We've all heard about the "war on cancer," and as with any battle, survival is tracked, along with incidence and prevalence rates. SEER, or Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results, is the program run by the National Cancer Institute that tracks cancer incidence and survival trends across time periods. In some aspects, medicine seems to be winning the war against cancer. Upon closer examination and more thought, as with any war, things are seldom as they may initially appear.
According to the National Cancer Institute, out of individuals who were diagnosed with cancer in 2001, 68.23 percent of these individuals survived cancer for at least five years. Survival for most types of cancer is generally rising, but for some types, like lung cancer, which accounts for over a quarter of cancer deaths in women, five-year survival remains very low.
Among women, for the time period 1998 to 2006, overall cancer incidences among women declined, but some types of cancer have experienced increases in incidence rates, including melanoma, kidney cancer, thyroid cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, leukemia, testicular cancer, esophageal cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and childhood cancers. This may be due to better screening tools and earlier detection, says the National Cancer Institute.
Looking at general cancer survival trends may not be the best gauge of how far we have come in oncology, as they can be deceiving. Breast cancer survival may be increasing overall, but this may be because many breast cancers are being caught at earlier stages, when it is most treatable.
This does not take into account the still dismal survival rates of triple-negative breast cancer, which is breast cancer that does not respond to hormonal treatments or Herceptin. Other types of cancer, like pancreatic cancer, carry a very low survival rate – according to the Hirshberg Foundation, for all stages of this cancer combined, the one year survival rate is only 20 percent, and the five year survival rate is only 4 percent.
When looking at cancer survival rates, what are we seeing? The number of people still alive, usually at least five years post-diagnosis. But is that what we should be looking at? What about the incidence rates of cancer - would those statistics not give us a better idea of what we are up against? When it comes down to progress, what do numbers really tell us at all?
I would venture to say they can be helpful, but not extremely, and certainly should not be a marker of success. What about concentrating on less toxic treatments? Or finding screening tools for the many, many cancers that still are not able to be detected early on, and typically have low survival rates? These issues get lost in the celebration when we see how much "progress" we have made in survival.
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