Responsible for roughly 600,000 deaths in the United States each year, cancer can often seem like an inescapable curse, a symbol of death and illness beyond hope of a cure. But many of our fears surrounding this disease — or rather, diseases — stem from our inability to control it.
In the world of cancer, research is the light in the darkness, and May is the month in which we celebrate the path of progress in the fight against cancer.
Recognized by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), National Cancer Research Month is a time to recognize the doctors, scientists, patients, and advocates who have dedicated themselves to eradicating cancer. Their role in developing new medicines and treatments has helped millions of patients live longer lives and, in some cases, recover fully.
Not All Cancers Are Created Equal
Cancer is often thought of as a single disease, when in reality it refers to a collection of illnesses. These illnesses vary greatly in terms of frequency, aggressiveness, detectability, and survival rate. Skin cancer, for example, is the most common form of cancer but far from the deadliest.
Mesothelioma, meanwhile, is notorious for its relative rarity but grim prognosis. Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), only 3 known forms of cancer have a shorter survival rate than mesothelioma. For patients who receive a mesothelioma diagnosis, only 9% survive 5 years, while only 3% live another 10 years.
The traditional “trimodal” treatment of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can help add years to a patient’s prognosis. However, because mesothelioma has such a long latency period between exposure to asbestos and the development of symptoms (often 20-50 years), the trimodal regimen may not be as effective as it is with other cancers.
Because mesothelioma is relatively rare, it has seldom been a major focus for researchers working on new cures and treatments. That said, there have been great strides.
The Research Race: Fighting Back Against Cancer
In the United Kingdom, scientists recently used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to analyze the DNA of mesothelioma tumors. They found a similar pattern of development between patients suffering from the illness. With a better understanding of how tumors grow, researchers hope to provide treatments that are better suited to each patient.
In the United States, drugmakers are looking into an entirely new treatment method called Tumor Treating Fields (TTS), which involves “zapping” tumors with specific electrical frequencies. Patients wear a body patch over the site of the tumors, and the bursts of energy help kill cancerous cells, disrupt cell division, and slow the growth of tumors. Those studies are ongoing.
Other researchers are looking deeper into immunotherapy, which refers to the use of various drugs and treatments designed to leverage the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Trials have shown some of these drugs have helped extend the life of patients up to 5 years.
While those trials were not specific to mesothelioma, many researchers are hopeful that immunotherapy can be used instead of chemotherapy, which can be an aggressive and highly toxic way of treating cancer for some patients.
Reasons to Be Hopeful
There are reasons to be optimistic about the state of cancer research. Corrected for aging and population, fewer people are dying and more people are surviving. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the death rate from cancer in the United States fell by 29% between 1991 and 2017.
Much of those declines are owed to advances in new drugs and treatment regimens like immunotherapy, as well as an increase in early detection through earlier cancer screening.
Of course, none of this is possible without cancer research.
But there is still so much work to be done, and there are plenty of things that individuals can do to help. Awareness campaigns like National Cancer Research Month help bring in donations that are critical for funding research. They also help spread the message to Congress, which decides how much funding the NCI receives each year.
Sites like Charity Watch can help you determine which organizations and institutions are most deserving of your time and donations. This National Cancer Research Month, be part of the generational effort to make cancer a thing of the past.