Living during a worldwide pandemic caused by the highly infectious SARS-CoV2 virus since February 2020 has been difficult, to say the least, and has had a significant impact on both cancer research and cancer patient care. Early on, surgeries were canceled, appointments to see physicians were limited, PPE was scarce, and fear of illness and death was ubiquitous.
Now, just over two and a half years later, most people are vaccinated and we have effective treatments for those that get seriously ill, demonstrating how the scientific and pharmaceutical communities have come together to control the deadliest infection of our lifetimes.
Despite our focus on the pandemic, new cancer diagnoses continue with a total of 1.9 million new cancer cases and 609,360 deaths from cancer are expected to occur in the US in 2022.
Nearly one-third of patients with a new diagnosis of cancer will still go on to die.
However, there is hope. Since 1991, there has been a 31% decrease in both the number of new cases and deaths. Some of that success stems from our understanding of the causes of cancer leading to public health measures to reduce the environmental risks, but another important success has come from a greater understanding of the basic biology of a cancer cell.
Dramatic strides in the understanding of molecular biology and the understanding of the changes in the building blocks of life have led to the concept of driver mutations, those genetic changes in a cancer cell that stimulate the growth of the cancer cell. This had led to an extensive list of “targeted therapies,” commonly a pill, which stops cancer cell growth.
I now have access to fifty medications, which inhibit different mutations, and dramatically slow or eradicate tumor cell growth.
The vast majority of these being developed in the last decade. Patients with leukemia, lymphoma, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, liver, and kidney cancer can now be treated with a single pill.
Our understanding of the interaction between our immune system and cancer has dramatically changed.
It is now understood that a cancer patient’s immune system is quite normal. The cancer’s advantage is that it evades the immune system. Immune cells that surround a cancer cell are made impotent. That understanding has led to the development of immunotherapies that dramatically change that paradigm and allow the immune cell to eradicate cancer cells.
Today 40% of my patients are treated with immunotherapy, and diseases such as advanced melanoma, which were uniformly fatal, can be effectively treated and, at times, cured.
None of these advancements could have been made without significant investments in cancer research in the last few decades. As President of the Board of Tower Cancer Research Foundation for over 25 years, it has been my honor to help represent an organization that has supported countless cancer patients and survivors while investing in research that has led to important treatment advances. It is through the steadfast determination and continued generosity of our supporters that we can continue to invest in innovative cancer research that will lead to new and better treatments for future patients.
Statistics reported from “Cancer Statistics, 2022,” published in the American Cancer Society’s journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians
About the Author:
Solomon Hamburg, MD-PhD, is a graduate of the New York University School of Medicine. He completed his residency in internal medicine at the New York Hospital Cornell Medical School and a fellowship in hematology-oncology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). At UCLA, he was a bone-marrow transplantation fellow. A former partner of Tower Hematology Oncology, Dr. Hamburg is board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in hematology, medical oncology, and internal medicine. He currently serves as a faculty member UCLA, Clinical Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology Oncology, and as the President of Tower Cancer Research Foundation’s Board of Directors.