A Cancer Conundrum: Challenges of Living Longer

Beating cancer is awesome. What’s more awesome is that we’re seeing an increase in the amount of cancer patients winning their fight as we enter what I see as an incredibly promising period in cancer research and treatment.

Those who followed the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, and led conversations around it (see my colleagues Brian Reid and Greg Matthews work on how oncologists are getting social), are well aware of the inspiring work the oncology community is doing on behalf of cancer patients. From immunotherapy as a potential breakthrough in melanoma and other cancers to vinegar – yes, vinegar – for cervical cancer screening, cancer research will continue to decrease mortality rates for cancers.

All this progress, however, creates a new and welcome challenge. Long-term cancer survivors (70 percent of patients now live for at least five years after diagnosis) and their caregivers, are about 25 percent more likely to experience anxiety than those who don’t have cancer, and it can be a significant health concern ten years after diagnosis. Anxiety is also likely to last longer than depression.

These findings are the result of a meta-analysis (a combination and compilation of several previously reported studies (27) on 500,000 patients reporting on depression or anxiety in cancer patients) published last week in The Lancet Oncology.

Anxiety is a very understandable response to surviving cancer. It’s easy to see why someone who’s had cancer and is grateful to be alive still is anxious. Imagine waking up with a pain in your side, or a sore throat, or a stiff back, and wondering, hoping, praying, it’s not your cancer returning. In the case of caregivers, I imagine the fear they feel each time they take their husband, wife, father, mother, sister or brother to a routine physical and hope that it’s just that, routine.

This meta-analysis finds that that by 2020, the number of people diagnosed with cancer each year will exceed 21 million. If every person diagnosed with cancer has just one caregiver, we’re talking about 42 million people each year who will be dealing with cancer’s long-term effects. Yet this meta-analysis shows that once a patient is discharged from hospital care, they receive infrequent check-ups from the medical teams and minimal counseling.

As cancer care and survivorship improves, the medical system will need to adapt and think beyond a cancer cure to continued cancer care. Hospitals, insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies that can partner together to provide this continued care will gain long-lasting trust from both survivors and their families. And that’s something to be thankful for.

P.S. Sunday is Father’s Day. I know that men (myself included) would prefer to have a tooth pulled than talk about our health. But sons (and daughters) owe it to dad to talk about health and whether they’ve taken steps lately to understand their risks for cancer and take action. Oh, and don’t forget to thank dad for all the great advice and “Dad jokes” he’s probably given you over the years. I’ll certainly be thanking mine.

Adam P. Silverstein
Adam P. Silverstein