WASHINGTON — When U.S. Surgeon General released a groundbreaking report in 1964 linking smoking to cancer, the disease was a whispered word and a likely death sentence.
In the decades since, researchers and doctors have worked to stamp out the many diseases known as cancer. And today, the fight against cancer stands at a place of unprecedented progress, with research yielding new drugs, more knowledge about cancer-causing genes, better prevention and improved public awareness.
Dr. Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, estimates that more than 1 million American cancer deaths have been averted over the past 20 years.
In “1991 ... a lot of things that we learned about cancer actually started kicking in,” Brawley said. “It takes a long time to apply them, and then once you start applying them, you finally, finally ... get to a point where things start getting better.”
Researchers and physicians, such as Brawley, have watched in recent years as care has become increasingly personalized and highly targeted. Today, the risk of death from cancer is 20 percent lower than it was 20 years ago, according to society figures.
Certain cancers have seen even greater declines in death rates: There has been a 39 percent decline in colorectal cancer death rates, a 34 percent decline for breast cancer and a 20 percent decline for lung cancer, Brawley said.
Progress has occurred on all fronts, including disease prevention, detection strategies, surgery, radiation therapy and systemic treatments, according to Dr. William Nelson, director of the Baltimore-based Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.
For progress to continue, innovation like this cannot be stifled by policy change, said Andy Hill, a Republican Washington state senator who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 at age 46.
“My hope is that when my kids are 50, 60, 70, and they’re diagnosed with cancer, they do a test and take a pill to vanquish it,” he said.
Given recent advances, Hill’s vision seems increasingly possible.
According to researchers, new knowledge about what goes wrong in cells and the study of specific genes is creating more pinpointed treatments. Further, the development of anti-cancer drugs has taken off and become more cost effective, making it easier to get new drugs approved, Nelson said.
“As we have defined the processes that are involved in a cell becoming cancerous, we’ve actually started redefining cancer,” Brawley said. “We’ve gone from a 19th-century definition of cancer to a 21st-century” one.
“That will help us fine-tune our treatments even further,” he added.