- Bringing Cancer Care to Those who Don't Have It
I have been treating cancer patients in the Harvard Medical School hospitals since 1977, and in those 35 years we have made tremendous progress. Though work still needs to be done, and far too many patients still die of cancer, many are cured. In particular, children and young adults have a high rate of cure from such diseases as Hodgkin's lymphoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and childhood sarcoma. Patients with breast cancer in the US have a greater than 80% chance for long-term survival. The death rate from cervical cancer in the US is very low. These results have been achieved by making diagnoses earlier, in many cases surgical excision, and often systemic therapies such as chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, radiation therapy, and more recently by using so-called "targeted" therapies—those directed at particular molecular characteristics of the cancer cells.
Princess Dina Mired has said that the opportunity to survive cancer should not be an accident of geography. In cases where we already have effective and inexpensive tools to cure cancer, these treatments should be considered a basic human right, a life-saving medical service.
I met Patty, a young woman living in the U.S. during November of her senior year in high school, after she discovered a small lump above her left collar bone. Though she felt entirely well, she called her primary care doctor who saw her the next day, felt the enlarged lymph node, and referred her to a surgeon, who did a biopsy later that week. Her primary care doctor also called me, and we scheduled a visit when the pathology results were available. The following week the pathologist notified Patty's pediatrician that the biopsy showed Hodgkin's lymphoma. When I met Patty, she was a bright and focused young woman, waiting to hear about her college applications and enjoying her senior year. Her cancer diagnosis was completely out of context with her life as she planned it, but with the support of her family and boyfriend, she seemed prepared to take things one step at a time. A PET CT scan demonstrated a modest mass in the mediastinum (chest), but no other disease. She was in an early stage of the disease with an excellent prognosis. We recommended and administered six months of chemotherapy with doxorubicin, bleomycin, vinblastine, and dacarbazine—four chemotherapy agents that are off-patent, and relatively inexpensive. She lost her hair, not a trivial issue for her, but otherwise felt reasonably well during the treatment. She was determined to graduate with her classmates, and was able continue to attend school and keep up with her work. In June, seven months into her cancer diagnosis and treatment, she graduated with honors, and was on track to enroll in college in September.
Like other 18-year-old women with Hodgkin's lymphoma, Patty had an over 80% chance for cure with the potential for a long and productive life ahead of her because we could perform a biopsy, make a diagnosis, and safely and effectively treat her with four inexpensive, off-patent, chemotherapy drugs. She had nearly the same likelihood of living a long and fruitful life as her classmates, and had the same chances for childbearing. In my line of work, with the knowledge we now possess, to allow someone like Patty to die without a chance of curative care is simply unacceptable. Treatment of curable cancers should be considered on par with the right to clean water, adequate nutrition, treatment for infectious disease, and access to maternal and child healthcare services.
But in many places in the world, people with cancers we could easily eradicate in Boston have no access to cancer services, and do die unnecessarily. The local healthcare infrastructure has no [End Page E10] capacity to evaluate a patient, perform or process a biopsy, make a diagnosis, or treat the patient with potentially curative surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I have rounded on the wards of hospitals in developing countries, stopping to talk with numerous patients like Patty: young women, some of whom might have had Hodgkin's lymphoma, but no...