Public Health

Nearly 12 Million Americans Are Cancer Survivors

Good news about cancer today: More Americans are surviving it.

In fact, 40 percent of cancer survivors have outlived their diagnoses by 10 years or more.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly 12 million Americans are cancer survivors. That's four percent of the population.

A decade ago, the survivorship score was 9.8 million people and 3.5 percent of the population. Back in 1971, when cancer was considered pretty much a death sentence, there were only one-fourth as many survivors, and they made up less than 2 percent of the population.

A little over half of current cancer survivors suffered breast, prostate or colorectal cancer. More than half are women. About 3 out of 5 are over 65.

There are a bunch of reasons for the welcome trend, the CDC says. More cancers are being diagnosed earlier, and there's more effective treatment and follow-up care. In addition, more people are living into the most cancer-prone years, so more people are getting the disease — and surviving it.

All these trends point to continued growth in the legions of cancer survivors.

And that's a problem as well as a boon. First, survivors are at risk for cancer recurrence or new cancers, sometimes caused by the treatments they had.

For instance, Dr. Lisa Diller of Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston says, "women who received chest radiation as part of treatment for Hodgkins disease are 20 to 75 times more likely to develop breast cancer" than other women.

Diller, who was not involved in the CDC study, tells Shots that there's a lot of work to be done in educating primary care doctors on how to care for cancer survivors – what to watch for, how to treat some of the long-term side effects of cancer treatment, when to refer to a cancer specialist.

She cites research showing that some important items fall between the cracks. When primary care doctors and oncologists were surveyed about who's responsible for ordering mammograms on women who've survived colon cancer, Diller says, "the primary care doctor assumed it must be the oncologist, but the oncologist said 'I don't order mammograms, that's routine health care.'"

"There's a lack of understanding of whose job is what in caring for cancer survivors," Diller says.

And it's not uncommon, she says, for primary care doctors not to know that a patient has even had a bout with cancer in the past.

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