As a surgical oncologist, I have spent much of my adult life close to cancer—diagnosing it, treating it and researching it. I’ve experienced with my patients times of sorrow and times of good news. As National Cancer Survivors Day approaches, it’s worth reflecting on the great strides we’ve already made in cancer care, understanding where things stand today, and previewing the promise of the future.
In short, we’ve come a long way. It’s remarkable that, over the course of three generations, cancer has gone from a death sentence to an often survivable disease. Today, two out of three people return to a near-normal life following a cancer diagnosis. Earlier detection and more sophisticated treatment options all contribute to better results and longer lives. At IU Health Goshen Center for Cancer Care we also employ a coordinated multidisciplinary approach with top specialists, innovative therapies and a talented support team combining to treat every aspect of this dreaded disease from diagnosis to recovery and beyond.
Still, we are on the cusp of even more profound achievements in cancer treatments and outcomes. I anticipate that the progress we see over the next 20 years will be even greater than it has been over the past 100. It’s a bold statement, but in my mind quite a realistic one.
Oncology is a field driven by innovation, and some of the most creative medical minds are focused on figuring out what makes cancer tick. Progress in the field of cancer care can only occur through research, and the genetic and molecular base of cancer is being unveiled not only at a rapid speed, but in a more organized fashion such as through the global efforts around the human cancer genome project. In addition, several specific cancers enjoy a high level of public awareness and expectation regarding progress. That combination bodes well for the future of cancer care.
In fact, we’re already seeing the start of what is yet to come. The most encouraging progress is in the area of individualized therapies. That means oncologists will move beyond treatment protocols targeting categories of cancer, such as that of breast, skin or lung, and shift toward treatments specifically designed for each person based on their cancer’s particular molecular and genetic profile; it will be like purchasing a suit tailored to your body type rather than buying off-the-rack where one size is expected to fit all.
In truth, the complexity of cancer means that it is unlikely to ever be cured completely. I do, however, envision a world where cancer becomes a rather well-managed, chronic condition similar to diabetes or high blood pressure. That is an achievable goal and an astounding leap forward from where we were a century ago.
Dr. Roderich Schwarz is a surgical oncologist at IU Health Goshen.