Cancer is a treatable and curable illness. A diagnosis of cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence, and it isn’t necessarily a permanent illness. There have been many advancements in the area of cancer treatments, and a paradigm shift in how we diagnose, treat and even cure cancer has occurred.

Yet society in general is unaware of these major advancements. The media, in particular, focuses on bad news, especially celebrities who have lost their battle with cancer. Fear of the disease and lack of awareness about the progress we’ve made negatively affect the way co-workers and others perceive cancer survivability.

Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML) is a cancer success story we should celebrate. CML is a rare form of blood cancer that, up until recently, was almost always fatal. Today, the disease is treatable, manageable and may even be thought of as curable. This disease has changed the way we look at, treat and live with cancer. It has also become the role model for other cancers.

CML is an orphan disease, affecting one in 100,000 people; an estimated 3,200 Canadians live with this disease. Some 450 Canadians will be diagnosed with CML this year, while 50 Canadians will die of it. It often strikes midlife, although younger patients are now being diagnosed. In an important break-through, researchers discovered that the disease is associated with chromosomal translocation: chromosomes 9 and 22 exchange some genetic material and form a new chromosome, known as the Philadelphia Chromosome. Risk of CML is increased with exposure to radiation, but there is no specific
known cause.

Just 12 years ago, a diagnosis of CML came with a prognosis of a 50% chance
of dying within five years after diagnosis. But from 2001 to 2006, the annual death rate dropped by 74%. This dramatic improvement in mortality rates is directly attributable to the development
of the drug Gleevec. Unlike chemotherapy, Gleevec is admini-stered orally on an out-patient basis, allowing many individuals to continue with their normal daily routines of work, school or caring for a family. However, the lack of serious adverse effects sometimes leads to a tendency to underplay the disease, diminished adherence to treatment and relapse. In order to be effective, the drug must be taken as prescribed.

Combining Gleevec with other therapies may hasten the onset of complete molecular response, possibly helping patients to achieve progression-free/drug-free sustainable remission.
A recent article in The Lancet suggested that some patients treated with Gleevec may be able to eventually stop therapy.

Today, patients with CML can expect to live a normal life span. But Gleevec
is not inexpensive. Treatments cost $35,000 to $75,000 per year for an undetermined period of time, and not all Canadians have equitable access
to them.

Even if an employer covers 80% of drug costs, the price may be out of reach for many patients. On the other hand, while patients take the drugs, they continue to work, pay taxes, raise and support their children—and are full-fledged members of society.

Cheryl-Anne Simoneau is president and CEO of the Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia Society of Canada.

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Back to more coverage from the 2011 Cancer Care Summit, hosted by Working Well.

Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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