I was a panelist at the OMG!2012 Cancer Summit for Young Adults in Las Vegas this past spring, but I haven't been a keynote speaker for quite some time at an event, where I have the opportunity to deliver my own message. I enjoy public speaking, especially to people who are hungry for information and inspiration, as I so often am.
Yesterday, I had the honor of being one of the survivor keynote speakers, reflecting on my leukemia diagnosis and treatment, at the annual Living with Cancer: Confronting the Challenge conference at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. I shared my experience and the actions I took to be an active participant in the healing process, be it starting a meditation practice, using guided imagery/visualization techniques and repetition of affirmations, maintaining a social life, surrounding myself with family and friends, and of course, writing, which has been my go-to strategy for healing, especially emotionally, since 1992.
After speaking, I almost always have attendees approach me to ask questions and share their stories. It is quite humbling when others feel comfortable enough to open up about their struggles with cancer, or in one case, a mother who was there to get information to help her nine-year-old son who is currently going through lymphoma treatment. This connection with others is what makes my cancer outreach efforts so gratifying.
Not only did I meet cancer survivors but also other healthcare professionals and staff at hospitals and cancer support organizations. In addition to these new connections, I learned about the advances being made in cancer treatment. Dr. Harold Ballard, Chief, Hematology/Oncology at VA New York Harbor Healthcare System (New York Campus) spoke about cancer treatment, both current and future trends. A couple facts he shared include:
- 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will be diagnosed with cancer; 1 in 3 men and 1 in 4 women will die of cancer;
- In the early 70s, there were about 1 million people living with cancer; today, there are 12 million. While cancer diagnoses have increased over the years, those living with cancer have been living much longer than in the past, hence one of the reasons for the 12 million number. This is because the treatment for many cancers is so effective that they are now similar to chronic illnesses rather than a death sentence. This is also why there is more attention being paid to the quality of life and long-term outcomes of cancer survivors.
However dismal these statistics are, there is much to be excited about in the progress being made in some cancer treatments. In the past, when a patient was given chemotherapy, all cells--cancer and healthy--were being attacked. Today, researchers have found and continue to develop targeted therapies. These targeted therapies hit the cancer cells or the tumors only and thus the negative side effects that occur when all cells are being destroyed—vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, hair loss—are eliminated. Plus cancer treatment is much gentler.
Gleevec and Crizotinib are a couple of examples of targeted therapies. Gleevec is used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia. The patient takes one pill a day and since its use began, 93% of CML survivors are alive and well. Crizotinib was developed for non-small cell lung cancer patients with the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene, a genetic mutation. Crizotinib is also a pill and results show that at one year, 74% of patients are alive, at two years, 54% are alive.
Vaccines have also been developed that prevent cancers. One of the most effective but controversial is the HPV vaccine (human papillomavirus). HPV causes cervical cancer. It is controversial because HPV is a sexually transmissible disease. However, the vaccine has a 98% effective rate and is most effective when given before females become sexually active. Twelve years old is the suggested age for vaccination to achieve optimal prevention of contracting the virus. For more information about HPV, the Centers for Disease Control website is an excellent resource. (The CDC has also recommended that boys get this vaccination as well.)
For men, there is Provenge, a vaccine that has been developed to prevent prostate cancer. Like targeted chemo, it attacks the cancer cells only.
Targeted therapies and vaccines are the future of cancer treatment, but so is tailored medicine. This is very exciting because now with the ability to sequence DNA, oncologists can determine the optimal treatment protocol based on a patient’s genetic make-up. They can design a chemotherapy protocol for a particular patient based on what their genetics show he/she will respond to best. We are all different and what may work for one person, does not necessarily work for someone else.
Dr. Ballard also stressed the importance of clinical trials and how they are the only way these new, improved cancer drugs are made available to patients. Clinical trials from Phase I to Phase IV are vital in determining the effectiveness of these drugs. To read more about clinical trials why they are necessary and what can be done to broaden access to them, see my posts on May 14, 2009, and December 6, 2007.
As much research that goes into treating cancer, cancer screenings and prevention are just as, if not more, important. Cancer screening guidelines Dr. Ballard emphasized are:
- For men and women colon cancer is the third most common cancer, so it is recommended that your first colonoscopy be performed at age 50 and every 10 years thereafter, or as advised by your physician;
- For women, yearly pap smears, especially if you are sexually active, and yearly mammograms starting at age 40 (including monthly self-breast exams);
- For men, have your first prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening at age 40, and thereafter as recommended by your physician.
All of us have some control over the prevention part. We have to take personal responsibility for our health. We cannot always prevent disease no matter how healthy we may be, but we can do everything in our power to help ward it off. A few simple steps include:
- If you smoke, stop; and avoid secondhand smoke.
- If you do not exercise, get moving.
- If you do not eat many vegetables, increase the plant-based foods in your diet; the vegetables with the darkest color—red, purple, dark green—have the best cancer-fighting properties.
- If you are overweight, get the pounds off, and keep it off—maintain a healthy weight.
- Practice sun safety; use sunscreen, wear hats, and check your skin regularly for any noticeable changes.
A cancer diagnosis used to be a death sentence, but today that is not the case. There is still a long way to go to eradicate the disease, but much of it is in our own hands. Information is power, and for more of that the American Cancer Society Facts & Figures 2012 is an excellent resource.