Reaching the next level of cancer treatment could be Canada’s gift to the world
Cancer is the greatest health care crisis facing humanity over the next 20 years, says Dr. Miyo Yamashita, president and CEO of The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation in Toronto, noting the disease is Canada’s leading cause of death, and the second leading cause of death globally, in a world that is already facing other crises as a result of war and natural disasters.
“We’re at a very unique moment in history to truly transform cancer outcomes and the experience of cancer for patients. We must seize this opportunity, particularly in light of global geopolitical conflicts,” she says. “We’ll be incredibly remorseful as a global human community if, 10 years from now, we look back and say we failed to lean in.”
As Canada’s largest cancer charity, The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation raises funds for Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, one of the world’s top five cancer research centres.
Exclusively a cancer hospital where more than 18,000 patients are treated every year, the Princess Margaret’s research impacts and improves standards of cancer care across Canada and around the world.
The Princess Margaret relies on philanthropy to fund cutting-edge technology to give the very best care to patients, fund the salaries of scientists, and provide funding for research and clinical trials that it otherwise couldn’t do, says Dr. David Kirsch, an internationally renowned radiation oncologist and clinician-scientist recently appointed as head of the Radiation Medicine Program (RMP). He came from the U.S. this year with the support of philanthropy.
Dr. Yamashita points out that there have been significant advances in cancer treatments over the decades. Survival rates have increased from about 25 per cent in the 1940s to the average five-year net survival rate for all cancers of about 65 per cent in 2023, with some survival rates as high as 80 to 90 per cent depending on the type of cancer and the stage of the disease.
However, advances haven’t been made across the board, and some cancers have the same survival rates they had decades ago, says Dr. Kirsch, emphasizing the need for more research and the corresponding need for philanthropy to drive that research.
“We need to do much better with cancer screening,” he says. “There are new ways of detecting cancer in the blood. Cancer cells can shed circulating tumour DNA that can be detected in the blood even before a cancer appears on an imaging scan. And we need to work on making surgery, radiation therapy and systemic therapy with targeted drugs including immunotherapy better. Improvements in each of these pillars of cancer therapy will lead to improved outcomes for our patients.”
Dr. Yamashita says continuing to improve the patient experience for equity-seeking groups is also part of the challenge.
“If you come into any health-care setting in Ontario and don’t have English or French as a first language, that’s a challenge,” she says. “We also see patients with socioeconomic conditions that put them at a disadvantage in the cancer world – impacts such as timing for appointments if they don’t have flexibility with their jobs as an example, or if they can’t afford parking.”
We’re at a very unique moment in history to truly transform cancer outcomes and the experience of cancer for patients. We must seize this opportunity, particularly in light of global geopolitical conflicts.— Miyo Yamashita, President and CEO of The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation
Dr. Yamashita also anticipates a future with cancer vaccines, improvements in robotics in surgery, and a bigger role for “kinder, gentler more effective cancer treatments,” that can take the place of toxic chemotherapy.
“Or it could be more personalized drugs, [such as] a prescription to treat your cancer based on the molecular profile of your tumour or to prevent a cancer based on inherited mutations in genes in the normal cells, such as the BRCA breast cancer genes that can lead to cancer,” she says. “The really exciting thing is that it’s all within our grasp with the right level of investment and support in philanthropy.”
Reaching the next level of cancer treatment could be Canada’s gift to the world, adds Dr. Yamashita.
“The diversity of our patient population means we are going to be able to study and learn a lot more about cancer than some of the world’s other leading cancer centres,” she says.
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