Innovative cancer treatments saved my life. New screening tech could help save countless more

Cancer survivor is a term everyone is familiar with today – whether you know one or are one yourself. But when I had my first diagnosis in 1969 it was not a familiar term. Progress was very limited, but treatments that emerged in the 1970s began to turn the tide. These advances were a direct result of clinical trials and collaborative efforts in the research community.

Diagnosed with a neuroblastoma at 16 months old, I was not expected to live. Fortunately, it was a time when new treatments were being tested and I was a child who would become part of a new generation of cancer survivors. Unfortunately, treatment came with a set of other issues. In 1983 at age 15, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma caused by the radiation treatment that had originally saved my life. I was treated again with surgery, radiation and chemo and miraculously survived. I was fortunate to be born in Boston, one of the centers of innovative research, and had access to the best treatment available.

Someday, when history is written about how we ended cancer, Massachusetts will be featured prominently. Many of the important breakthroughs in cancer treatments have been, and are continuing to, be discovered in our state. From our research hospitals and universities to innovative life science companies, the nation’s greatest minds are focusing on how to beat this disease.

Even though there’s great promise, cancer mortality rates remain far too high. A main reason for this is limitations in how early we’re able to detect most cancers. To date, only five cancers have early detection screenings – breast, cervical, colorectal, high-risk lung, and prostate – but seven of every 10 cancer deaths come from a variation of the disease for which we don’t have screening technologies.

I was diagnosed at stage IV. Had they been detected earlier it's possible I would have needed less treatment, or a less toxic type, and wouldn’t be as sick today. As cancer survival rates have skyrocketed, so have numerous survivors dealing with “late effects” and a myriad of health-related issues. Earlier detection can not only help to save lives, but it will also lead to improved quality of life for cancer survivors.

I’ve experienced a full life because of my cancer treatment. I went to college, had a fulfilling career in patient services and have been happily married for 24 years. However, my survival came at a price. Many of the treatments that allowed me to survive also affected my health. Today I live with what are referred to as “late effects” from treatment. I have end stage kidney disease, chronic pain, heart, and lung issues among other problems. At only 53, I’ve had to go on disability and my quality of life is limited.

The next generation of cancer survivors – which will be bigger because of more lives saved – will also hopefully experience a life with fewer treatment effects, thanks to promising early detection technologies in development.

Large-scale clinical testing has been taking place at premier research institutions including the Dana Farber Cancer Institute on new early detection technologies that utilize cutting-edge genomic research and machine learning to detect the DNA traces that cancerous tumors shed in the bloodstream.

From a single blood draw, physicians would be able to learn not only that their patient has cancer, even if they are asymptomatic, but also an accurate prediction of where the tumor is. This can be transformative. Not only does it help fill in existing gaps in the current cancer screening infrastructure, but its portability can also bring cancer screenings to populations that lack easy access to specialists, who typically administer existing screenings.

Once these technologies are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the next step is accessibility, including for our nation’s seniors. Currently, Medicare isn’t able to cover new preventative technologies like cancer screenings in a timely manner, but Congress, including our very own Rep. James P. McGovern, is working to change that.

The Medicare Multi-Cancer Early Detection Screening Act would create a pathway for Medicare to cover these new screening technologies as soon as the FDA declares them safe and effective. This is a common-sense measure that will prevent a coverage gap from costing lives.

What’s happening today in academic and medical research centers throughout Massachusetts is monumental. We’re opening new fronts in the War on Cancer – fronts that represent a sea change in a war that’s gone on for far too long. This generation of policymakers can change history and make these advances accessible for all.

Lynne Morin is a patient advocate and survivor of cancer and kidney disease. She resides in Shrewsbury.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Innovative cancer treatments saved my life. New screening tech could save more