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Cancer affects nearly one in three Americans at some point in their lives. It can be frightening to hear the word “cancer,” particularly when it affects someone we love. But for the vast majority, a cancer diagnosis is no longer the terminal diagnosis it once was. Today, more people than ever are surviving cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that by 2026, there will be nearly 26 million cancer survivors living in the U.S.
The ability to survive a diagnosis of cancer has come as a result of improvements in care. Early diagnosis (before cancer has the chance to spread) and better treatments have allowed realistic hope for survival and cure. It’s important to realize that “new” treatments are not the same as “better,” more effective treatments. But how do we get “better” treatments? And where do they come from? The answer is clinical trials.
Clinical trials are the careful, unbiased, scientific study of tools (such as drugs or treatments) in the fight against cancer. Clinical trials are the way we discover what works, and what works better than what we had before. As an example, in 2001, treatment options for someone diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, were limited. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the new drug Imatinib as a treatment for patients with this rare cancer. A clinical trial had asked patients to be assigned to one of two groups; one group was treated with interferon plus chemotherapy and the other group was treated with the new drug Imatinib.
Researchers conducting the clinical trial carefully followed the patients’ progress in both groups, noting any problems individuals had with either treatment and any benefits. After a period of time, it became clear that the group taking the Imatinib were responding significantly better to the treatment and were also having fewer side effects. That clinical trial changed the cancer world.
Imatinib became the new, best treatment for patients with CML. To this day, Imatinib is one of the standard treatments for patients with CML. Prior to Imatinib, less than 50 percent of patients with CML survived more than five years. Today, four of five individuals with CML who received Imatinib as part of an early clinical trial survive at least 10 years after starting the medication. Imatinib was the first drug in a new category of drugs that opened the door to more effective treatments in many different cancers.
We owe the improvements in cancer care to the men and women who participate in clinical trials — both researchers who organize the clinical trials and patients who agree to participate in those trials. You will hear about many “new” cancer treatments. However, it is treatments that demonstrated better outcomes for patients in carefully conducted clinical trials that have changed and will continue to change a terminal illness to one of increasing survivability.
Through a newly formed affiliation with Duke Health, leaders of the Wilson Medical Center Cancer Program embraced the need to expand clinical trial options for cancer patients in the Wilson community. As part of the collaboration with Duke, key members of the Wilson Medical Center leadership team, along with two nurses from Regional Medical Oncology Center, took the first steps toward establishing a clinical research program by attending an extensive Duke Cancer Network research training program in Durham last month.
There is much work to be done, but with the support of the Wilson Medical Center leadership and Duke Health, the greater Wilson community will soon be the beneficiaries of expanded options for cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment.
Dr. Linda Sutton is the Duke Cancer Network medical director.