We're more than halfway through October, and I'm pretty sure you've all seen your share of pink everywhere. That's because October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month - which you should know unless you've been living under a rock somewhere. Pink ribbons, pink clothing, everything pink - it's everywhere.
And it's a good thing that women (and men too) have become more aware of breast cancer risks and early detection. In fact, the American Cancer Society (ACS) noted that after increasing for more than two decades, the incidence rate of breast cancer began to decline in 2000, followed by a sharp drop between 2000 and 2003. The large drop was most likely due to the decline in use of hormone therapy following menopause. Breast cancer incidence rates have been steady in recent years.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death in women, only behind lung cancer, according to the ACS. However, death rates from breast cancer have been declining and that's thanks in part to early detection and screening and better treatments.
The government-funded National Cancer Institute alone spent more than $600 million on breast cancer research in 2012, almost double the amount of research dollars spent on lung cancer that same year. When you factor in other organizations like the American Cancer Society or the Susan G. Komen for the Cure charity, more than $1 billion is spent annually on breast cancer research.
All this attention given breast cancer is warranted. My mom was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer in March 2011. During her diagnostic period, she learned that her breast cancer tested positive for HER2, a protein known to cause the growth of cancer cells, thus resulting in more aggressive breast cancers. Many of the other "markers" making up her breast cancer all indicated the worst possible outcome. However, a relatively new drug called Herceptin was part of her chemotherapy regimen. Herceptin, discovered in 1998, specifically targets the HER2 protein and provides an effective treatment of a cancer that, before 1998, would have been nearly impossible to treat. Because of continual research, a drug was developed that saved my mom's life. Had she received that same diagnosis 15 years earlier, her outcome could have been completely different. Instead, she is rapidly approaching two years cancer free, thanks to this new drug.
As a cancer survivor myself, I appreciate all the effort going toward finding a cure for breast cancer. However, this iteration of the disease is just one of many, many different types of cancer, all of which deserve attention and research. Cancer is a blanket term - it represents nearly 200 different types of a disease that attacks the human body. Even "breast cancer" is a blanket term, as there are several different sub-types of this disease. So when someone asks, "Why isn't there a cure for cancer?", the next question should be, "Which cancer?"
The fact is, cancer treatment is not "one-size-fits-all", nor is the way each cancer behaves. Cancer cell growth remains mysterious - for instance, why is it that some cancers can be completely destroyed by chemotherapy or radiation, only to have those few "stubborn" cells hang around and regrow, causing a relapse? How was it that I took as a first-line treatment for my Hodgkin's lymphoma a regimen that had resulted in a CURE for 85 to 90 percent of those who received it, only to relapse seven months later?
In addition, there are many different causes of cancer, including exposure to radiation, chemicals, viruses and other environmental factors. Most of the time, it's difficult to say why someone develops cancer - unless you can prove a link, like smoking and lung cancer. But people who have never been smokers get lung cancer too. Cancer is mysterious, and no matter how hard we try, we can't get it to behave the way we'd like it to.
I belong to a Facebook group called "Life After Lymphoma." All group members have had or are currently fighting some type of lymphoma, but are also trying to move on with life after treatment is over. Many of my friends on the site expressed discord over all the attention breast cancer gets, while lymphoma - and other cancers as well - does not get as much attention. Which month is Lymphoma Awareness Month? What color ribbon represents lymphoma? I'm guessing that unless you or someone you know actually had lymphoma, you did not know the answers to those two questions (by the way, the answers are September and lime green).
Atop the list of most common cancers is one we usually forget about - skin cancer. That's followed by lung cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer. Although the order doesn't always hold true, those four cancers tend to stay near the top of most common types of cancer. Oddly, though, leukemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma are also on the list of top 10 common cancers even though they don't get as much notice. Hodgkin's lymphoma is extremely rare but curable. It makes sense to focus research on the types of cancer that are most common and often the most deadly.
And just because research is being spent on cancers other than the one that I had, that doesn't mean that the benefits of this research won't get spread across the board. Chemotherapy drugs can be used cross-platform for various types of cancer. The same drug can be used for several different cancer types, and with more research comes more drugs, and with more drugs comes more treatment options. Chemotherapy drugs do not all work the same way - there are different classes of drugs based on the way they attack or kill the cancer cell. Some chemotherapy drugs blow up cells at the nucleus while others are more meticulous in breaking down the cell's DNA. That's why patients are often given several drugs in combination, as each drug works in a different way to kill the cancer cells.
Did you also know that chemotherapy drugs can be used for diseases other than cancers? Patients with autoimmune disorders like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis can benefit from chemotherapy.
And perhaps best of all, extended research efforts have led to the development of targeted chemotherapy drugs. These are drugs that, in its simplest explanation, attack the cancer cells specifically and leave the normal, healthy cells alone. This can curb many of the awful side effects associated with chemotherapy like hair loss and gastrointestinal issues. Some of these drugs can even help a person's own immune system recognize and attack the cancer cells. Targeted drugs like this include the Herceptin my mom took as a part of her treatment; Rituxan, which is used for many types of blood cancers, transplant rejection and autoimmune disorders; and the brand new Adcetris, which is the newest treatment developed for Hodgkin's lymphoma, the first such drug developed for Hodgkin's lymphoma in nearly 30 years.
So while breast cancer might get much of the attention, great things are being done for all types of cancer. And while my type of cancer is rare and probably won't ever see much of the limelight, I remain hopeful that one day, someday, ALL cancers will be considered curable.