New cancer report: Targeted therapies a success

Melanoma drug treatment approved by FDA
Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer -- 70,000 new cases and nearly 9,000 deaths are expected in the U.S. this year. Dr. Jon LaPook explains how a recently approved drug treatment for the deadly disease works.
CBS News

There's news in the war on cancer. A landmark report says that there's been remarkable progress on some cancers, but nearly no improvement in others.

The report by the American Association for Cancer Research is a milestone -- 40 years after the Nixon administration declared a national campaign against the disease.

After those four decades, here's the toll now: Cancer claimed more than 571,000 lives in America in 2010. That comes to about one person every minute. And 1 in 2 men, and 1 in 3 women, can expect to get cancer in their lifetimes.

CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook looks at what has been accomplished in fighting cancer and where this war is headed.

Dr. Judy Garber heads the American Association for Cancer Research, which published Tuesday's progress report.

"Are we winning the war on cancer?" LaPook asked Garber.

"We've made tremendous progress in the war against cancer," she said, "but we haven't won yet."

Over the last 30 years, death rates for all cancer dropped by 22 percent for men, and 14 percent for women, resulting in almost 900,000 fewer deaths in the United States.

"We have a greater than 90 percent survival rate for breast cancers and cervix cancers caught early," said Garber. "For colon cancers caught early, the cure rate is almost 100 percent.

The biggest advance has been the understanding that all cancers are not the same -- and each one has to be treated differently.

"Cancer is probably 200 diseases," said Garber, "not one disease, and we can cure cancer. We just can't cure all cancer."

The report highlights the success of targeted therapies -- attacking cancer cells based on their specific genetic makeup. Forty years ago, this was science fiction.

Drugs like Herceptin -- used for breast cancer -- target proteins on the surface of the cell. Gleevec works inside the cell to block cancer's growth and has revolutionized the treatment of one type of leukemia. Avastin shuts down blood vessels that feed the tumor, literally starving it to death. It's used in a number of cancers including colon and kidney.

But many cancers remain tough to treat.

"Lung cancer remains a big challenge," said Garber, "though we've been able to do some improvements. [As for] pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer, brain tumors -- we have our work cut out for us."

Work that is increasingly difficult as federal funding for cancer research has remained flat at about $5 billion over the past five years. With inflation, that's actually a cut. Tuesday's report calls for annual budget increases of more than 5 percent.

"If there's less money for cancer research," says Garber, "there will be fewer cures, there will be fewer insights. And at the level of the patient, it means either waiting longer or waiting forever for something that you need right now."

Innovative treatments are crucial. But it's also important to focus on better ways to preventing cancers and detecting them early. Because despite all the progress, as people live longer, cancer will soon overtake heart disease as the leading killer in the United States.

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook