Earlier Detection Needed to Take Chance Out of Cancer Survival

Ed McLaughlin thought he was in the best shape of his life. The president of a Denver-based oil and gas energy company, McLaughlin had just completed a 100-mile bicycle ride and a half-marathon. But a routine blood test found otherwise. It revealed he had a rare blood cancer, chronic myeloid leukemia.

Chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, impacts about 5,000 people in the United States each year. McLaughlin had known a close friend whose brother died of CML in the 1990s and wasn’t optimistic. “I felt it was a death sentence,” he said.

McLaughlin is one of the lucky ones. Even though he didn’t have any symptoms, his cancer was caught early enough to be treated effectively. Many others aren’t as fortunate.  This year, World Cancer Day is focused on the need to improve access to cancer detection. Early cancer detection, catching lethal forms of the disease before they gain a foothold in the body, is one of the most pressing needs in cancer care today and is essential to improving survival.

The Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) is committed to transforming early detection just as it revolutionized cancer treatment by proving it was possible to shut down just the part of a cell that is malfunctioning and causing cancer. It is assembling a team of world-class scientists to focus solely on identifying the early signs of lethal forms of cancer so the disease can be treated when it is most curable.

This goal inspired Nike co-founder Phil Knight and his wife Penny to pledge $500 million to the institute if OHSU raised an equal amount in two years.

“The cancer detection tools and technologies we have today are imprecise and haven’t kept pace with advances in treatment. We need to be able to distinguish changes in the body that signal a lethal cancer is developing. With that knowledge, we will be able to intervene when the disease is most treatable while avoiding unnecessary interventions,” said Tomasz Beer, M.D., M.A.C.P., deputy director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

The survival rate for breast cancer patients, whose disease is caught at stage one,  is nearly 100 percent after five years, compared with 24 percent for those whose disease is detected when it is in stage-four.  Prostate cancer has a similar detection and survival profile.

McLaughlin’s cancer journey, which began with his CML diagnosis in 2008, illustrates how a deeper understanding of the origins of a cancer is central to detection, treatment and survival.

Brian Druker, M.D., director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, proved that if scientists can uncover what drives a cancer’s growth, they can develop drugs to stop it.   His research led to the development of Gleevec®, the first treatment of its kind.

McLaughlin reached out to Druker soon after being diagnosed. At the time, his disease had progressed. He went from having no symptoms to sleeping 17 hours a day because of his fatigue. He conferred with Druker and opted to take Gleevec, a once-a-day pill.

After taking time off from training to acclimate to Gleevec, McLaughlin was able to get his life back.  He has run six marathons since being diagnosed and, in 2012, completed an Ironman triathlon— finishing in the top 20 percent of his age group. “It was very emotional,” McLaughlin said. “I wasn’t going to let this disease get the best of me.”

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