Despite all the advances that science and medicine have made against cancer, the disease remains a nasty foe.
The announcement this month by the Christ St. Vincent Regional Medical Center that it would build an $80 million cancer center on its main campus reflects the growing number of cancer cases and the ongoing allocation of resources against it. As populations grow and age, cancer cases and deaths in New Mexico and the United States continue to rise.
Diagnosis today is generally far from a death sentence, but the word “cancer” continues to inspire fear.
“It’s terrifying,” said 80-year-old Ed Wolff, an Albuquerque man who has been being treated for more than a week for one of the many rare, hard-to-pronounce cancers — Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia
Without science and his cancer doctor Malcolm Purdy, Wolff would probably be dead already, Wolff suspects.
“I know it kills people, but definitely not as many as it used to,” Wolff said of the disease.
He choked. “I feel like I live because of Dr. purdy.”
Purdy, an oncologist at Albuquerque-based Lovelace Health System, called this an incredible time in cancer care. “The drugs we have now are remarkable,” he said. He quoted musician Paul Simon: “These are the days of lasers in the jungle.”
Purdy said vaccines for certain cancers are in clinical trials, but he didn’t want to overestimate their potential. “Buyers beware,” he said. “Let’s wait for the data.”
The odds are surprisingly good—that is, bad—that one will have an intimate encounter with cancer. The American Cancer Society said in an article published this month that the odds of getting cancer at some point in life in the United States are more than 1 in 3.
Patti Watson, who runs a public relations agency in Albuquerque, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. The disease was treated with removal of the lump and radiation.
“It’s scary,” said Watson, 62. “It makes you think about what you’re going to do.” She wondered if she would have to stop working, feared her hair would fall out and feared it would affect her relationship with her husband. The answer to each was no.
Watson learned the chances of a second fight in her case were slim. But the odds failed her, and breast cancer paid her a second visit in 2013. This time, treatments included a double mastectomy, breast reconstruction, and being on a chemotherapy pill for seven years.
Today, she said, she is fine, working, still married and grateful. “And I had a really good medical team,” she said.
Las Cruces’ Jan Lavin suffered a bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma seven years ago and had to go through it all again last year. This time the chemotherapy caused her hair to fall out.
“Some of this chemo is hard. It’s not for sissies,” said Lavin, 84. She said a brother died of cancer when she was 11 and her mother survived breast cancer.
“So I was really just expecting it, maybe,” she said. “It’s not a happy story at all, this cancer.”
But dr Jason A. Call, a radiation oncologist at Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces, said he’s seen progress since leaving Mayo Clinic’s residency program in Minnesota 10 years ago.
And one of the elements scientists and doctors are working on, Call said, is getting good results with fewer chemo and radiation treatments, making those therapies less grueling.
The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 11,030 new cancer cases in New Mexico this year and 1.9 million Americans will have new cases. That compares to 1.4 million Americans diagnosed 15 years ago, the organization said at the time, including 8,030 New Mexico residents.
About 3,830 New Mexico residents and 609,360 Americans are expected to die from cancer this year, up from 3,270 and 559,650, respectively, in 2007, the Cancer Society reported.
The Cancer Society warns that its yearbooks contain only estimates and that comparing statistics from year to year is tricky because they are “model-based and vary from year to year for reasons other than changes in cancer incidence.”
But it also says: “These much-cited projections serve as a basis for research and are also easily understood by the public.”
An aging and growing population is leading to more cancer cases and deaths in this country, making year-on-year comparisons somewhat fallacious.
The Cancer Society reported that cancer deaths increased during much of the 20th century due to the spread of cigarette smoking. Reducing tobacco use and better early detection of some types of cancer have led to a decline in the cancer rate from 215 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 146 per 100,000 in 2019.
Improving tools to fight the disease has also helped. dr Bryan Goss, a radiation oncologist at Christ St. Vincent, said there have been great advances in cancer treatment.
