Patients with a rare form of cancer are changing the language of cancer, both in the way treatment is approached and the way patients connect with each other. These patients – and their medical teams and supporters – are viewed by many as the future of cancer care and patient advocacy.
While the mainstream media focuses primarily on cancer cases treated through radiation and chemotherapy, the oncology community now includes patients with “treatable” cancers managed through highly targeted drug therapies. These new treatments cause less harm to patients, are reducing cancer mortality and offer strong hope to those with other forms of cancer.
The term “treatable cancer” is used to describe those that can be addressed through targeted drug therapy which the patients take for the rest of their lives, much as diabetics must take insulin to remain healthy. The best example currently of a treatable cancer is CML, also known as chronic myelogenous leukemia, chronic myeloid leukemia and chronic myelocytic leukemia.
CML, one of the four leukemias, is a slowly progressing cancer of the blood and bone marrow characterized by an overproduction of white blood cells. Normal cells are formed, mature, function, die, and are replaced with new cells. With CML the normal blood cell production process is disrupted. The white blood cells produce uncontrollably and do not mature to carry out their intended function and ultimately crowd out the healthy cells.
CML was the first cancer for which scientists were able to identify the genetic anomaly involved - the Philadelphia chromosome. This discovery led to the development of the first targeted cancer therapy through the drug Imatinib Mesylate (marketed as Gleevec and Glivec). According to Newsweek magazine, this “is singlehandedly responsible for increasing the number of CML patients who survive at least eight years, from 20 percent in the past to 80 percent today. Gleevec must be taken forever, and so in that sense is a treatment more than a cure.” Newsweek also noted that some patients develop resistance to Gleevec, and two additional drugs have now been developed for CML patients.