Cancer patients living longer than ever

Two out of three cancer patients survive five years or more, and Bill Crooks is here to tell you how to be on the better end of this statistic.

Bill Crooks is grateful to be among the 97 percent.

That’s the percentage of patients with prostate cancer in the United States who have survived at least five years after diagnosis. In Crooks’ case, he has lived much longer—this year marks 21 years since the Grand Rapids resident had surgery to remove his prostate.

Although he’s been cancer free ever since, he’s dealt with some unpleasant after-effects of the surgery. The experience—and a desire to help others—prompted him to become a mentor for men facing prostate cancer, as well as a patient advocate. Serving in these roles for two decades, Crooks, 82, has had a front-row seat to developments in diagnosis and treatment.

“The advancement in procedures and knowledge of prostate cancer in 20 years has been exponential,” Crooks said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Huge improvements in longevity

Prostate cancer has the highest long-term survival rate of all the common cancers. Yet longevity is getting better for cancer patients across the board. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds of Americans with invasive cancer are living five years or longer after diagnosis.

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10 Warning Signs for Cancer
If you experience any of these things persistently, make an appointment with your doctor:

  1. Unexplained weight loss
  2. Difficulty swallowing
  3. Chronic cough or hoarseness
  4. A lump anywhere
  5. Bleeding from anywhere
  6. A sore that doesn’t heal
  7. Change in the appearance of a mole
  8. Change in bowel habits
  9. Change in bladder activity
  10. Unexplained pain anywhere

Spectrum Health statistics reflect the national figures.

“When we look at the large number of patients in our Spectrum Health registry who have had cancer, we see survival rates that are equal to or better than the national statistics,” said Judy Smith, MD, chief of the Spectrum Health Cancer Center.

“These improvements in survival rates are significant, and I think we’re going to see the trend continue,” Dr. Smith said. “In the 1970s the chance of surviving cancer was only about 50 percent.”

The trend signals hope for anyone affected by cancer.

“I think it’s critically important that people understand we have made many advances in the treatment of cancer,” Dr. Smith said.

What’s behind the progress?

The CDC study is based on cases reported to the U.S. cancer registries in 2011, the year of the most recent data. The five-year survival rates for the most common types of invasive cancer reported were as follows:

  • 97 percent for prostate cancer
  • 88 percent for breast cancer
  • 63 percent for colon and rectal cancer
  • 18 percent for lung cancer

As to why cancer patients are living longer today, the CDC report points to improvements in both detection and treatment. Dr. Smith agrees, saying the vast majority of this progress comes from increased screening and early diagnosis.

“We have seen more emphasis on screening because of education and public awareness. For example, we have done colonoscopies for decades, but what has happened is that we are slowly increasing the colonoscopy rate,” Dr. Smith said. “Cancer is much more likely to be cured if it’s found in an early stage.”

Better screening tools—improved mammography and other diagnostic imaging tests—also play a role in early cancer detection, she said.

Advances in treatment options are helping the survival rate, too. “We have more targeted therapies and more effective, personalized therapies in treating many of the different types of cancers,” Dr. Smith said.

And then there’s the role that supportive care plays. “We have been more effective in helping people through the treatment, and improving the quality of life during treatment,” Dr. Smith said.

‘Real hope’

Crooks has seen all of these improvements firsthand through his involvement in various ways with doctors and patients:

Bill Crooks is shown inside the Lemmen Holton Cancer Pavilion on the Spectrum Health downtown campus. Crooks has remained cancer free for more than 20 years after have his prostrate removed and he now mentors men facing prostate cancer. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)
Bill Crooks is shown inside the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion on the Spectrum Health Medical Center campus. Crooks has remained cancer free for more than 20 years and now mentors men facing prostate cancer. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

“I’ve seen wonderful improvements. What is going on in MUSIC and what I’ve seen at Spectrum Health gives me real hope for those who are following in my path,” Crooks said.

As evidence, Crooks points to the multispecialty teams for cancer care and the counseling that is available to Spectrum Health patients and family. “I like the way they treat the whole patient—not just the disease but the effects of the disease,” he said.

“Cancer is a reality in every family and because of what I know and my involvement, I’m not afraid of it,” he added.

But he cautions men who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer not to go it alone.

Seek out a mentor who has been through it—someone who’s been trained and who can speak from their experience,” Crooks said. “It may be one of the best decisions you can make before you make your final decision” about treatment options.

Doing your part

Dr. Smith isn’t satisfied discussing improved cancer longevity without talking about how to keep driving the death rate down. Turning the conversation back to cancer prevention and early detection, she delivers a message that’s crystal clear: “If it’s time for you to have a screening, then get it done. Maintain a healthy lifestyle, don’t smoke and talk to your primary care physician about your family history and your individual risk for cancer.”

The researchers behind the CDC report hope medical experts will use the data to improve their outreach to groups of people with higher cancer rates and lower survival rates. For the Spectrum Health Cancer Center, this is already an important area of focus, Dr. Smith said.

“The cancer center is reaching out to community groups and working extensively to try to increase access to screening,” she said. “We are identifying those groups who have a lower screening rate and reaching out to the underserved” to increase access to screening for breast cancer, cervical cancer, lung cancer and colorectal cancer. One example is the mammogram bus that visits sites throughout West Michigan.

Finally, Dr. Smith said, pay attention to your body and know how to recognize the 10 warning signs for cancer. Knowing the signs can give everyone a better shot at an early diagnosis.

To request a consultation or second opinion at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center, call 1.855.SHCANCER (855.742.2623).

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