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The War on Cancer

More Americans are surviving. Here's why

Targeted attack

Not quite. Cancer remains a disease too diverse and too canny to be eradicated anytime soon. But researchers are working on multiple fronts not only to discover additional drugs like Gleevec but to reduce the incidence of most forms of cancer and to improve the treatments.

Some 150 "chemoprevention" clinical trials are under way across the country, testing drugs that will reduce the incidence of cancer in high-risk populations. Tamoxifen and aloxifene, for example, target women with a high risk of breast cancer. Medicated mouthwashes also are being tested as a way to reduce the risk of oral cancer.

The mapping of the human genome, completed in 2003, has opened the door to personalized treatments for cancer, in which the molecular makeup of both the patient and the cancer dictate a specific approach. This has led, for instance, to the discovery that a mutated BRCA gene indicates a high likelihood of developing breast cancer — and that women with the mutated gene will respond best to a specific treatment protocol.

In the coming decade, stem cell research may yield new clues in diagnosis and treatment. And nanotechnology may assist with early diagnosis and more targeted delivery of drugs to cancerous cells.  

For now, doctors are focusing heavily on cancer prevention. Americans have largely heeded the warning about tobacco use, and deaths from lung cancer have already begun to decline. But the American Institute for Cancer Research, which funds research into the link between a healthy lifestyle and cancer prevention, estimates that a full third of the most common cancers could be prevented by eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables — plant-based foods are loaded with fiber, antioxidants and other cancer-fighting nutrients; exercising regularly — countless studies show a link between physical activity and the reduced risk of several cancers; and maintaining a healthy weight — supersizing seems to go hand-in-hand with cancer, though scientists aren't sure why. "The lag period might be 20 to 30 years," says Meisenberg," but behind America's obesity wave we are sure to see a cancer wave."

Regular screenings are also important. The ability to identify precancerous lesions in very early stages is giving hope to the belief that proper screening will eventually render many cancers preventable. Specific tests exist for colon, breast, cervical, prostate and uterine cancers. 

Indeed, between the new drugs, the improved technologies and screenings, many experts believe the time is coming when most cancers will become chronic illnesses rather than fatal ones.

"We are right at the promised land," Garber insists. "In 1971, we had faith and hope. Now we have the map."

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