Cancer Survivors Celebrate Their Cancerversary

“Cancer Survivors Celebrate Their Cancerversary.” by Bruce Feiler, The New York Times.

The concept of the five-year survival rate for cancer was introduced in the 1930s. Initially, the designation was used for blood cancers, which grow fast and were extremely lethal at the time, said Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer specialist at Columbia University Medical Center and the author of “The Emperor of All Maladies,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. For those patients, reaching five years was considered something of a miracle. “The idea was you could define a time point where it would make sense to think about that cancer as being cured,” Dr. Mukherjee said. “From there it crept backward into all cancers.”

By the 1950s, five-year survival figures were becoming standard, and by the early 1970s the National Cancer Institute began releasing regular statistics for most forms of the disease. In the face of such authoritative endorsement, the public accepted these figures as meaningful. But from the very beginning, many scientists were uneasy with grouping all forms of cancer under one metric of survival. “Five years is quite an arbitrary number,” said Julia Rowland, the director of the National Cancer Institute Office of Cancer Survivorship. “For some cancers, if you haven’t had a recurrence in two years, your rate of recurrence drops considerably. For others, like breast cancer, you can have a recurrence at any time.”

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