Cancer treatments are getting smarter and better. As a result, people are treating -- and living with -- cancer longer.
How much longer? According to the National Cancer Institute, 67% of people diagnosed with cancer have survival rates of at least 5 years. That’s a more than 20% increase in the past four decades.
Even when a cure isn’t available, you can often live and thrive for years. Cancer is moving into a new category: manageable chronic disease.
What Is a Chronic Disease?
It’s a condition you can control with treatment for months. Asthma, diabetes, and depression are common examples. Often they don’t have a cure, but you can live with them and manage their symptoms.
Sometimes, your doctor might say controlled or stable to describe your cancer if it’s unchanged over time. The disease can also go through cycles of growing, shrinking, and staying the same.
Chronic doesn't have to mean uninterrupted. Your condition can change and evolve, but it does stick around and has symptoms you can point to.
There are many things that affect how long your cancer treatment could last, including:
- What type of cancer you have
- Your treatment schedule or plan
- How often your cancer has come back
- How aggressive it is
- Your age
- Your overall health
- How well you handle treatment
- How well the cancer responds to treatment
- The types of treatment you get
Cancer Treatment: Better, Easier, More Accurate
Cancer care starts at prevention and continues through early detection, diagnosis, treatment, and survival. The process shifts to make it easier to manage your condition over time.
Chemo to Go: In the past, many cancers needed chemotherapy or other IV drug treatment. Now, in some cases, you can get the same or better results with pills you can take at home.
That means fewer trips to the doctor.
However, taking chemotherapy in pill form has issues, too. It can be more expensive than IV chemotherapy. You also won’t have a care team to remind you how and when to take it. You have to take charge of your own care.
Also, over time, the disease and its treatment can create other chronic problems, like heart disease and bone density issues. You'll also have to deal with those issues.
Talk with your doctor to find out which chemotherapy method is best for you.
Medicine That Fits You
Cancer treatment isn’t one-size-fits-all anymore. More and more, it’s tailored to each person. There are therapies that work with your body’s makeup to help you fight cancer more effectively.
Immunotherapy, also called biotherapy, uses your immune system to help fight your cancer.
The most common types are:
Monoclonal antibodies: These are molecules made in a laboratory. These antibodies are designed to recognize and attack cancer cells.
Checkpoint inhibitors: Your immune system has brakes that stop it from killing healthy cells. Cancer cells hide behind them. These medicines reverse the braking process. Turning them off lets your defenses see cancer as an invader and fight it.
Cancer vaccines: These work the same way as shots you take for things like the flu. Preventive vaccines help ward off cancers caused by a virus. Treatment vaccines activate your immune cells that destroy cancers.
Personalized medicine uses your genetic code to help predict how cancer will act in your body. It can also help figure out how you would process certain drugs before you take them. For now, these options are often available only through clinical trials.
Strong Support Is Key
Even if your cancer is stable and life feels normal, it’s important to have a good support system. You may be independent, strong, and feel healthy, but chronic conditions have ups and downs, and the road ahead of you can be long.
There’s lots of support these days for the families of people with cancer. Making sure your caregivers are cared for can make a big difference for you. Cancer care centers offer support groups, wellness groups, social workers, psychologists, and counselors as part of their work with families.
Give the people around you the power to help you as much as you can. Extra hands will make your journey with cancer much easier.
Also, including other doctors in this support system can be the difference between surviving and thriving. For instance, a family doctor can help you keep track of everything outside of your cancer, like taking your annual flu shot and making sure the rest of your body is working at its best.