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The "Best" Cancer Is the One that Never Happens

Cancer affects millions of people each year, but it doesn’t have to be that way. From clinical trials to major public health campaigns, efforts to understand and communicate about cancer at every level are helping us refine prevention and screening methods, catch cancer sooner (and thus treat it sooner), and, ultimately, save more lives. 

From left, Drs. Worta McCaskill-Stevens, David Sidransky, and Susan Magasi.

Credit: National Cancer Institute

Dr. Worta McCaskill-Stevens

Codesigner of and participant in TMIST, an important breast cancer screening clinical trial

Practice what you preach. That’s exactly what Dr. Worta McCaskill-Stevens is doing by participating in the NCI-sponsored Tomosynthesis Mammographic Imaging Screening Trial (TMIST). The clinical trial, which she codesigned, is comparing 3-D and 2-D mammography to determine which is better for breast cancer screening. To Dr. McCaskill-Stevens, it’s a chance for all women, including herself, to take a more active role in thinking about their own screening and the implications of which technology to use. A clinician-turned-researcher and director of the NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP), Dr. McCaskill-Stevens found it difficult to leave direct clinical care but believes that research and clinical trials like TMIST can have a major impact on patients nationwide. Her work in breast cancer and with community-based clinical trials have won her many awards, including being named to EBONY magazine’s 2013 Power 100 list of the nation’s most influential African Americans in health and science.

Dr. David Sidransky

Performed pioneering research in using biomarkers to improve early detection of cancer

Examining stool samples—that’s the unpopular job Dr. David Sidransky took when he began researching biomarkers for early cancer detection. Motivated to make a difference and help people find cancer early, he went on to lead research detecting genetic mutations in bodily fluids like stool, urine, and blood. It began a revolution in cancer diagnosis, enabling the opportunity to use bodily fluids to detect some cancers before people develop symptoms. These early findings led to more discoveries, and in 2001, his award-winning work landed him in TIME magazine as one of the top physicians and scientists in the United States. Currently, Dr. Sidransky is focused on finding genetic changes in smoking-associated tumors. With an eye toward the future, he hopes there will eventually be a blood test available that can earlier detect most of the common cancers.

Dr. Susan Magasi

Reducing barriers to cancer screening for women with disabilities

Women with disabilities are 22% less likely to be screened for breast cancer. Wanting to learn why, Dr. Susan Magasi found barriers like mammography machines that don’t adjust to the bodies of women with physical disabilities and a lack of provider knowledge around supporting people with disabilities. Determined to expand screening access, Dr. Magasi created ScreenABLE Saturday, an annual wellness fair featuring free, accessible mammograms and activities for women with disabilities like adaptive yoga, healthy cooking demos, manicures, and more. She hopes that ScreenABLE Saturday becomes a model for creating inclusive health care spaces. Eager to ensure a future where all people can easily access cancer screenings and care, Dr. Magasi also partnered with people with disabilities to develop evidence-based educational films for providers, as well as apps that connect cancer survivors with disabilities to one another and empower them to proactively manage any long-term effects of cancer and its treatment.

From left, Kathy Crosby and Dr. Eduardo Vilar-Sanchez (Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center)

Kathy Crosby

Led multiple, award-winning tobacco cessation marketing and communications campaigns

Decades ago, the ad industry glamorized and popularized cigarettes and tobacco use. Now, Kathy Crosby is working to turn that around, harnessing the power of advertising in multiple public health campaigns like the “The Real Cost” (FDA’s first-ever national youth tobacco prevention effort) to convince teens to stop smoking or prevent them from ever starting. Smoking increases the risk of many cancers like lung, head and neck, and bladder cancer. Crosby and her team analyzed what teenagers care about most and combined that with persuasive advertising to prevent nearly 600,000 teenagers from ever smoking in just the first two years of the campaign. That translates to fewer addicted adults, $53 billion saved in future medical costs, and fewer smoking-related cancer diagnoses. Emphasizing a powerful but empathetic marketing approach, Crosby is using the art and science of behavior-change advertising and decades of experience to make a significant impact on public health.

Dr. Eduardo Vilar-Sanchez

Developing a new potential cancer vaccine currently beginning human clinical trials

A new cancer prevention vaccine could be on the horizon, and Dr. Eduardo Vilar-Sanchez is leading the team developing it. The vaccine is for people with Lynch syndrome—a hereditary condition that greatly increases someone’s risk of colorectal and other cancers and often affects multiple family members. The vaccine works by training the immune system to attack cells that contain specific cancer-associated proteins. Dr. Vilar-Sanchez, who has cared for patients with Lynch syndrome his entire career, has been frustrated by the few cancer prevention options available to families. His patients’ stories motivate him and he’s excited for this vaccine’s potential to truly help an entire family. Soon, the vaccine will be tested in clinical trials, but Dr. Vilar-Sanchez is hopeful, not just for his patients, but for the potential of his work to lead to vaccines for other cancer syndromes.

The National Cancer Act of 1971 opened the door to breakthroughs in cancer screening, prevention, and early detection. Find out more about the act.

50 Years of Cancer Prevention

Screenings, vaccinations, and precision medicine are all making a difference in cancer prevention. Listen to Healthcast’s National Cancer Act podcast series to learn more.