50 Years of Cancer Progress Reviewed by ASCO Chief Medical Officer and Co-authors in NEJM

September 2, 2020

While cancer remains the second leading cause of death in high-income countries, cancer-related mortality has been steadily declining thanks to a wide range of advances. Today, ASCO’s Chief Medical Officer and Executive Vice President Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FSCT, FASCO, and co-authors Sharyl Nass, PhD, Michelle M. Le Beau, PhD, and Edward J. Benz, Jr., MD, highlight the major advances in cancer care over the last 50 years as part of a special series of articles in the New England Journal of Medicine commemorating the 50 year anniversary of the National Academy of Medicine.

The authors credit the National Cancer Act of 1971 as the catalyst for many of the advances that have taken place over the last half century, and note that “Treatment advances have reduced death rates for some cancers, but most of the reduction in mortality can be attributed to long-standing efforts related to cancer prevention and early detection.” In addition to highlighting advances in diagnosis, treatment, and survivor care, they point to early advances in the understanding of the biological underpinnings of cancer and changes in national cancer policies as notable milestones in the story of progress. 

In the article (NEJM subscription required), the authors also look to the future and discuss new areas of research that promise to advance cancer care in the coming years.

Many of the same milestones discussed by the authors are included on ASCO’s Cancer Progress Timeline, which provides a historical overview of major advances that have led to dramatic improvements in patients’ survival and quality of life.  The Timeline chronicles more than 400 treatment and prevention milestones spanning 170+ years. Much of the progress made against cancer has been driven by federally funded research, and the Timeline includes many of the advances made possible by federal investment.

“With as much progress as we're making, however, there is still substantial unmet need,” according to Dr. Schilsky. “Sadly, the benefits of this progress have not been distributed equitably and substantial disparities in prevention, screening, access to quality care and survival persist among racial and ethnic minority populations. We must focus future efforts on filling knowledge gaps in areas critical to the improvement of patient care and outcomes and ensure that all people with cancer can access the care they need when they need it.”

Read ASCO’s list of Research Priorities to Accelerate Progress Against Cancer to learn more about the areas in which ASCO believes the cancer community should focus its resources to increase the pace of progress.