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America’s Cancer Survivor Dilemma

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Dramatic improvements in cancer detection, treatment and technology over the last 40 years means more Americans than ever before are living with, and beyond, their cancer diagnosis.

In 1971, the year the National Cancer Act was signed into law, there were about 3 million survivors. America’s commitment to increase its cancer survivor population through the expansion of research, training programs and public education have been, by all accounts, a success.

By 2008, the number of survivors had grown to nearly 12 million. At the current pace, the number of survivors is expected to reach more that 18 million by 2020.

Remarkable gains have been realized in breast cancer in women, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer. Researchers attribute this high survival to improved detection and screening.

In part, the increase in future cancer survivorship will be credited to new therapies and less invasive procedures, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

As America’s Baby boomers move into retirement age over the next decade, the population of cancer survivors, age 65 or older, is expected to increase by approximately 42 percent. These numbers could strain an already burdened medical system.

“We can expect a dramatic increase in the number of older adults who are diagnosed with or carry a history of cancer,” Julia Rowland, Ph.D., director of the Office of Cancer Survivorship in the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) said in a written statement.

There are about 76 million boomers, the generation of people born after World War II in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964. Boomers comprise 29 percent of the total U.S. population and the first turn age 65 this year.

As the population ages, the absolute number of people treated for cancer will increase faster than the overall population, and cancer prevalence will increase relative to other disease categories — even if cancer incidence rates remain constant or decrease somewhat, according to NCI.

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