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More than 1.8 million Americans are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 2020, according to the American Cancer Society. And with an aging U.S. population, that number will only continue to climb over the coming decades. But new and emerging treatments and technologies are providing hope for those handed a diagnosis.
Here are five ways experts predict cancer care will change in the next 10 years.
Cancer treatment will be more targeted
Traditional chemotherapy has long been a standard treatment in cancer care. But it's increasingly taking a back seat to a more precise and personalized approach, called targeted therapy.
Unlike traditional chemotherapy drugs, which can damage both normal and cancerous cells, targeted therapies disrupt only the cancer cells and leave the healthy cells alone. The drugs do this by “targeting” specific characteristics that make cancer cells different from normal cells. Then they prevent those cancer cells from replicating, the American Cancer Society explains.
Some targeted therapy drugs trigger a person's own immune system to kill the cancer cells, for example. Others block chemical signals that tell the cancer cells to grow and divide.
The type of targeted therapy prescribed depends on a person's specific type of cancer and the gene changes that take place in those cells. This level of personalization “makes it more likely that the patients who receive therapy are going to respond to that therapy,” explains William Hahn, M.D., chief scientific officer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School. “And it spares people from therapies that aren't going to work.”
Technology will guide doctors’ decisions
New technologies will change the way doctors treat and interact with patients over the next decade. Experts predict artificial intelligence (AI) will soon be used to help inform clinicians on the best treatment plans for each individual patient, instead of “waiting a few months” to see how a patient responds to a treatment — especially when “some patients don't have that time,” says Lesley Solomon, chief innovation officer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Emphasis shifts to precancer risks
About 40 percent of the U.S. population will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives, according to federal data. And knowing who is at greater risk for getting the disease will become a priority over the next decade, Perchick predicts.
In the past, much emphasis has been put on patient education and cancer prevention: Don't smoke, wear sunscreen and the like. While promoting awareness of cancer risks remains critical, so, too, is focusing research and honing treatments for groups with a greater likelihood of a cancer diagnosis.
"When we identify high-risk populations, we have the chance of creating better biomarkers, better diagnostics and better interventions,” Perchick explains. “The precancer space is where we have the greatest opportunity to make a big impact.”
The team-based approach is trending
A multidisciplinary approach to cancer care is going to become more common in the next several years, “where a surgeon, a radiation oncologist, a medical oncologist and a nurse are all working together to direct the care of patients,” Dana-Farber's Hahn says.
"And I think that's really important because the therapies we give are increasingly easier to take. But there's still lots of complications that can happen along the way. Getting care in a setting where you have all of those people weighing in on how best to proceed at every stage of your treatment — I think is really important,” he adds.
Hahn encourages new cancer patients to look for comprehensive care when exploring treatment options. And if you can't find anything close to you, consider the possibility of tapping into some remote services.
"We have a great network of comprehensive cancer centers in the U.S., and those are really great resources for all. They may not be local, but in every case there's a way to interact with those centers,” he says.
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Cost of care comes into focus
Cancer doesn't just weaken a person's physical health; it can cripple one's financial health, too. The average cost of treatment is in the $150,000-per-patient range, and the U.S. is expected to spend $174 billion on cancer care costs in 2020, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Cost is a barrier that keeps many patients from accessing treatment, MSKCC's Perchick says. Plus, she adds, “lack of affordability can lead to financial toxicity. And financial toxicity can lead to worse outcomes, even if you survive your cancer.”
Addressing costs is “required” over the next decade, Perchick argues. She expects to see continued efforts to reduce cancer drug prices as well as other high-cost items and services.
"In a perfect world, one day we would like to see a patient walk through our doors, be able to run a few tests on them,” and based on genetic and disease information gleaned from algorithms and machine learning, doctors will be able to prescribe what they think will be the most effective form of treatment, Dana-Farber's Solomon explains.
"And so then you're saving time and money,” she adds. “And we're not there yet, but that's kind of the vision that we see coming out of this one day.”