The United States has been called a nation of immigrants, a nation of nations, and a nation of laws. But increasingly, according to a new report released by the American Cancer Society, it is becoming a nation of cancer survivors.
The first-ever report of its kind, Cancer Treatment & Survivorship Facts & Figures estimates that there are 13.7 million cancer survivors living in the United States today — and the number is expected to grow to 18 million by 2022.
Those figures are a reflection of a growing and aging population as well as a testament to improved cancer detection and treatment. Simply put, more people are having their cancers detected early and living longer after treatment.
The report defines a cancer survivor as “any person who has been diagnosed with cancer, from the time of diagnosis through the balance of life.” For many of these people, initial treatment is successful and cancer never returns. Others will live cancer-free for years after treatment but eventually have a recurrence, or develop a second cancer, or experience serious delayed complications of treatment. The report says 64 percent of cancer survivors were diagnosed more than five years ago; 15 percent were diagnosed more than 20 years ago. Among male survivors, the leading diagnoses were prostate cancer (43 percent, or about 2.8 million men), colorectal cancer (9 percent) and melanoma (7 percent). Among female survivors, the leading diagnoses were breast cancer (41 percent, or nearly 3 million women), uterine cancer (8 percent) and colorectal cancer (8 percent).
The rising survival rate is encouraging, says the American Cancer Society, but the growing number of survivors presents the health-care system, and society in general, with a range of challenges. “Cancer had been an acute condition leading to rapid decline and death,” says Rebecca Kirch, the organization's director of quality of life and survivorship. “Now it's more of a chronic condition, but a lifetime of survivorship is not without cost. The treatments we administer, whether radiation, surgery or chemotherapy, are toxic, and there’s a social, emotional and physical toll on anyone who undergoes a toxic regimen. The health-care system needs to become more focused on addressing those effects alongside curative treatments so people don't just live longer, but live better.”
That said, a growing nation of survivors doesn't mean a cancer diagnosis is no longer a big deal. “When you are facing cancer,” says Kirch, “there are so many implications that even if you know several other people with cancer, you will always feel, 'I'm the only one going through it this way.'”
The good news, of course, is that more cancer patients are living longer. One may not become a “supersurvivor” like bicycle champion Lance Armstrong, Kirch says, “but you can live for decades, and you can live well.”