Colon Cancer Alliance Guest Post: The Fight Against Cancer

Colon Cancer Alliance Guest Post: The Fight Against Cancer

06.12.12 | By Kate Connors

Andrea Clay is the National Partnership & Strategy Director for the Colon Cancer Alliance. She is the mom of two teenage girls and two chocolate labs. Both her husband and father-in-law were diagnosed with colon cancer the same week in 2004. Here is her view on the fight against cancer.

In 2004, my husband and his father were both diagnosed with colon cancer in the same week. At the time, I didn't know our story was only one of thousands, as each year more than 140,000 Americans are diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer. What I did know was that the fight against cancer had become personal, as I suddenly went from scheduling PTA meetings and soccer games to planning surgeries and doctor appointments.

Over the past eight years, I have been engaged in the cancer community as both a caregiver and Colon Cancer Alliance employee, experiencing the fight against cancer on both a personal and professional level. With the celebration of the fourth Cancer Survivor's Day, now is an excellent time to evaluate what's working, what's not working and where we're headed in the fight against cancer.

What's working?

Unsurprisingly, with increased access to technology and the internet, patients are able to research treatment options easier than ever before. While certain sources of information may be more reliable than others, there are credible websites and publications that provide important information to patients and caregivers. To quote Lance Armstrong, one of America's most visible cancer survivors, "knowledge is power." In the fight against cancer, this knowledge has empowered patients to better engage with their medical providers in shared decision making about their health.

In addition, the magic of the internet has allowed patients and caregivers to find others in their same situation, despite geographic and other barriers. Peer-to-peer support can alleviate fear and anxiety to for both patients and caregivers. Lastly, not too many years ago, awareness was the buzzword in the cancer space. Today, thanks to a number of campaigns and groups, awareness has been raised successfully across the board.

The question is now not how to inform people about cancer but how to inspire them to take action. For example, at the Colon Cancer Alliance we've found most people have heard of colon cancer. Yet colon cancer screening rates are not as high as we would like them to be, especially given that colon cancer is unique in that it is preventable. Pre-cancerous lesions, called polyps, can be identified and removed from the colon during a colonoscopy. Our challenge is now how to get more people screened.

What's not working?

For a patient who is running out of options, the need for a more efficient drug approval process becomes critical. My husband was treated with the same chemotherapy regime as his grandfather was given 30 years earlier. While it worked for both of them, this is not always the case. Getting safer and more effective new drugs to the market faster benefits everyone-patients, industry and medical professionals.

Like the drug approval process, we need to rethink how we approach clinical trials. We need better education around trials so that patients and caregivers develop a better understanding of both potential benefits and risks associated with them. For example, some patients do not enroll in clinical trials because they think they will receive only a placebo. The vast majority of cancer clinical trials do not use a placebo-only arm. Rather, patients receive standard of care treatment at a minimum. The Colon Cancer Alliance started a Clinical Trials Matching Service to address this issue, but it will take the cooperation of patients, doctors and the healthcare community at large to encourage trial participation across all cancer types.

What's next?

Although it is useful to step back and look at the fight against cancer as a whole, the truth is that to every patient and family, the fight against cancer is deeply personal. To patients with cancer, statistics and generalizations are essentially meaningless. To them, it doesn't matter if a therapy works on a certain majority of cases. What is important to cancer patients and their families is simply: Will this treatment work for me or not? Will this let me see my granddaughter's birth? Will this let me attend my son's graduation?

Right now, we don't always have the answers to these questions. But we're working on it. Personalized medicine is the wave of the future, and it's helping doctors predict which treatments will work and which might not. Today, as new drugs are being released, we can sometimes see that a specific patient population responds based on their cancer gene profile. One example from colon cancer is the KRAS mutation. If a colon cancer patient has the KRAS mutation, we know that certain drugs are not going to work for them.

Knowing this saves patients precious time, risks and money, and, with more research and better understanding of genetic and molecular differences in cancers, breakthroughs in this type of personalized medicine will save more lives. President Nixon declared war on cancer back in 1971. During the 40 years since then, we have more treatment options, better informed patients and are moving toward being able to determine which patients will better respond to which therapy. While there is much work still to be done, we should all take be encouraged by the progress that has been made.

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