Much of the progress in cancer treatment can be attributed to the recognition that not all cancers are the same. What if we took a similar approach to supporting survivors?
Cancer survivorship varies widely from one person to the next. But one thing is certain: with the number of cancer survivors growing every year,1 we need to address the evolving and diverse dynamics of what it means to live with the disease.
One of my favorite aspects of modern medicine is the progress that’s been made in treating many cancers that were once viewed as imminent death sentences. People are surviving cancers of the breast, cervix, blood, prostate, and colon, to name a few.
In the United States, there are approximately 14 million cancer survivors, up from just three million in 19712,3. That number is expected to grow to almost 19 million by 2024. As more new and potentially life-saving medicines for cancer become available, the number of survivors will continue to accelerate for years to come.
That’s great news.
Increase in number of people living with or beyond cancer in the past 45 years
2 out of 3
People diagnosed with cancer are expected to live at least 5 years
Of cancer survivors were diagnosed five or more years ago
Now that people with cancer are living longer, the cancer community—including the companies that make cancer medicines—must do more to support them, as well as their caregivers and loved ones.
Identifying the Need
A common clinical definition of cancer survivorship starts at the moment of diagnosis. But for the person diagnosed, survivorship is not so straightforward. Surviving cancer has an impact on every aspect of an individual’s life from their physical and emotional state to their financial and social well-being. Factors like the stage and type of cancer they have, their age when diagnosed, and their treatment, all play a role in defining that experience. A recent New York Times column4 provides a compelling, personal perspective on some of the realities survivors face.
I’ve worked with patients as a practicing oncologist and hematologist for nearly 15 years and I’ve learned something very important: there isn’t just one way to support cancer survivors. Patients’ needs are all over the map. A 40-year-old with metastatic disease faces different issues than a 60-year-old who is ten years out from finishing treatment. Similarly, when a child is diagnosed with cancer, survivorship involves the entire family. Someone for whom initial treatment is successful has different challenges than someone diagnosed with a chronic cancer where relapse is common. The strain on caregivers is also significant and varies widely.
The need to improve survivorship care was flagged a decade ago in the Institute of Medicine report,5 From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: Lost in Transition. The report urged an increased focus on long-term care, follow-up visits, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, legal rights affecting employment and insurance, and the availability of psychological and support services. As a result, many more treatment centers and hospitals now offer their own programs and resources to help people develop survivorship plans.
Filling the Gap
Like many others in the cancer care community, we want to do more to help. We recognize the challenges that accompany a cancer diagnosis and are working closely with patient organizations to help cancer survivors:
By providing grants to patient groups that offer services such as rides to doctor appointments, social workers for emotional counseling, and access to basic necessities such as groceries and help paying for utility bills.
By funding organizations that create interactive resources to help people with cancer learn more about their disease and feel a greater sense of control.
By developing apps and web sites that help connect people with others who have the same type of cancer or with friends and family who can assist them with daily needs.
Despite everything we’re doing, there’s still more to be done. We’re continuously looking for ways to improve on available support resources while also working with others to improve existing programs.
In recent years, we’ve increased our understanding of the underlying biology of cancer as well as the needs of those who’ve been diagnosed. We have an ambitious goal of keeping the patient at the center of everything we do and supporting them through every aspect of their cancer journey. To fully achieve this, we need to take advantage of the new technologies developed every day that can help monitor, guide, and connect us so we can deliver more personalized support. Advances in data collection can help researchers identify patient needs; new technologies that track patient experiences can help improve care; social sharing could help survivors and caregivers support and learn from each other.
These are just a few examples of innovative solutions that we can bring to patients. If we collaborate within healthcare and seek partnerships from other industries, we may be able to create a survivor support system that is as diverse as those who look to us for help.
1 DeSantis, C. E., Lin, C. C., Mariotto, A. B., Siegel, R. L., Stein, K. D., Kramer, J. L., Alteri, R., Robbins, A. S. and Jemal, A. (2014), Cancer treatment and survivorship statistics, 2014. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 64: 252–271. doi: 10.3322/caac.21235
2 American Society of Clinical Oncology. Cancer Survivorship. https://www.asco.org/advocacy-policy/asco-in-action/asco-action-brief-asco-survivorship-initiatives. Updated September 20, 2019.
3American Cancer Society. Cancer Treatment & Survivorship Facts & Figures. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2015.
4 https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/16/lost-in-transition-after-cancer/ Accessed March 18, 2015.
5 https://www.nap.edu/catalog/11468/from-cancer-patient-to-cancer-survivor-lost-in-transition Accessed March 18, 2015.