Good News from Cancer’s Frontlines

2011 was a year of major advances in cancer research and treatment –and more progress is coming.

Cancer is beyond dreadful- it’s ghoulish. You can kill it, but it can come roaring back to life more wicked and destructive than ever. Yet in some respects, there has never been a better time to have cancer.

Last year there were major advances against deadly melanoma and promising evidence for using low-dose CT scans to screen for lung cancer. A new chemotherapy regimen pushed cure rates for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia – once among the most deadly pediatric cancers – to above 80 percent. And these are only three of several major advances identified by the American Society of Clinical Oncology in its annual report.

It remains true that there’s no universal cancer cure. Given that many scientists now believe every cancer case is genetically unique to the patient – and that new mutations continue to emerge – there may never be one. Nevertheless, technology, medical research and accumulating scientific data are driving discoveries at an accelerating rate.

Smart Screenings

Let’s begin with a contradiction. There is one sure-fire cancer cure: prevention.

This is going to sound mundane. But one of the most effective ways to prevent cancer from developing is to get enough exercise and to have a well-balanced diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables.

Because cancer can threaten even those who eat their broccoli and do their push-ups, biomedical interventions remain important for at least catching cancer in its earliest stages. The trick is determining the best ways to screen for cancer.

One landmark study last year was the first to identify an effective lung cancer screening for high-risk patients. More than 50,000 heavy smokers who had each puffed the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day over 30 years were screened using low-dose CT scans and their results compared to patients who received annual chest x-rays. “We cut all causes of mortality by 7 percent and lung cancer mortality by 20 percent”, Dr says for the CT scans.

Another recent study, let by gastroenterologist Sidney Winawer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, showed even more dramatic results. Over two decades, the study tracked 2,600 patients who had undergone colonoscopies and had premalignant polyps removed – and found that the procedures cut colorectal cancer deaths by 53 percent.

More targeted treatments

The biggest advances of 2011 involved advanced melanoma, a virulent form of skin cancer. Since the early 1970s, incidences of the disease – often traced to childhood overexposure to the sun – have risen faster than any other type of cancer.

In 2002 researchers discovered that a mutation in the BRAF gene is one cause and last year a phase III clinical trial showed that the drug vemurafenib targets that genetic defect, improving survival in the six out of 10 melanoma patients who carry the mutation. Approved by standard for treating patients with the BRAF mutation, says oncologist.

Just as important is a trial involving ipilimumab. The new immunotherapy drug helps a patient’s T cells attack and destroy melanoma cells.

Combined with standard chemotherapy, ipilimumab improved coverall survival of patients with previously untreated metastasized melanoma. Ten percent to 15 percent of the patients may even see long-term remission. Future trials will test the therapeutic benefits of combining vemurafenib and ipilimumab.

Whereas you never previously had a drug for melanoma treatment, now suddenly you have two drugs, both of which can make the cancer disappear.

Oncologist Cassian Yee is tackling melanoma using a related immunotherapy – harvesting T cells from patient blood samples, cloning billions of copies and flooding them back into the patient’s veins. The idea is to bolster the immune system to mount massive attacks against tumor cells.

“In some cases”, Yee says, “it can either halt the growth of the tumor and stop it in its tracks for a period of time or it can actually eliminate the tumor. That was the case in one patient, who is still disease-free after three and a half years”.

Saving Your Skin

When summer’s heat is pounding down on you, it’s easy to remember sun block. But the sun can damage your skin even when it’s overcast or the weather is cool. So be sun smart even in the early spring:

Know your skin type. Rates of melanoma are rising, and fair-skinned people are at greater risk.

Plan around the sun. Try planning outdoor activities for the early morning or late evening when the sun is weaker.

Dress for success. Choose clothing that’s appropriate for the temperature and covers as much skin as possible — a measure that’s much easier in spring than in summer.

Lather up. Use a sun screen with a minimum SPF 15. And remember, if you’re exercising and sweating, you’ll need to reapply. Don’t forget to wear lip balm with SPF protection as well.

