Progress through Cancer Research: Helping People Live Longer, Better Lives

June 2, 2015
Amber Bauer, ASCO staff

During the last decade alone, cancer research has provided a steady flow of exciting developments. Since 2005, more than 60 new drugs have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat cancer. In addition, a deeper understanding of the underlying biology of tumors and cancer cells has produced a wide range of targeted treatments that have ushered in a new era of care for people with a number of different types of cancer.

As a result, two out of three people now live at least five years after being diagnosed with cancer, up from roughly one out of two in the 1970s. However, there is still more that can be done, and researchers continue to unravel the secrets of stopping cancer from growing and spreading.

"We are learning smarter ways to use existing treatments, even as we uncover new drugs that target the biological features that make cancers tick,” said ASCO expert Don S. Dizon, MD.

Results from four studies presented during the 2015 ASCO Annual Meeting show how new treatment options can improve and lengthen the lives of people with both rare and common cancers. share on twitter 

Childhood Cancers

A recent analysis of information from more than 34,000 children shows that modern cancer care is reducing deaths from cancer, as well as the long-term side effects of treatment. Fifty years ago, only one in five children survived cancer, but today more than 80% are alive five years after diagnosis. The risk of dying from late effects, like heart disease and second cancers, has also declined for childhood cancer survivors. In the early 1970s, almost 4% of those diagnosed with a childhood cancer died from other health-related reasons. In the 1990s, this decreased to 2% of survivors.

"For decades, we’ve strived to avoid the paradox in which children survive cancer, only to become sick or die years later because of the treatment they received,” said ASCO expert Stephen Hunger, MD. “By carefully refining pediatric cancer treatment, we have improved long-term care and outcomes by leaps and bounds. We hope that the positive trends we’re seeing today will continue as our therapeutic approaches continue to improve over time.”

Prostate Cancer

A recent study shows that adding docetaxel (Docefrez, Taxotere) chemotherapy to standard treatment helps men with high-risk, localized prostate cancer live longer. Four years after treatment, 93% of the men who received docetaxel in addition to standard hormone therapy and radiation therapy were alive compared with 89% who just received standard therapy. Adding docetaxel also reduced the risk of the cancer coming back. Five years after treatment, 73% of men who received docetaxel had no signs of prostate cancer compared with 66% who received standard treatment.

Breast Cancer

A large phase III study found that a new targeted therapy, called palbociclib (Ibrance), delayed the growth and spread of advanced hormone receptor-positive breast cancer by roughly five months when combined with standard hormonal therapy. The researchers also noted that the benefits of the combination treatment were similar whether the women had been through menopause or not.

Soft-Tissue Sarcoma

Recent research has shown that the chemotherapy eribulin (Halaven) may be a promising new treatment option for people with two types of rare soft-tissue sarcomas: leiomyosarcoma and adipocytic sarcoma. The researchers found that people taking eribulin lived for two months longer than those taking standard chemotherapy (nearly 14 months compared with almost 12 months).

“In a disease that has been notoriously difficult to treat, even small steps forward are worthwhile,” said ASCO expert Gary K. Schwartz, MD. “These findings also remind us that our work is far from finished.”

To hear more about research advances for specific types of cancer announced at the 2015 ASCO Annual Meeting, be sure to check out our Research Round Up podcast series throughout the summer.