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40 Years Later: Progress in the War on Cancer?

Report Highlights Advances in Cancer Treatment, but Also Sees Many Challenges Ahead
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 21, 2011 -- A new report shows we've come a long way in cancer care and research in the last 40 years -- but we still have a ways to go, and a re-commitment from government may help lead the way.

Advances in cancer research will face threats if Congress goes ahead with budget cuts to federally funded research, a report from the nation's leading cancer research organization warns.

The report from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) details decades in progress against cancer since the National Cancer Act became law in 1971.

The law created the National Cancer Institute and also launched what politicians, beginning with President Nixon, termed the "War on Cancer."

Advances in Cancer Treatment

The group's report laid out some of the progress researchers have achieved against cancer over the last 40 years. Key areas include:

  • The discovery of more than 290 genes related to cancer, its growth, and what happens when the body's ability to repair damaged cells goes off course, possibly leading to tumor growth. Tumors can also have a wide range of genetic profiles, often making effective cancer treatment a frustrating moving target.
  • Early detection through routine screening has helped increase the survival rate for many cancers. Screening recommendations have helped push the five-year survival rate to above 90% for cervical, breast, and prostate cancers, when they're detected early.
  • Improvements and advances in chemotherapy have driven up survival rates of other cancers, including lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, and testicular cancers.
  • Advances in genetics have given rise to entirely new classes of cancer drugs. Some of the drugs target tumor receptors. Others go after tumor genes to disrupt growth. That's allowed the development of more than 30 targeted cancer drugs that can go after tumors while sparing surrounding healthy cells.
  • Genetic testing has given doctors and patients more tools in understanding cancer risk. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are two genes that are now known to greatly increase a woman's risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancers. The genes are associated with the risk of breast cancer and aggressive prostate cancer in men.


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