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Notable News: August 2018

The death of legendary singer Aretha Franklin received a lot of attention this month, but the cancer that killed her is in need of more awareness, say experts in a huffingtonpost.com article. The five year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is a very low eight percent. The disease often has no symptoms in the early stages, spreads early, is resistant to treatment, affects vital functions and, despite being thought of as rare, is increasing in frequency. However, there is some promising new research in the detection of pancreatic cancer (you’ll read about it in the next paragraph). Heightened awareness, funding, and research are needed to help combat this deadly disease. You can start by learning more here and, in case you missed it, you can find this month’s profile in which Alison Greenhill tells the story of her late husband’s experience with pancreatic cancer here.

The promising news is that a blood test could offer early screening for pancreatic and other cancers, according to research reported by dailymail.co.uk. In one study, scientists discovered that they can detect 95 percent of cancers through one blood test thanks to a protein produced by malaria parasites. When ten cancer cells were exposed to the protein, nine of them successfully attached to it. The test can also detect the cancers at any stage and help identify the aggressiveness of the disease. Among the cancers the test can detect are liver and pancreatic. Pancreatic cancer tends to have a low survival rate because it is often not found until the late stages of the disease. This blood test could allow for earlier detection. More can be learned about the potentially life-saving test here.

Another blood test has been found to detect melanoma with an 80 percent accuracy rate, says sciencealert.com. Caught early, the melanoma survival rate is 95 percent, but if it’s not detected early, chances for survival are below fifty percent. The test works by detecting antibodies that the body produces when melanoma forms. Currently, melanoma is detected through biopsies which are invasive and have a slightly lower accuracy rate than the blood test. The researchers hope to take the test to clinical trial and ultimately hope it will be used to detect the disease prior to biopsy in high-risk patients: those with fair skin, a lot of moles, and/or a family history of melanoma. More about this blood test can be found here. There is also a better way to determine which melanoma patients may benefit from immunotherapy. You can learn about that at axios.com here.

Another immunotherapy update comes from a recent study that may offer new insight into immunotherapy treatments, says geekwire.com. While immunotherapy has been a game-changer in treatment for many cancer patients, it doesn’t work at all for others and it can also come with some life-threatening side effects. Researchers set out to better understand the therapies and discovered how the components talk to each other in a process called signaling. It appears that the speed and strength of the signaling affect how the body responds to the treatment. It is the difference in the signaling that may help researchers find a way to reduce or eliminate the dangerous side effects and may also lead to making the treatments more effective. More information about this promising research can be found here.

As important as treatment is, keeping on top of when to be screened can be crucial to successful diagnosis and treatment. There are now more cervical cancer screening options for women aged 30 to 65, and you can learn about those at cnn.com here.

With all the positive research and advances in detection and treatment, it’s important to be aware that not all cancer patients have equal access to the best healthcare. It turns out that the disparities in minority health that we told you about here during National Minority Health month also apply to children. African American and Latino children are more likely to die from cancer, reports npr.org. Race and socio-economic status are factors. A comprehensive look at the research about the inequities in healthcare and survival rates for minority children can be found here.

Hopefully, the healthcare gap and survival rate can be narrowed because a new study shows that life is pretty good for most patients and survivors. The majority of current and former cancer patients who are 50 or older are happy, reports sciencedaily.com. The study showed that two-thirds of cancer patients fit the researchers description of complete mental health which was characterized by high levels of social and psychological well-being and being happy and/or satisfied with their daily lives. The cancer survivors were even happier with three-quarters of them meeting the complete mental health criteria. Learn more about this very happy study here.

Patient Profile: Jennifer Maxfield

Patient Profile

Jennifer Maxfield

Cervical Cancer

Jennifer Maxfield describes herself as a very private person. It’s hard for her to share her story. It’s emotional and it’s out of her comfort zone, but she’s starting to get a little more comfortable with it because she likes the idea of helping others. “That my story may be beneficial for someone else down the road is kind of cool for me,” she says.

If heeded, her story really is likely to help others. Hers is a cautionary tale, because her cancer is one that may have been preventable. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2016. She’d gone to the doctor on her lunch break for a routine gynecological check up and during the exam Jennifer recalls the doctor saying, “Whoah. That’s strange.” Her doctor brought some colleagues in to confirm her hunch and Jennifer was immediately referred to a cancer specialist.

