Last Tuesday the chairman of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, Sandy Welton, published a letter on the organization’s site about the death of Ellen Stovall, a three-time cancer survivor who led a grassroots campaign to prioritize cancer treatment.
Here is her story, which was published the day following her death.
Stovall was also previously a full-time volunteer for the American Cancer Society, who have just released a new report which says that cancer treatments are still not good enough to prevent the disease from being one of the main causes of death. The report, which is published in the ACS’ A Cancer Journal For Clinicians, does, however, say that the death rate is down by 23 percent for the first time in over 21 years.
A summary of the report is posted on their original site, which largely attributes these results to preventative care and advances in cancer treatments.
It’s also been noted that the cause of Ellen Stovall’s death is related to the initial treatments she had after her first diagnosis in the seventies, which resulted in heart failure.
Since then, cancer treatment has improved to the point where they work on a more complex level, providing more options than radiation or chemotherapy.
A leading story last year put former U.S. president Jimmy Carter in the spotlight after he revealed that he had succumb to an aggressive form of cancer which had spread, or metastasized, only to publicly announce months later that cancer treatment had rid him of the illness.
This was, perhaps, one of the few times that the public had seen a case where treatment worked so quickly – as if treating a common cold.
That case apparently drew more attention to the cancer treatment of immunotherapy, where the immune system is trained and therefore aided to aggressively fight the cancer cells.
Here is a video from Nature which goes into the basics of this kind of cancer treatment before it becomes more complex.
The treatment itself requires a variety of strategies which largely depend on a variety of factors, such as the type of cancer, the level of aggression, the relapse and even how the patient’s body would respond.
Recently, the Jutia Group refered to immunotherapy cancer treatment as the “holy grail” of the industry, pointing out three different companies who are involved in and looking at drugs which target the interior of a cancer cell.
“Think of a cancer cell as a castle surrounded by a moat. You can lay siege outside the walls, attack the walls themselves, or breach the walls and take out the command center. The first two modes of attack can be successful, but a comeback could be staged if defenses are rebuilt from inside. By taking out the core, everything crumbles. Better yet, nothing is left to stage a comeback with. Cancer cured.”
For instance, a group of scientists from the Salk Institute have recently discovered one way to fight Glioblastoma Multiforme, which is the same cancer that Senator Ted Kennedy suffered from, by manipulating a protein referred to as NF-kB, according to MedicalXpress, which initially causes the tumor to grow rapidly, but the manipulation reprograms the growth to slow it down for a cancer treatment to do its job.
This is especially important due to the fact that a cancer patient could succumb to the illness more than once in their lives, where the cancer has usually has learned to adjust to treatment and therefore more aggressive.
This is the case in a story published by the Huffington Post about 39 year old Marie O’Callaghan who had a form of breast cancer she was able to treat, but when it came back more aggressively; it wasn’t that there was no treatment for her, it was that the insurance company had decided they would not pay for her immunotherapy cancer treatment, which left her to make some difficult life decisions.
Here is a video on a different, but similar case of Tamara Howard who was diagnosed with cancer and her problems with Blue Cross Blue Shield covering her cancer treatment.
It’s in these cases of experimental cancer treatment that insurance companies are known to refuse to absorb the costs while more researchers and drug companies push towards trying to test them on their patients. Insurance companies, such as in the situation with O’Callaghan, are considered the final decision makers as to whether a patient has a chance at all.
But much like the scientists who are finding different ways to think outside of the box when creating cancer treatment strategies, others are investing and putting some effort in creating more options with preventative care, which, as mentioned, is one of the reasons cancer deaths are reportedly down.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates is among a handful of investors for the start of a new company that will be developing liquid biopsies for people long before the show symptoms of the disease.
Regarding the new direction in cancer treatment, people will be able to get tested for signs of cancer way before they even show the symptoms, which goes along with the suspicion that cancer might be very well detected in the blood.
The company Illumina is a leader in DNA sequencing and the new company creating the biopsy is called Grail, which are both lead by Jay Flatley who talks about the expectations of the test. But he acknowledged that it is crucial to show the test “doesn’t have a high false-positive rate,” and that it can distinguish between potentially aggressive cancers and those likely to have no health consequences.
The company plans to work closely with regulators and insurers in developing the test, said Mr. Flatley, adding that the price will have to come in under $1,000 initially and come down further after that.
In all cases, the diagnosis is only half the battle.