Over the past few years, treatments have only gotten better, including a better understanding of how to harness the immune system to fight the cancer; more targeted drugs that interfere with the cancer while leaving healthy cells alone; and treatments that are based on specific genetic characteristics of the cancer.
Just this year, for example, there have been major advances in treating melanoma, Blackburn noted. In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved ipilimumab, a new drug to treat advanced melanoma. In August, a second melanoma drug, vemurafenib, was also approved. Both have been shown to improve survival rates among those with melanoma skin cancer dramatically.
And yet, there is a long way to go, experts said. Cancer remains a major cause of death, and certain cancers -- pancreatic, ovarian and lung, for example -- remain very deadly and are often caught after they've already spread, making them more difficult to treat, Blackburn said.
"What we can see is great triumphs in some areas, and work to be done in some of the most feared ones, like pancreatic cancer," Blackburn said. "That has been a tough one, probably because it lies undetected in your body for a number of years."
Over the past couple of decades, many of the advances in treating cancer stem from molecular biology, which is unlocking the genetics of tumors that has led to an "explosion of knowledge" about how cancer grows, said report co-chair Dr. Judy Garber, president of the AACR and director of the Center for Cancer Genetics and Prevention at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Forty years ago, "we had some drugs for cancer, but we didn't understand very much about why they worked or how they worked, or what made cancer behave the way that it does," she said. "Then people began to find ways to study molecular biology of the body, what makes cancer tick, and we learned that cancer is fundamentally a set of genetic diseases. Not t
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