“Technology has enabled us to do things we never dreamed of,” Goss said last week.
At the same time, he was describing young mothers who had been battling breast cancer for years, and he became mildly emotional as he spoke about these patients. There are good days and bad for them, good months and bad months, he said, and choosing oncology as a specialty means there are gains and losses.
But especially in radiation oncology, Goss said, there have been improvements in recent years that have made treatment more effective. For example, specialists can now “merge” the image from an MRI with that of a CT scan and get a clearer view of a tumor.
Goss said the new Christ St. Vincent Cancer Center, which is expected to be completed in early 2024, will also contain the “next generation” of a form of treatment technology called a linear accelerator, which aims radiation precisely at the tumor.
He and others said genomic testing will enable doctors to more clearly identify the genes involved in a patient’s cancer and have a better idea of how to treat them.
“I think we’re getting there,” Goss said. “And there will always be more arrows in our quiver as we discover Crab’s weakness.”
The coming battle
dr Bernard Agbemadzo, medical director of Presbyterian Cancer Care, agreed that advances in surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are to come.
Immunotherapies, which have been around commercially for about 10 years, have the ability to trigger the immune system to attack the cancer cells and spare healthy cells, he said.
These therapies, some of which are advertised on television, can extend patients’ lives. “We use the immunotherapies mainly to keep the cancer in check,” he said.
Christ St. Vincent plans to consolidate multiple programs such as radiation and medical oncology, diagnostic imaging, laboratory services and palliative care under one roof at its 72,000-square-foot cancer center. The hospital’s 45,000-square-foot cancer center is now off-site near St. Francis Drive and Zia Road.
Lillian Montoya, CEO and President of Christ St. Vincent, said the two-story facility will have plenty of natural light and a staff sensitive to how lonely the cancer’s “journey” can be.
It should be a comfortable place that’s easy to get around, Montoya said, with corners for family members to snuggle up with loved ones and for the patient and their family to meet with caregivers. Just as the center will be more than a place, Montoya and others said, care will address both emotional and physical needs.
A center at the hospital, officials said, will allow Christ St. Vincent to start afresh.
“We’re doing our best to envision cancer treatment in five or 10 years,” said Genevieve Tarnow, director of the Christ St. Vincent Cancer Center. It’s an exciting time in cancer care.
“I feel like it’s not a death sentence anymore – and I hate using the word. And it changes almost daily,” she said. “We actively participate in clinical trials and are constantly finding clinical trials that have a lot of hope for patients.”
The enemy is formidable. Cancer is the second leading cause of death after heart disease, says the Cancer Society. It is also the second leading cause of death in children aged 1 to 14 after accidents.
Breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers are expected to cause the most cases this year, the society reported, with lung, colon and pancreas cancers causing the most deaths.
The hard fight
Agbemadzo said in some cases the goal is to treat the cancer like a chronic disease like diabetes. “We’ve started to use the World Cure very, very selectively,” he said.
Ed Wolff was on some sort of plasma exchange infusion for years. Purdy predicted 20 years ago that a pill would come to suppress Wolff’s disease, the patient said, and it came true.
He said he has many other problems, including a lung condition that requires him to have oxygen 24 hours a day. But he goes ahead and says, “I feel great.”
Patti Watson’s second battle with breast cancer came as a shock, of course.
“Oh no, here we go again,” she said to herself. The double mastectomy was tough.
“But now I’m fine and fine,” Watson said. She advised people to keep up to date with their doctors on cancer screening, as the impact the disease can have is undeniable.
“I lost my father to cancer, I lost my mother to cancer, and I lost my aunt to cancer,” she said. “Cancer is still a loaded term.”
Jan Lavin survived tough chemotherapy at the end of 2021. She has not minimized the challenge presented by the disease and treatment.
“I’m glad I’m doing so well considering what I’ve been through,” she said. “And you gotta put on your big girl pants…you gotta be a fighter.”