A runner and avid tennis player, Jennifer was young and healthy and never expected a cancer diagnosis, but, “I’m healthy,” she says, “not diligent.” You see, it had been a few years since Jennifer had been to see a doctor. It had been long enough that even her boss noticed and it was at her boss’s suggestion that she’d gone for her exam that day.

The good news was that it was a relatively slow-growing cancer and it was isolated. Jennifer’s doctor felt positive that after treatment there would be no recurrence. She wouldn’t need chemotherapy and radiation, but she would need a radical hysterectomy. “It was the absolute recommendation,” Jennifer says. There was another surgery option, but due to the size of her cancer, the success rate was compromised and the cancer was likely to return and then spread. Neither Jennifer nor her doctor wanted to take that risk. Her surgery was October 2016, three months after diagnosis.

But, here’s the thing, Jennifer was 33 at the time she was diagnosed. She hadn’t yet had children and a hysterectomy meant she would not be able to get pregnant. That’s where it gets emotional for her. “That was the scariest moment when all my family left, when the doctor left and I was there coping with this drastic change,” she says. “It was a high price to pay.”

Jennifer doesn’t want anyone else to have to pay that price. She stresses the importance of going to the doctor for regular check ups, but she also emphasizes the need for awareness about the the human papillomavirus (HPV) which is the likely cause of her cancer. “It’s something kids can get vaccinated for,” she says. “You can prevent it.” Jennifer says she knows the vaccinations aren’t right for every family, but she hopes people will talk to their doctors and ask about the risks and possible prevention options for HPV.

Every once in a while the magnitude of what she had to give up strikes her, “but I don’t let myself get weighed down by that one thing,” she says. In fact, she says she feels really lucky and thankful for her family and her support network and she’s looking forward to her twin sister starting a family. “I’m hoping my sister gets pregnant,” she says. “I’d love to be an aunt.” She also hasn’t given up on motherhood. She and her sister are adopted so that feels like a very real option for her at some point.

In the meantime she sees her doctor every three months. At the two year mark she’ll do check ups every six months. She’s returned to running and tennis, she’s gone back to school, and she’s moving forward. “I just love my thirties,” she says. “I’m grateful for every single thing.”

Cervical Cancer Awareness Month Feature

January is National Cervical Health Awareness Month, so we wanted to shine a light on this disease. Nearly 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, but the disease can be preventable with vaccination and appropriate screening (Pap and HPV tests). It also can be cured when found early and treated. Women should start getting screened regularly, starting at age 21.

Two tests help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:

  • The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, which are cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
  • The HPV test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.

Pap Test

The Pap test is recommended for women between ages 21 and 65, and can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic. Women should start getting Pap tests regularly at age 21. If your Pap test results are normal, your doctor may say you can wait three years until your next Pap test. If you are 30 years old or older, you may choose to have an HPV test along with the Pap test. Your doctor can perform both the Pap and HPV tests at the same time. If your test results are normal, your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is very low. Your doctor may then say you can wait as long as five years for your next screening.

If you have a low income or do not have health insurance, you may be able to get a free or low-cost Pap test through CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Find out if you qualify.

HPV Vaccine

Get the HPV vaccine if you are in the age group for which it’s recommended. The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. HPV can also cause cancers of the penis in men, and anal and head and neck cancers in both men and women.

The HPV vaccine is recommended for preteens (both boys and girls) aged 11 to 12 years, but can be given as early as age 9 and until age 26.

Make an appointment today for your or your child’s vaccination. If you don’t have insurance, or your insurance does not cover vaccines, CDC’s Vaccines for Children program may be able to help.

For a full list of awareness months please visit our Cancer Awareness Calendar 2018.

What Can You Do?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests using this month to spread the word about important steps women can take to stay healthy.

Here are just a few ideas:

  • Encourage women to get their well-woman visit this year.
  • Let women know that most insurance plans must cover well-woman visits and cervical cancer screening. This means that, depending on their insurance, women can get these services at no cost to them.
  • Talk to parents about how important it is for their pre-teens to get the HPV vaccine. Both boys and girls need the vaccine.

How can I help spread the word?

We’ve made it easier for you to make a difference. This toolkit is full of ideas to help you take action today. For example:


Resources:

https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/dcpc/resources/features/cervicalcancer/index.htm

http://www.nccc-online.org/

https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/special-coverage/cervical-health-awareness-month.html

https://healthfinder.gov/NHO/JanuaryToolkit.aspx