“With better screening, you can see that cancer diagnoses go up, because we’re identifying cancer in earlier stages on more people,” says Domenick Casuccio, who represents the American Cancer Society for Richmond and other areas of Virginia. “However, the death rates are declining because we’re diagnosing cancers at an earlier, more treatable stage, so people’s chance of surviving that cancer is higher.”
As of the start of last year, more than 15.5 million living Americans knew they had cancer at the time or had previously been diagnosed, according to Casuccio.
About one of three people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes.
In an exhaustive report released this year, the American Cancer Society found the “five-year relative survival rate” has increased by 20 percentage points among white people, and 24 percentage points among black people.
The relative survival rate is the percentage of people who are alive over a designated time period (five years in this case) after having been diagnosed with cancer, compared with normal life expectancy.
Skin and lung cancers are the most common of them all, Casuccio notes, adding that the overwhelming majority of lung cancer diagnoses are “directly attributed to tobacco usage.”
“That’s why we’re working so hard to get people to either not smoke, or quit smoking,” he says.
Ranked high among the other forms of cancer that are either largely preventable or effectively treated when caught early are: breast cancer, prostate cancer and cervical cancer, as well as ovarian cancer, which is often tied to the HPV virus. The American Cancer Society, for that reason, has been lobbying for HPV vaccinations for children.
“We know those are preventable cancers,” Casuccio says. “We have a way to prevent them, but people are smoking and aren’t vaccinating their children.”
Local organizations that fight cancer have also been greatly focused on attacking colon cancer nowadays, continues Casuccio.
“There’s a screening available for colon cancer, but many people, because what’s involved, don’t get screened for the disease. So, we are trying to educate and encourage people that this is a cancer that we can catch early,” Casuccio explains. “If we catch it early, the polyps of the cancer can be removed and there’s no other radiation or chemotherapy involved.”
“If you don’t get screened and the cancer advances, that’s when the treatment involves radiation, chemotherapy, surgery and all of that,” he adds.
Casuccio likens a colonoscopy to “having a mole removed before it’s skin cancer.”
The American Cancer Society has been working with other local entities, including Virginia Commonwealth University, to educate people and provide screenings for people who have a family history of colon cancer or are over the age of 50, which is when people need their first colonoscopy.
In addition to education and earlier screenings, survival rates have also improved because of technology, according to experts.
“So, for instance, mammography 20 years ago was very basic versus what we can find now for breast cancer can be smaller than a grain of salt,” Casuccio says.
The American Cancer Society has also initiated outreach programs aimed at encouraging people to eat healthier, exercise and keep tabs on alcohol consumption.
For a large part, when it comes to cancer prevention and screening, people are finally listening. However, there’s more work to be done.
“There are still people out there who are not getting screened,” says Cascuccio. “But, with continued awareness programs about the importance of screenings and early education programs about not smoking and living a healthy lifestyle, we will continue to make progress. And that is important to celebrate.”