Cancer can be a devastating diagnosis, but every day brings new research and tools to fight it.
Earlier this month, the American Society of Clinical Oncology released a report outlining the biggest cancer breakthroughs of the past year — the latest in a line of impressive gains against the collection of diseases.
“Extraordinary progress has been made over the past 70 years to understand, prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer — progress that gives hope to many people facing a cancer diagnosis,” ASCO president Dr. Monica M. Bertagnolli wrote in an introduction to their paper, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
There have been several exciting victories this year, the researchers said, but the “Advance of the Year” went to progress in treating rare cancers.
“In the United States, rare cancers account for approximately 20 percent of all cancers diagnosed each year, and incidence rates vary worldwide,” ASCO said on its website.
Because these cancers are rare, new research has historically lagged behind more common types of cancer. Over the past year, however, five major studies began to close that gap:
- Doctors battling a difficult-to-treat form of thyroid cancer have developed a combination of treatments that, when used together, showed responses in more than 60 percent of patients.
- Desmoid tumors are a rare type of soft-tissue sarcoma that develops in the connective tissue. They can locally be aggressive, and surgery has been the only real treatment, even though tumors recur in up to half of all cases. A new medication, Sorafenib, can improve patients’ chances for progression-free survival.
- Trastuzumab, a treatment for one type of breast cancer, was found to slow progress of HER2-positive uterine serous carcinoma.
- A new targeted-radiation therapy lowered the risk of disease progression by 79 percent for somatostatin receptor-positive midgut neuroendocrine tumors.
- Scientists developed the first promising treatment for a joint cancer, tenosynovial giant cell tumors.
Rare cancers weren’t the only area that saw advancements in treatment.
Researchers focused on immunotherapy continued to make new advances as well. A new regimen approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was proven to boost survival in renal cell cancer, and a new cell-death inhibitor showed potential in fighting advanced squamous cell cancer of the skin.
New, targeted medicines were discovered that delay the progression of some breast and lung cancers. And a new molecular diagnostic study found that up to 70 percent of women with hormone-receptor positive and node-negative breast cancer could safely skip adjuvant chemotherapy.
And in prevention, researchers found a bacteria that may be associated in a higher risk for some head and neck cancers.
The advances go a long way toward more targeted treatment of cancer, rather than the chemotherapy and radiation that can badly damage healthy cells as well as cancer cells.
Moving forward, ASCO is encouraging researchers to focus on better defining which patients respond best to post-operative therapies such as adjuvant chemotherapy, focus on more precision treatments for pediatric cancers, work on identifying and treating premalignant lesions before they become cancerous, and increase equitable access to clinical trials, among other suggestions.
“Although survival rates are increasing for many cancers, our work is far from over,” Bertagnolli wrote.