When Mary Craige found a lump on her breast during a self-exam in the shower nearly six years ago, she wasn’t immediately concerned.
She was a new mother with a six-month old son at home, and in relatively good health. Because of her age, then 34, she said her breast surgeon didn’t think it was likely that the lump would be cancerous either. Indeed, fewer than 5 percent of new female breast cancer diagnoses occur in women under 40.
Unfortunately, a biopsy and further tests revealed that Craige had Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma, a common type of breast cancer that afflicts more than 180,000 women in the United States each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Nine months later, after six rounds of chemotherapy, 34 rounds of radiation, and one lumpectomy, Craige was a cancer survivor.
Nationwide, there are more than 14 million men, women, and children just like Craige – people living after being diagnosed with cancer. And that number is only expected to grow over the next several decades, ballooning to more than 24 million people by 2025, due to advances in early detection methods and treatment options, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number of cancer survivors isn’t just now beginning to increase – it’s been on the rise for decades, and has grown four-fold since the War on Cancer in the United States began in 1971, according to Dr. Natasha Buchanan, a behavioral scientist with the CDC. People in general are living longer lives nowadays, but Buchanan said advances in early detection, treatment, and clinical trials have also helped push the numbers up.
Those advances have come continuously over the last several decades. Paul Marks, a 1991 recipient of the National Medal of Science, developed a way to control cancer cell proliferation. Harold Varmus, a 2001 recipient of the National Medal of Science and former director of the National Cancer Institute, with Michael Bishop discovered the growth-controlling oncogenes in normal cells, which informed researchers’ knowledge about how tumors develop. And in 2012, Arthur Levinson received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his work with another researcher that led to the creation of Herceptin, a type of antibody that is now used to treat breast cancer and other types of cancer.
Today, some companies are even exploring the development of chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, or CAR T-cells, which can be altered and introduced back into patients’ blood streams to seek out and kill cancer cells.
“Prior to 1970, if you were a child and you were diagnosed with leukemia or another type of cancer, your hope of survival was really low,” Buchanan says.