10/6/2015 by Share Your Story

Why “highly curable cancer” is no longer a surprise

As a result of innovation, lymphoma is now a highly curable form of cancer -- a major statement about how far we have come in the development of new treatments.

Many were no doubt startled when Lloyd Blankfein, the Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs announced he has been diagnosed with lymphoma. What is almost as striking is that he next added, “Fortunately, my form of lymphoma is highly curable”?

Lymphoma is a form of cancer, yet saying it is “highly curable cancer” seems so natural these days. Do we give a second thought about what this really means?

In short, it means that innovation has rocketed forward to develop therapies that can save lives. It also means that access to these medicines (for Blankfein at least) is within his reach. That’s a cause for celebration.

But not every patient is as lucky. That’s a cause for concern.

Our friends at the Lymphoma Research Foundation say that most patients with a class of lymphoma called Hodgkin lymphoma live long and healthy lives following successful treatment. Even with a form of the cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma, 30 to 60 percent of patients with an aggressive disease can be cured.

Read that again: Cured.

Are we so nonchalant that we take the concept of a cure for granted? The fact is it took decades of research, improved diagnostics and advanced clinical trials to get where we are today.

According to the American Society of Hematology, Hodgkin lymphoma was first described in 1832, but it took more than 100 years for the first early stage patients to be cured. The first cures of advanced Hodgkin lymphoma didn’t come until 1964.

Back then, harsher treatments could cause serious side effects, some not apparent for decades, including sterility and secondary cancers. This was all the more serious because lymphoma can strike children, adolescents and young adults who potentially have years left to live with the aftermath of their treatment.

So more research and more rigorous clinical trials were needed, all requiring greater investment to fund the work and greater discovery to understand its meaning.

It paid off. Today, chemotherapy is more tolerable, radiation is more targeted and we are moving beyond those initial treatments to targeted therapies with greater potential and fewer side effects.

It shows how far we have come that when Lloyd Blankfein says his lymphoma is “highly curable cancer,” the response is more a knowing shrug than a look of shock. This is ultimately a good thing, but we should remember it came about after decades of arduous research and the extraordinary bravery of patients who fought this long and noble struggle.

Every patient may not be an economist (or even a Wall Street titan), but they all know that “highly curable cancer” did not get here, in any way, free or easily. We should also realize that without access, these medicines might as well not exist at all.

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