Although often thought of as a modern disease, cancer is as old as the most primitive animals and plants. Fossils more than 60-million-years old show that cancer afflicted dinosaurs. By the time of early Egyptians, cancer was a well known disease that men tried to cure with medication and surgery.
Greek doctors gave the disease its name (the word cancer means crab) and described cancer of the breast which, in advanced stages, has the appearance of a central lump with lines (or claws) extending from it.
Surgery and medication in the form of chemotherapy remain the primary treatments for the disease, although major progress has been made in the last century using radiation. During the last ten years, immunology and endocrine therapy, the treatment of certain tumors with hormones, have also reached significant stages of development.
More than 400,000 people will die of cancer this year in the United States alone, according to government sources. Doctors will diagnose more than 600,000 new cases this year. Statistics predict one in four Americans will contract some type of cancer in his lifetime.
About 1.5 million cancer patients average 16 days a year in a hospital spending $9.6 billion per year. Doctor bills, outpatient therapy, time lost from work, and other disease-related costs put the annual cost well into the tens of billions of dollars. This total does not include the $7 billion spent in the last decade on cancer research.
But, despite these grim statistics and economic outlook, survival rates and methods of diagnosis and treatment have improved consistently during recent years.
The average cure rate for all cancers, except for common skin cancer, is between 35 and 40 per cent, an increase of about 10 per cent from decade ago. If diagnosed early, some cancers have cure rates of up to 75 per cent.
But once a tumor spreads beyond a certain point--breast cancer after it has spread to the lymph nodes, for example--the cure rate decreases dramatically.
"The main reason for the increasing cure rate is the success of multidisciplinary techniques or combinations of treatments," Emil Frei, director of the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute, said yesterday.
In combatting breast cancer, for instance, doctors often use both surgery to remove the primary spot, and chemotherapy, the administering of drugs, to stop the spread of malignant cells.
Norman L. Sadowsky, clinical instructor in Radiology, said yesterday. "The overall five-year cure rate for breast cancer is only an 18-per-cent chance that the patient will survive five years after treatment. If the tumor is detected early, however, usually through mammography, an X-ray of the breast, the five-year cure rate is about 90 per cent."
"The earlier one detects cervix or breast cancer, the better the chance of curing," he said. But he added that "this does not hold for other cancers, such as lung tumors."
Another proven treatment of cancer.. other than surgery and chemotherapy, is radiography, or the shooting of highly active, invisible beams of energy--such as x-rays or gamma rays--to destroy cancerous cells.
Frei noted that cosmetic treatment meant to improve the quality of the patient's life after treatment has gained in importance. Instead of amputation of a 15-year-old's leg, for example, doctors now will isolate only the part of the bone affected by cancer and treat it with radiotherapy.
A newer technique, cyrosurgery, cures a simple skin cancer by freezing the tumor and allowing it to fall off easily.
The prevention of cancer seems to be the emphasis of future research. The Pap Smear, a simple test for women's cervical cancer and the Ames procedure, which identifies chemicals as carcinogens, have gained in popularity. Also, self-examination of the breasts has become a more effective method of early detection and prevention. The ultimate goal of research in cures and prevention--the elimination of any deaths from cancer--remains a distant dream. But, with hope, the numbers of deaths can be reduced to much lower levels than those of today.