Early detection and treatment helps more people than ever survive cancer

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A cancer diagnosis can change anyone’s world, but now more than ever, a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.

“People are living longer in general and that includes cancer survivors,” said Vipra Sharma, MD, MPH, an oncologist at Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport. “We have 17 million cancer survivors in the United States and that number is expected to rise to 22 million by 2030.”

The overall five-year cancer survival rate in 1979 was 49% and has since risen to 70%. The reason? Early detection and treatment.

“We have better screenings, including mammograms, colonoscopies and pap smears,” Dr. Sharma said. “We started using surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy in different ways. We have new drugs, such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy, that prolong and save lives.

Dr. Sharma said it’s important to see your primary care provider every year to make sure you’re up to date on screenings.

“It is now recommended to have a colonoscopy earlier, at age 45,” Dr. Sharma said. “Many patients don’t understand why a colonoscopy is important. I try to explain that this is one of the few tests where we can prevent cancer. It’s unfortunate to meet patients who have never had a colonoscopy because they never knew it had to be done.

Although we have come a long way with early detection and treatments, there is still work to be done, especially for patients who have survived cancer.

“Chemotherapy treatments impact quality of life,” Dr. Sharma said. “Some patients suffer from fatigue or long-term pain. This can affect their professional life and their emotional and psychological well-being.

Cancer survivors are at risk of recurrence or of developing other cancers. Ongoing monitoring by an oncologist and lifestyle changes such as healthy diet, exercise, and regular cancer screenings are recommended.

The Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute Survivor Program offers a wide range of resources, including:

  • A specially trained APRN helps patients with care plans that include a personalized list of potential problems.
  • Psychologists and social workers offer counseling to help patients cope with the emotional impact of the experience.
  • Diet advice.
  • Smoking cessation.
  • Integrative medicine such as massage therapy, yoga, acupuncture and Reiki to help manage the physical and emotional effects of treatment.

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