Advances in Cancer Treatment Offer Hope

By Barbara Pierce

Daniel Thomas

Oncologist Daniel Thomas, Upstate Cancer Center, assistant professor of surgery, SUNY Upstate Medical University, has a special interest in the treatment of patients with melanoma, sarcoma and diseases of the endocrine system including thyroid cancer, parathyroid disease and adrenal tumors.

His primary research interest is improving the care of elderly and frail patients who undergo cancer surgeries.

We asked him about the outlook in cancer treatment, whether there is hope for those affected by this disease.

Q: Are rates of death from cancer decreasing?

A: We’ve seen a decrease in the risk of Americans who die from cancer in the last three decades. Over that time, there’s been about a one third decreased risk of dying from cancer, once it’s diag-nosed. Furthermore, a recent report from the National Cancer Institute showed that, even in the last five years, the overall cancer death rate for Americans has fallen even more sharply.

It’s important to put these numbers into context when you consider how many people in U.S. are diagnosed with cancer every year. In 2020, it was estimated that almost two million people would be diagnosed with cancer, and 600,000 would die.

A decrease of one-third the risk of dying means that our current preventive strategies and cancer treatments are making a significant impact.

Q: What is the reason for the decrease in death?

A: There are many reasons why the risk of dying from cancer has decreased. One of the biggest contributors has been public health and cancer prevention programs that focus on preventing cancer and early detection of cancers.

For example, smoking rates have plummeted in the last several decades which clearly decreased the number of Americans dying from lung cancer. Also, our ability to detect early cancers has improved with screening programs, such as mammography for breast cancer or colonoscopy for colon cancer.

When patients are screened, cancers can be detected earlier, at an earlier stage, and therefore have a better chance of being treated successfully before the cancer can spread to the rest of the body. Early detection and early treatment translate into prolonged survival.

The second and most exciting reason for the improvement in cancer survival is our ever-improving treatment options. We all hope that the patient’s cancer will be at the early stage when discovered, but even patients who have advanced stage cancer, new treatment discoveries are allowing patients to live longer after their diagnosis. Lung cancer and melanoma are two great examples of how cancer discoveries have led to prolonging survival for patients, compared to even just 10 years ago. The discovery of cancer treatment such as targeted drug therapies and immunotherapies have drastically changed the landscape, especially for patients with advanced or metastatic disease.

Q: What are the most promising new therapies for cancer patients?

A: The discovery and advancement of immunotherapy has been groundbreaking and quite literally life-changing for cancer patients. Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment which can be used to treat many different types of cancer and can be used alone or often in combination with chemotherapy and other cancer treatments.

Immunotherapy has really come to the forefront in the last decade. These cancer treatments help the patient’s own immune system fight cancer by boosting the immune system’s response to the presence of cancer cells. And since your immune system goes throughout your whole body, this type of treatment can attack cancer cells anywhere in the body. This has been proven to be a game-changer in the treatment of patients with advanced or metastatic cancers.

I’m an expert in the treatment of melanoma, a type of skin cancer which can have a poor prognosis in patients who have advanced or metastatic disease. However, immunotherapy advances in the last five to 10 years have allowed patients with advanced and metastatic melanoma to live longer. It’s very exciting that the five-year survival rate for melanoma patients has doubled over the last 10 years.

There is much hope for the future of cancer treatments. Patients should maintain hope when facing these difficult diagnoses. Here at Upstate Cancer Center and at cancer centers across the world, we continue to study new and innovative cancer treatments like immunotherapies and continue to make headway in our struggle to fight cancer.

As an example of hope, a recently a study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported the results of 14 patients with advanced rectal cancer who were treated with a new immunotherapy medication. With only six months of treatment with this new immunotherapy drug, all 14 patients had a complete response to treatment and so far, have been spared the need for additional chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. This is groundbreaking, and although it is just one study and only 14 patients, it demonstrates the possibilities as we continue to discover new therapies to treat patients with cancer.