By of the Journal Sentinel
Chicago - Nearly half of people diagnosed with cancer will die from some other cause, according to research presented at a meeting of cancer scientists.
Doctors say the study reflects improving cancer survival rates and suggests that cancer patients need to take a more comprehensive approach to their health, rather than focusing just on their cancer.
“If you are seeing an oncologist three or four times a year, you may not be seeing your primary care doctor,” said Amye Tevaarwerk, a breast cancer specialist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health who was not a part of the study. “It’s a real problem with cancer survivors.”
The research looked at 1,807 cancer patients who were part of a national study. It found that 49% of them died from conditions other than cancer.
And as they got many years beyond their cancer diagnosis, other conditions became the primary cause of death, according to the paper presented at the American Association of Cancer Research annual meeting
Of those who died within five years of their diagnosis, 33% died of other conditions. Between five and 10 years, 39% of deaths were from other conditions. Between 10 and 20 years, the number reached 53%. After 20 years, 63% died of other causes.
“Most people who get cancer think ‘I’m going to die from it,’ ” said study author Yi Ning, an assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The study reflects the long-term trend that people are living longer after being diagnosed with cancer, said Bruce Campbell, a head and neck cancer surgeon at Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Sixty-seven percent of people diagnosed with cancer today will be alive in five years, according to the National Cancer Institute. And among children, 75% will be alive 10 years later.
About 15% of the 12 million cancer survivors today were diagnosed 20 years ago or more, the institute says.
Campbell said the general belief is that for many people, cancer is becoming more like a chronic disease.
“Because you have cancer doesn’t mean you can eat anything you want and not exercise,” he said.
He said some cancer patients can get so worn out just from seeing cancer doctors that they just don’t want to see any other doctors.
But cancer patients need to develop survivorship plans that focus on their complete health, he said.
The study also has implications for how a person’s cancer is treated, said UW’s Tevaarwerk, whose practice focuses on cancer survivorship.
She said some cancer treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, can lead to other health problems years later, including a higher risk for heart and bone problems.
“This is the Catch-22 of oncology,” she said.
She said doctors now are trying to figure out the best ways to treat a cancer while attempting to limit other health problems.
UW is starting a pilot survivorship program for breast cancer patients that shifts from the traditional oncology focus to a more comprehensive approach to health.