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Cancer survivors are living longer, report shows
More people are surviving the most invasive types of cancer, according to a federal report released Thursday. - photo by Wendy Leonard
More people are surviving the most invasive types of cancer, according to a federal report released Thursday.

Five-year survival rates are the latest inclusion of a weekly mortality report issued by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Increasing success points to a number of things, but particularly better screening and detection and more targeted and gentler treatment options, according to Dr. Sunil Sharma, chief of medical oncology at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. He said certain cancers, such as colon cancer, have higher cure rates when they are detected earlier.

"Once the patients are diagnosed with invasive cancers, they're actually getting much better and more targeted treatment," he said. "These patients are living longer."

The higher rates of longer life spans, Sharma said, don't even account for the cancer that is being prevented nowadays.

While it might be a "humongous leap" for some people, the doctor suggested that even small behavioral changes can make a big difference.

"Modern lifestyle is such that it kind of forces people to have lots of different things in their lives that are difficult to change," he said. "For example, if people are super busy, they don't get exercise. If it's not feasible, then making incremental changes also helps."

Regular exercise, proper nutrition (limiting animal products), not smoking and reducing stress, Sharma said, "can be very positive for the prevention of cancer."

Not all cancers, though, can be prevented, he said.

The CDC report states that more than 1.5 million invasive cancers were reported in the U.S. in 2011, the latest data available. At that time, 65 percent of cancer patients had survived at least five years after their diagnosis, according to the report.

The most common types remain prostate cancer for men and breast cancer for women, with lung cancer and colon cancer also affecting the highest percentage of patients. The four most common cancers make up half of all cancers diagnosed in 2011, the report states.

"For patients, there's a lot of hope," Sharma said. "Cancer is not an automatic death sentence."

He said that after 30 to 40 years of research and investment, the understanding of the biology of cancer has increased, leading to better detection technologies and more gentle, targeted treatments.

"If you follow the guidelines and we get more patients to screen for these cancers early, many more will be detected at an early stage and we can cure them," Sharma said.

Keeping track of survival rates, the CDC states, is helpful in targeting populations that better screening practices could benefit. The data is routinely used by states to develop cancer control programs, as well as identify and support the needs of a growing number of cancer survivors.