Remember the eyes have it. Wear sunglasses that block UV rays to help protect your eyes.

Simple measures for sun safety can help prevent skin cancer and other issues. Also be sure to examine your skin regularly and discuss any areas of concern with your doctor.

Can Green Tea Protect Skin?

Modern science has discovered chemicals in green tea that can inhibit many diseases, including cancer. Those same compounds are now showing up in dozens of skin care products like soap, skin lotion and cosmetics. Is this is just a passing fad, or can it really protect your skin?

It’s been part of Asian cultures for thousands of years. Now in this millennium, green tea has enjoyed a revival.

“With Eastern medicines, things are going to be more slow and natural, and some of them may be more preventive things, says Barbara Reed, M.D., a dermatologist at the Denver Skin Clinic in Colorado.

Pam Fitzgerald was constantly exposed to the sun as a child. Both her parents have had skin cancer. She hopes green tea will act as a natural defense.

“I know that I’m predisposed to skin cancer, and I would like to use something that would prevent that,” says Pam.

Delivery and dosage are the keys to green tea. Six to eight cups a day are enough to make a difference, but for some, that’s a lot of caffeine. Also using products with tea extracts on your skin can help if the lotion has at least 10 percent of the active ingredients.

Dr. Reed says, “A person has to really concentrate on either drinking that much, if they can handle the caffeine, taking a pill, or putting something on their skin.”

To benefit from this old wisdom to lower your cancer risk and protect your skin, Dr. Reed says rub it on, or drink up! She also says it’s easy to be misled by labels since most products containing green tea don’t say how much is inside. By law, ingredients are listed on the label in order of quantity, so if green tea is one of the first few, there’s probably enough to generate some therapeutic benefits.

Source: Ivanhoe News

Benefits of Sun Exposure

Most people know too much sun can cause skin cancer. However, did you know too little sun may be just as dangerous? A new study shows a lack of ultraviolet B radiation from the sun is a major cause of many types of cancer.

After analyzing cancer deaths in 500 areas in the United States, William Grant, Ph.D., from Newport News, Va., determined how many additional cancer deaths are caused each year by a lack of sun.

Grant found mortality rates in whites from bladder, breast, colon, esophageal, ovarian, rectal and stomach cancer were twice as high in northeastern states as they were in southern states. Similar patterns were also seen in blacks.

After analyzing the data, Grant determined cancer rates were inversely related to the amount of UV-B radiation a population received.

From his research, Grant predicts a lack of sun will lead to 85,000 additional cases of cancer this year compared to what would take place if the whole country was exposed to the same amount of UV-B radiation as found in the southern region. He also estimates more than 17 percent of the breast cancer cases and more than 17 percent of breast cancer deaths in the country are related to a lack of UV-B radiation.

“The ideal case would, therefore, be to find some way of obtaining the beneficial effects of UV-B exposure without suffering the increased incidence of skin cancer,” writes Grant.

Although UV-B radiation protects against cancer because it contains vitamin D, it has not yet been shown whether vitamin D supplements can substitute for sun exposure. Therefore, Grant strongly suggests more research looking at the relationship between vitamins, UV-B radiation, and cancer. He says further studies, “…should be extremely worthwhile, having the potential to prevent many cases of cancer and save many lives now lost to cancer annually in the United States.”

SOURCE: Cancer, 2002;94:1867-1875

How big of a problem is prostate cancer?

It’s the most common cancer in men in the United States. Its been about 200,000 cases a year for the last five years or so. That means in the last five years, there are a million affected really with prostate cancer. It’s also the second most common cancer killer in men in the United States, after lung cancer. What’s really important for people to understand is that African-Americans are about three times the risk of getting prostate cancer and three times the risk of dying from prostate cancer.

There are many, many reasons for that, probably although no one knows the relative contribution of each of those reasons. Some of it has to do with access to care, some of it has to do with education, but even in a system like the military where race does not play a factor in access to care, prostate cancer behaves more aggressively in black men than Caucasians. So, there probably is something biologic to it as well.

