I have used this blog to tell my cancer story. As my treatment fades into the background and my remission remains an open question, I am in that vague gray territory of Cancer Limboland.
Because of this, I read cancer stories avidly, enough so that I am going to deign to join the end-of-year summarizers that make picks for the year’s Big Stories.
Here are my picks for the Top Cancer Stories for 2011:
Targeted vaccines hold promise of cancer prevention –– and treatment. Gardasil, a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), gained greater notice after Michele Bachmann falsely claimed that it caused retardation. In fact, Gardasil has been shown to be safe, and HPV prevention stands to decrease rates of cervical, oral and throat cancers. Many pediatricians are now recommending that pre-teens start on a schedule of vaccinations, potentially reducing the number of these cancers in the next generation.
Provenge, a vaccine to treat metastatic prostate cancer, came out in 2010 and has been shown to extend life expectancy on the average of four months. This has led to a heated medical ethics debate: is four months of life worth the almost $100,000 price tag? As insurance companies and academics weigh in, the company responsible for the drug has seen its stock shares plunge, potentially discouraging further research into vaccines for other cancers, including bladder, brain, melanoma, and blood cancers. (For a complete list, scroll to the end of this article.)
Chemo shortages effect cancer patients, prompting President Obama to sign an executive order to monitor production. I have pored over the stories (such as this one and this one) about chemo shortages. I know a number of patients who have had treatments delayed because of the underproduction of these drugs. Over 180 lifesaving medications have been unavailable, including ones used to treat childhood leukemia, breast, ovarian, and colon cancer.
The shortages are a multi-factored problem. The U.S. has a decentralized medical system, inconsistent insurance coverage rules, and a pharmaceutical production system that rewards the production and sale of new formulations over old drugs that can be sold as generics. In any case, the situation is dire, and lives are on the line. In November, President Obama took a step to issue an executive order to push on this issue. But clearly, more needs to be done.
While cancer survival rates increased, gaping disparities persist based on education, race, and income. In June, the American Cancer Society released statistics about cancer survival rates showing glaring disparities in subpopulations in the US. The heart stopping line of the news coming out of this report:
“If we eliminated both educational and racial disparities….what we’re seeing is we can eliminate 43% of cancer deaths in men and 30% in women.”
Cancer is disproportionately affecting –– mortally wounding –– some communities over others.
The number of cancer survivors increase, as do the number of survivorship programs. There are now 12 million cancer survivors living in the United States. In 2006, the Institute of Medicine recommended that all cancer patients receive a survivorship plan, individualized for their treatment and medical history, giving guidelines for maintaining and monitoring their health. In 2010, the Center for Disease Control introduced a National Action Plan recommending a Public Health Approach to survivorship care. Along with the Livestrong organization, survivorship is increasingly recognized as an important component of cancer care.
Survivorship care means a lot to me, because it gives people tools and a plan, and, ideally, the socio-emotional support they need. I would like to see these programs broaden their reach, touching more patients and their families and caregivers. This past year I heard of a woman committing suicide during treatment. I learned later that the suicide rate among cancer patients is double that of the general population, with men being at the greatest risk. Survivorship plans need to be initiated at the time of diagnosis, to help support patients through treatment. Support means compliance, which, in the best cases, means better outcomes.
Criticism of the Susan G. Komen Foundation pushes them to change the name of Breast Cancer Awareness Month to Breast Cancer Action Month. While this may seem like a small thing, to me, the name change shows that America’s favorite charity is yielding a little ground to critics (myself included) decrying corporate pinkwashing. As “Pinktober” nets big profits, it has been criticized by news outlets as disparate as the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. Much of the outcry came at the end of 2010, when it became widely recognized that the Foundation was suing smaller organizations who dared to use its trademarked phrase “For the Cure,” resulting in ridicule from longtime supporter and comedian, Stephen Colbert.
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but I see Komen’s shift from the language of “awareness” to the more politicized “action” as a potential shifting of the tides. From the response to my own post, I think the public is wising up to empty consumer-oriented pink ribbon slacktivism and demanding research — and real cures.
Of course, if you or anyone you love has been touched by cancer, that is the biggest news of all.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the Big Cancer News of 2011.
I hope that 2012 brings you and your loved ones peace, love, and health.