I recently spent five amazing days at a breast cancer convention in Texas that left me feeling markedly optimistic about the future for cancer survivors and those of us, both male and female, who are affected by this disease. I'm not only speaking of breast cancer, though that was the theme of this gathering. Top scientists, physicians and researchers from around the world presented their findings, and while much of it was technical information designed for professionals, those of us who advocate for cancer were invited into every conversation, allowing us to ask questions and encouraging us to understand in simple terms many of the advances in science and medicine that we can expect to see in 2020.
At times it felt as though I was on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, being transported into the future at warp speed. And whether I was just hanging out with other advocates or shaking hands with luminaries who willingly shared their time with us, it was a dizzying experience in every way.
There is far too much happening in the world of cancer detection for me to share, but you can be certain to read about the latest discoveries in the pages of CURE. So for now, here's something that grabbed my attention and gave me a glimpse of the exciting and promising future of cancer prevention.
I have to admit that I'm a guy who has as a firm and probably unrealistic fear of needles and tests and invasive medical procedures. So when I attended a lecture about the potential of liquid biopsies, I paid attention. A liquid biopsy is a test done on a sample of blood to look for cancer cells from a tumor that is circulating in the blood, or for pieces of DNA from tumor cells that are in the blood. The hope is that in the very near future, this form of diagnosis may be used to help find cancer at an early stage.
While the notion of finding cancer through a blood test is not exactly new, the possibilities for refining the technique to be able to discover minute cancer cells and perhaps even their point of origin is causing a good deal of excitement in the world of medicine.
For men, a blood test to screen for and evaluate cancer has been around for many years — the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test. It's a liquid biopsy. Likewise, the CA-125 test for ovarian cancer was in use years ago. But now scientists are on the verge of refining this technique to the point where it may one day, and possibly one day soon, detect cancer before it has time to expand and multiply and invade distant points in our bodies. The FDA has also approved liquid biopsies for lung cancer.
The major advantage of liquid biopsy analysis is that it is minimally invasive, and can be repeated allowing physicians to extract information from the tumor in real time. Researchers are also exploring ways to identify where the cancer may be in our bodies. The idea is to use the cell-free DNA in the blood to discover cancer in our bodies before it's easily visible by current techniques, such as colonoscopy, mammography, x-rays or CT-scans.
As for me, the idea of avoiding another needle biopsy, CT-scan, x-ray or even my annual mammogram sounds like a future I can look forward to. And it's about time. After all, to quote Yogi Berra, "The future ain't what it used to be."