The good news is that the mortality due to prostate cancer in Caucasian men is now lower than it was before PSA screening was introduced in 1987, but the mortality rate in the United States for African-Americans hasn’t changed at all in the last several decades.

There’s a lot of laboratory evidence to suggest that both vitamin E and/or selenium act as antioxidants. Oxidants are cellular toxins that can cause DNA to mutate and turn into cancer. The real interest in vitamin E and selenium came from two large-scale, randomized trials using lots of participants, looking at other diseases. In the case of selenium, it was a study called the Clark Trial, where they looked at whether or not selenium would prevent recurrence of non-melanoma skin cancer. It didn’t have any effect on skin cancer, but as what we call a secondary end point — sort of a surprise — the incidence of prostate cancer was markedly reduced in the men who took selenium. And, for vitamin E, it was an even larger trial — 29,000 finished smokers — and there the hypothesis was that vitamin E would prevent lung cancer. What was interesting is in fact, the smokers that took vitamin E actually had more lung cancer. So, it doesn’t always work. That’s why we need to do studies. But, again, as a surprise, as a secondary end point, the incidence of vitamin E was markedly reduced by about 40 percent in the men who, rather the instance of prostate cancer was markedly reduced in the men who took vitamin E.

Prostate cancer is still a major killer in the United States. It’s second only to lung cancer with around 31,000 deaths a year. But, even if you don’t die from prostate cancer, if you’re diagnosed with prostate cancer in your 40s or 50s, the side effects of treatment are pretty substantial. Because of the anatomy of the male, treatment for prostate cancer, whether its by radiation or by surgery, can cause difficulty with urination, it can cause difficulty with sexual function, and it can cause bowel difficulties. It would be a lot easier to prevent that from happening than to have many hundreds of thousands of men go through treatment every year and experience all those side effects.

Source: Ivanhoe News

Skin Cancer

A glowing, tanned complexion seems healthy, but when achieved through unprotected exposure to the sun, it an be dangerous or even deadly. That’s because changes in skin color, such as tans and sunburns, may indicate damage to skin cells caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This can trigger mutations in skin cells and lead to cancer.

Skin cancer affects more than 1 million Americans every years; most – but not all – cases are considered to be sun related. There are three main forms of the disease. The most common kind, basal cell carcinoma, usually appears as a pearly, round, reddish bump or a scarlike lesion. Curable 99 percent of the time, this cancer has an extremely slow growth rate and usually does not spread to other parts of the body. If the bump is firm and red or if the lesion has a scaly, crusty surface, it’s probably a squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer may grow and spread rapidly, but it’s readily curable if diagnosed early. (Only 1 percent of squamous cell carcinomas are deadly).

The most serious type of skin cancer is melanoma, which affects nearly 60,000 people each year. Compared with the other kinds, melanoma spreads more rapidly and is more resistant to treatments, such as chemotherapy. This cancer affects the melanocytes, pigment-producing cells in the skin, and appears as a flat, brown patch with uneven edges; a black or gray lump; or a raised brown patch with spots.

Because the majority of skin cancers are detected by patients themselves, experts recommend that all people know the ABCDEs of the disease. Look for moles that are asymmetrical (A) in shape, have blurry or jagged borders (B), become lighter or darker in color (C), are larger than ¼ inch in diameter (D), and/or are evolving, that is, changes (E), or raised above the skin’s surface. A dermatologist can take a biopsy of the suspect mole to test for cancer. Most skin cancers are easily treated by removing the affected skin with surgery, such as cryosurgery (freezing off a small patch) or laser surgery. If the cancer has spread, radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be required.

Additional Facts

1. Because the sun’s rays are strongest from 10:00 a.m to 4:00 p.m., the American Cancer Society recommends staying in the shape as much as possible during those hours.

2. Up to 80 percent of UV radiation passes through clouds, so sunscreen is needed even on gray, drizzly days.