The Good News About Cancer
Longer Life Expectancies
When Wendy Harpham, MD, learned she had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma 19 years ago, her first thought was for her kids. She was only 36, but as a doctor she knew the scary stats: Her life expectancy was only about seven years. She decided to focus on staying alive long enough to see her children, then 5, 3, and 1, graduate from elementary school.
She did better than that. Recently she celebrated her oldest daughter's engagement and her youngest daughter's acceptance to medical school. Back in 1990 Harpham couldn't have imagined being alive to hear this happy news. But advances in medicine transformed her prognosis and her future.
Harpham is a member of a small but growing contingent of cancer patients who live with metastatic or otherwise-incurable disease for years, even decades. As Elizabeth Edwards famously told Katie Couric in 2007, "I pretty much know what I'm going to die of. You can live with cancer and you can live a full life." While no one would envy the stresses that Edwards has had to endure in her personal life recently, she's reportedly keeping her stage-IV breast cancer at bay except for "some little spots" and getting on with her life. Other cancer survivors are on the same path. While the road may be rough, they're grateful to be on it at all.
In the past two decades, HIV/AIDS has shifted from an illness that once killed almost everyone who got it to one that many patients now live with for years. That's because of innovations in types and combinations of medications. It's been almost 20 years since Magic Johnson announced his retirement from basketball because he was HIV positive. And former Olympian Greg Louganis, who has been living with the disease since 1988, says he's healthy and happy and would like to appear on Dancing with the Stars.
The same thing is starting to happen with certain cancers. "We're not getting rid of the cancer, but we are gaining some control," says Otis Brawley, MD, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. "For some patients, we can turn it into a manageable disease." Virginia Garner, who has been treated for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) for 12 years, is one of the lucky ones.
Finding out she had cancer at age 51 was devastating, Garner says. But she took action and enrolled in a clinical trial at UCLA, where she was among the first patients to take Gleevec, a drug that has redefined survival for people with CML. "It was like drowning and then having somebody pull you out of the water," she says. Garner, who lives in Claremont, California, is still taking the drug and is training for her 10th marathon. "I consider the fact that I wake up every day a miracle," she says. "I live my life as if I don't have leukemia."
Today more and more lymphoma and leukemia patients have a better chance of long-term survival. Physicians are seeing similar success with some types of breast cancer as well as a type of stomach and intestinal cancer called gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST). And some patients with non small-cell lung cancer are now living more than three times the standard survival rate -- as long as six years -- instead of less than two.