Over the last five years, cancer research has seen the “greatest advances,” including a new approach to treating the complex disease as a “chronic disease,” instead of trying to cure it.
“We have seen the greatest advances in cancer medicine in the last five years with drugs targeting the immune system moving into the clinic and showing remarkable response rates with quite a few different malignancies,” Lisa Coussens, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Cell, Developmental & Cancer Biology, said to Fox News at the American Association for Cancer Research annual conference.
However, the response rates do not indicate that medical doctors and scientists are getting closer to a cure – or if that is still the goal.
“With regards to a cure for that, it’s really not a realistic goal. I don’t know if cancer is a disease that can be cured. I think for most of us, the goal is management where we think about cancer like other chronic disease,” Dr. Coussens said. “50 years ago diabetes was a death sentence, now it is a chronic disease that is managed.”
“It’s been a big shift in the last 10 years with thinking about cancer in that way: instead of a cure, treat it like a chronic disease where you live with disease and live your life well with that disease. It’s a major shift, but a tremendous goal,” she added.
According to the American Cancer Society, identifying certain types of cancer as a “chronic disease” was introduced around 2016.
“Cancer isn’t always a one-time event. Cancer can be closely watched and treated, but sometimes it never completely goes away. It can be a chronic (ongoing) illness, much like diabetes or heart disease,” the website says.
"There’s been a broad recognition, a broad awakening in the cancer community both at a research level and at a healthcare provider level where we all recognize ... that cancer can be treated as a chronic disease."
The goal of cancer treatment is to control the disease with treatment based on individual needs, and prevent it from growing or spreading, but treatment typically does not completely eradicate it.
“Sometimes when treatment shrinks the cancer, you can take a break until the cancer starts to grow again. But in either of these cases the cancer is still there – it doesn’t go away and stay away – it’s not cured,” the website states.
With new breakthroughs that are currently happening in cancer research and cancer medicine, Dr. Coussens says people may live better lives, while still having the disease. With the advancements, “patients with aggressive metastatic melanoma and are now surviving 2 years, 5 years, and the longest survivors are out about 10 years,” she said.
“There’s been a broad recognition, a broad awakening in the cancer community both at a research level and at a healthcare provider level where we all recognize or where the community is now recognizing that cancer can be treated as a chronic disease.”
While Dr. Coussens admits “not all patients respond, not all tumor types are as responsive” to the medicines and interventions administered, approaches that target the immune system will help reach the “end goal” Coussens mentioned: “impact[ing] the quality of life with patients with cancer and improve their outcomes.”