November 14, 1995
Web posted at: 4:20 p.m. EST
From Medical Correspondent Jeff Levine
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A diagnosis of cancer once was the virtual equivalent of a death sentence. But now, some 8 million Americans are surviving the disease.
"When somebody has a diagnosis of cancer, it's not necessarily a death sentence," said Dr. Claudine Isaacs of Georgetown University. (108K AIFF sound or 108K WAV sound)
Neil Brennan is one cancer survivor. At age 44, he has been working hard to patch up his life since he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1993.
"The literature I could find at the time showed that the average was 32 weeks from diagnosis to death," he said.
It's estimated that one out of three Americans alive today will be diagnosed with cancer. But there are some success stories, such as a 10 percent decline in breast cancer cases and the rising number of cancer survivors. "Basically, a cancer survivor is anybody who has been diagnosed with cancer and is still alive," Brennan said.
If there is a "survivor movement," Peter Boonisar (13K JPEG image) is in the vanguard. In 1987, while in his early 40s, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Boonisar said that in the time immediately after the diagnosis he found he couldn't think very far ahead.
But within months, he was on a trek across Australia. "More people have walked on the moon than have walked across Australia with camels," Boonisar said. "It was a unique opportunity, and I was in the right place at the right time except for leukemia. I wasn't going to let that stop me."
Breakthroughs that start in labs are changing the picture for cancer patients. The odds are that a person with the disease will survive five years or longer. Only 25 years ago, just one-third survived that long.
"One of the most striking areas is childhood cancers," said the National Cancer Institute's Dr. Richard Klausner. "With a majority of all children that are stricken with cancer, they now can be cured."
Klausner points out that the way people approach their cancer makes a profound difference. "One of the great advances in medicine over the last 25 years is that the patient is no longer a passive recipient of treatment, but is now an active participant in all aspects," he said.
That attitude was obvious at the first National Congress of Cancer Survivorship in Washington this week.
The conference took its marching orders from retired Desert Storm commander Norman Schwarzkopf, 61, who was treated for prostate cancer last year. "It is so stupid that anybody should die of prostate cancer, because it can be detected," Schwarzkopf told the crowd. He ordered every man over 50 to get a yearly check-up. (178K AIFF sound or 178K WAV sound)
Whether the survivors are famous or obscure, their message is nonetheless compelling. Survival is sweet, but winning the war against cancer is the ultimate quest. "My mother died of breast cancer, five years after I was diagnosed," said cancer survivor Kathy LaTour. "So we're not winning it fast enough for me, because I have a 10-year-old, and my concern is what's going to happen to her?"
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