of Breast Cancer in America.  

The author starts off by citing as an example a woman who's been kept alive, despite having metastatic cancer, for nine years by taking "a series of eight drug regimens…including three as part of clinical trials." The patient in question, she reports, "switches from one medication to another when it becomes clear that a treatment doesn't work or has stopped working because her cancer has figured out how to resist its efforts."

This approach, the writer says, "is increasingly becoming a standard of care for patients facing diagnoses that were once death sentences." For those patients, she adds, "cancer is more like a chronic disease than a one-time catastrophic event."

What's happening now is in no way proclaiming that a cure for cancer is imminent, but acknowledging instead that "the landscape for many cancer patients has changed tremendously in just the past five years," her Times essay declares.

Dr. Jedd Wolchok
The article quotes Dr. Jedd Wolchok, oncologist and director of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine: "The pace of progress is most certainly accelerating. There are so many things converging."

At the end of her piece, Pickert talks about her own situation (she's had chemotherapy, drug treatment, and radiation for breast cancer) and notes that if her cancer returns, "which is unlikely at this point, I will benefit from a wide array of drugs — many of which were approved in the past five years."

Within 24 hours of the Times column, a story by Katherine Ellison appeared in The Washington Post that totally supports the idea of cancer becoming a chronic, treatable disease. 

That concept alone can lower anxiety, and that relief is crucial for cancer patients who are all too aware that more than 600,000 Americans are expected to die of the disease this year.

Despite that statistic, the Post story proclaims, "even some of the most fearful cancers today are increasingly survivable — provided they're addressed with care and vigilance that may span months to years to a lifetime."

That notion's addressed by positive numbers, the article proffers, explaining that of the 18 million U.S. residents with a history of the disease, "for many of them, cancer has become less an imminent threat than a chronic illness, serious but not necessarily deadly."

More good news? The death rate from all cancers, according to an American Cancer Society report released in January, is down almost a third since 1991.

Ellison's story quotes Lidia Chapira, breast-cancer expert and medical professor at Stanford University: "We're not quite there yet, but we're moving closer to the situation we have with HIV patients, in that today even people with incurable cancers may be living for decades. I'm still treating patients who were diagnosed decades ago, while my colleagues are seeing people in their 50s and 60s who had cancer as children."

Information on newer drugs and treatments can be found in Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner's breast cancer, a VitalityPress book that I, Woody Weingarten, aimed at caregivers. 

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