THURSDAY, June 24, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- More Americans are surviving longer after a diagnosis of cancer, and medicine and society are just beginning to make the necessary adjustments, according to a new government report released Thursday.
There now are 9.8 million cancer survivors in the United States -- 3.5 percent of the population -- and the number is climbing steadily. The statistics come from a joint report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute, which will be published in the June 25 issue of the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
By contrast, 3 million Americans had been living with a cancer diagnosis in 1971, or 1.5 percent of the population.
"Underscoring this change," the report said, "persons with diagnoses of cancer increasingly are described as cancer 'survivors' rather than cancer 'victims.'"
One purpose of the report is to change the too-common idea that a diagnosis of cancer is a death sentence, said Dr. Julia Rowland, director of the NCI's Office of Cancer Survivorship.
"It's important getting the public to realize that, at least in this country, the majority of patients diagnosed with cancer today can expect to live for years," Rowland said.
Cancer remains the nation's second biggest killer after heart disease, claiming about 550,000 lives a year.
Still, almost two-thirds of those adults diagnosed with cancer -- 64 percent -- will live at least five years, up from 51 percent in 1971, she said. The numbers for children are even better, with 79 percent still alive five years after diagnosis and almost 75 percent alive after 10 years.
The official government goal for the year 2020 is 70 percent five-year survivorship, Rowland noted. "We have achieved that in children and are fast approaching it for adults," she said.
Because cancer incidence increases with age, one of every six Americans over 65 is a cancer survivor, Rowland said.
The improvement comes from a combination of earlier detection and better treatment, especially for cancers of the breast, prostate, colon and rectum, said Dr. Loria Pollack, a medical officer at CDC.
Women with breast cancer account for 22 percent of survivors. Men with prostate cancer are the second largest group, 17 percent of the total, and colorectal cancer survivors account for 11 percent.
The fact that so many people are living longer with cancer raises "major public health and medical considerations" as well as societal issues, Pollack said.
"There is some concern about what it means for a family genetically," she said. "There are also questions in terms of insurability and being promoted on the job."
Many primary care doctors still must become more familiar with the guidelines for managing cancer survivors, Pollack said.
But those issues should not obscure the "good news that the money invested in cancer research and treatment is having a positive impact," Rowland said.
The report carefully avoids the word "cure," but "NCI is not backing off from the idea of cure," she said.
"We are getting good enough at controlling cancer that many patients will live long enough to die of something other than cancer," she noted
Read about surviving cancer at the National Cancer Institute.