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Last updated on April 21, 2014 at 9:11 EDT

Cancer Survivorship in U.S. Keeps Rising

December 3, 2004

Number of those beating disease has tripled since the 1970s

HealthDayNews — An American adult diagnosed with cancer today has a 64 percent of surviving for at least five years, while almost 80 percent of children with cancer can expect similar outcomes, according to new data presented Thursday.

Those numbers represent continuing, “dramatic increases” in survival against a wide range of malignancies, said Julia Rowland, director of the Office of Cancer Survivorship at the National Cancer Institute.

What’s more, the lives cancer survivors lead today are increasingly active and pain-free, she said.

“In many, many studies that have come out, the majority of survivors — those that have been successfully treated — are telling us they have an adequately good quality of life,” she said at a news conference in New York City.

The conference, sponsored by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, focused especially on survival statistics among older Americans, who comprise the vast majority of cancer patients.

“Stories that you read in the paper or see on the media often focus on the very poignant tales of individuals who are young and struggling with this disease,” Rowland said. “But in reality, the majority of survivors are over the age of 65.”

In fact, 70 percent of cancers occur among individuals aged 50 and 85 years, the experts reported.

According to Dr. W. Archie Bleyer, director emeritus of the M.D. Anderson Community Clinical Oncology Program in Houston, gains in cancer survivorship in this age group have been impressive, “exceeding that seen in children.”

All the experts at the conference agreed that Americans have reason to be more hopeful now than ever before in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

According to Bleyer, advances in early detection, better and more targeted drugs and improved technologies are making remission a reality for millions. Among the most impressive statistics reported:

  • More survivors. In 1971, an estimated 3 million Americans, or 1.5 percent of the total population, were living with cancer. Today, the number of cancer survivors has tripled, to 9.8 million, or about 3.5 percent of the total.
  • Longer survival. Fourteen percent of cancer survivors have beaten their disease for more than 20 years. t/li>
  • Better prognoses for older patients. The biggest annual gains in survival were seen among patients aged 50 to 85. According to NCI data, in 1975, 43 percent of patients in this age group could expect to live for five years post-diagnosis; by 1997 that had increased to 64 percent — a gain of almost 2.4 percent a year, the best year-to-year improvement for any age group.
  • Better treatment of childhood cancers. Almost 75 percent of children diagnosed with cancer before the age of 15 can now expect to live for at least 10 years.
  • Success against common adult malignancies. Long-term survivors are most likely to have had a cancer of the breast (22 percent), prostate (17 percent), colon or rectum (11 percent), or the cervix or uterus (10 percent). Survivorship among men with prostate cancer has charted the most impressive gains: In 1950, 43 percent of patients lived for five years after diagnosis, today, it’s 99 percent.

But Rowland stressed that as more and more Americans win the battle against cancer, attention must be paid to life for patients after cancer.

“We’re hearing from survivors that being cancer-free does not mean being free of your cancer,” she said. “Cancer affects all domains of life.” These include other physical problems, depression and fear of recurrence.

Rowland said cancer survivors are increasingly taking an active role in their treatment and follow-up care, but more can be done to make sure they get the help they need.

That’s a sentiment shared by Dr. LaSalle Leffall, chairman of the board of the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Leffall, who was appointed by President Bush in 2002 to head the President’s Cancer Panel, is a strong advocate of better oversight for cancer patients once they leave active treatment.

Electronic health records, in particular, can help patients manage their care should they encounter a recurrence of disease later in life, he said. According to Leffall, many long-term survivors report having trouble tracking down information on their prior surgeries or prior chemotherapies.

“They say to us, ‘I called up and found that my doctor had retired, and now I don’t know where my records are,’” Lefall said. E-records would be “portable and confidential,” he added, and would be kept ready for patient use throughout a person’s life span.

More information

M.D. Anderson Community Clinical Oncology Program

Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation

To learn more about cancer and cancer survival, head to the National Cancer Institute.