The search for cancer answers

One of the biggest success stories in cancer treatment is in the survival rate for childhood cancers. At one time, most children diagnosed with cancer succumbed to their disease. Now, the majority of them are effectively treated and live long into adulthood.

Another success story lies in the development of anti-nausea drugs. As recently as the early 1990s, patients receiving chemotherapy could expect to be nauseous and vomiting with every cycle of treatment. This distressing side effect of the drugs is now considerably easier to manage, and patients for the most part are much less likely to experience it.

How did all this come about? Through research – and not just at the big academic medical centers but in community oncology programs as well.

The research program at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center is probably one of the better-kept secrets of local health care. Most people may not even be aware of it – yet the contributions it makes toward what we’re learning about successfully treating and managing cancer matter a great deal, especially if you or someone you know gets diagnosed with this disease. That’s why it was a really big deal when the local cancer center last month became part of the Minnesota Metro Community Clinical Oncology Program, a nonprofit consortium of hospitals and clinics through which research sponsored by the National Cancer Institute is conducted.

The benefit, first and foremost, is to patients. The number of clinical trials in which patients can enroll locally has quintupled, from about 20 open studies to 100. Eligible local patients now can join research studies on effective ways to manage the side effects of cancer treatment. There even will be opportunities for the public to enroll in population-based studies on preventing cancer in the first place. Local clinicians also will have access to studies being conducted through the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group and the Southwest Oncology Group, two of the largest cancer research groups in the United States.

The importance of research and knowledge in treating cancer can’t be understated. The gains that have been made in successful treatment and survival rates have come about largely as a result of what has been learned through clinical studies. It’s how the current standards of care were developed.

Decision-making in cancer care can be extraordinarily complex, and we’re learning more all the time. For instance, do all women with breast cancer need to be treated aggressively? Probably not – and being able to predict which genotypes are lower-risk can help spare some women from the toxicity and potential long-term effects of chemotherapy and/or radiation.

At one time, patients who enrolled in clinical trials might have feared becoming guinea pigs. I’m not sure that’s really the case anymore. If you spend any time in the online cancer communities, it quickly becomes clear that many of these people are either searching for a clinical trial for which they’re eligible, or already participating in a study. The way studies are structured nowadays, patients enrolled in a study can be assured of at least getting the standard of care, possibly better. They’re also getting access to something new and promising that may turn out to be the future standard for how their particular type or stage of cancer is treated. And for many of these patients, it’s rewarding to be part of something bigger than themselves, to be able to add to the body of knowledge about cancer treatment, regardless of their own prognosis or outcome.

That these opportunities would be available in rural Minnesota is pretty remarkable. Once upon a time, most of the clinical research took place at the large academic centers. You had to travel if you wanted to be part of a study. Not only was it less accessible to patients but it also tended to produce research with skewed results, especially when you consider that the majority of cancer patients are actually treated in community programs such as the Willmar Regional Cancer Center.

Local research helps ensure that what we know about effective cancer treatment truly does mirror a broad population of patients, not just those who go to M.D. Anderson or the Dana Farber Institute. Local opportunities to enroll in cancer prevention studies also will help ensure that the data being collected includes populations, lifestyles and risk factors found in rural Minnesota and that we can learn something meaningful from it.

It says a lot about local health care that all of this is happening here. It is, indeed, a really big deal.

West Central Tribune photo by Anne Polta

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