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Erin Anderssen on Cancer: A Day in the Life

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Erin Anderssen: Hi Barbara -- Thank you for your kind note. As I have said, it was remarkable to me how willing people were to come forward and tell their stories. Like you, I also thought, as I was interviewing them and writing the piece, how differently I would handle a friend or family member getting cancer. We get very nervous talking about death when people who are facing it really need someone to listen to them. That was one theme that came out over and over again in my interviews: just how lonely the disease makes you feel.

Susan MacDonald from Amherst, Canada writes: When an individual is given a diagnosis of terminal cancer by conventional methods, why is our healthcare system not prepared to accept guidance from professionals utilizing natural medicine instead of giving no hope at all? Why can they not work together and bridge the gap in our healthcare system?

Erin Anderssen: Hi Susan, your question certainly raises an issue repeatedly mentioned by the people I interviewed. Their experiences did vary. There were doctors who spoke with disdain about natural options to supplement cancer treatment. But there were several patients who said their oncologists supported their use of alternative treatments, as long as they were kept informed of them. I think you correctly identify the conflict between traditional and alternative therapies as an area that needs to be explored in the way we treat cancer.

Valerie Spentzos from Vancouver, Canada writes: Ms. Anderssen, do you really feel that given the millions of dollars contributed to cancer charities, especially for breast cancer, there has really been any significant improvement in treatment in the past 50 years? It seems to be the same old "cut, burn and poison" and the number of survivors (there are no cures) has not dramatically increased. And the cause of cancer seems as shrouded in mystery as ever.

Erin Anderssen: Hi Valerie: There are some clear signs that we have been making progress. Although it is not a cure, people are living longer with cancer as a chronic disease -- our Focus project included many people who are still living up to 10 years after being diagnosed as terminal.

While many of the subjects of the story described chemotherapy as horrible in its side effects and fallout, several others recounted how much better their experience was than that of loved ones they knew who had received chemotherapy years ago. Research has improved the ability of drugs to target specific cancers, and has developed medication to reduce the side effects.

One of the most important areas that has been proven to reduce mortality rates is the ability to diagnose cancer in the early stages. The PSA blood test for prostate cancer and the PAP test for cervical cancer has meant that far, far fewer people die of these kinds of cancer. It is not a cure, but screening for early detection is an important area of research, especially since, as the story made clear, so many cancers are diagnosed too late.

Tony De Furia from Aurora, Canada writes: With cancer cutting across the age boundary, do you get the sense that at least one of the root causes is something that we have put into the environment? In my mind, the lifestyle argument just doesn't cut it because children are now getting cancer at a younger age at a far greater rate than in the past. They are naturally active, don't drink or smoke and we feed them the very best food available. If everything was OK they would not be getting cancer. What is your sense of research dollars being directed towards the causes of cancer versus a cure?

Erin Anderssen: Hi Tony: I think this is definitely an area that requires further study. This is one of the true tragedies and mysteries of cancer: that it seems so random. Over and over again, people told me how healthy they had been before their diagnosis, how they ate well, and exercised, how they had done everything right and still gotten sick. Other countries, like Sweden, are more focused on preventing cancer than curing cancer, through environmental polices and by promoting healthy living. We do hear a lot about finding a cure. But it seems clear that we need also to explore the causes of cancer, and how we might prevent it in the first place.

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