Doctors aren't able to extend the lives of cancer patients much more, on average, than they were able to 25 years ago, a new federal study discloses.
This is true in spite of billions of dollars tha have been spent in the interim on research and new methods of cancer treatment.
In the years 1967-73 - the latest years surveyed - 41 per cent of all white cancer patients survived five years from the time it was discovered they had the disease, the study shows. This overall white rate compares with 40 per cent in 1960-66 and 39 per cent in 1950-59.
These figures and a host of others, some even grimmer, some brighter, are disclosed in the National Cancer Institute's latest report on "Cancer Patient Survival," based on detailed study of cancer patients in four states.
A copy of the report, not yet generally distributed, was obtained yesterday by The Washington Post.
The gloomier figures are sure to arouse new debate on the strategies being followed in the federal government's $800-million-a-year war against cancer.
"The overall survival rate means almost nothing for the individual patient," Ardyce J. Asire, one of the editors of the massive study made every five years, cautioned. The latest five-year survivals range from only 1 per cent among blacks with cancer of the pancreas to 77 per cent among whites, though 47 per cent among blacks,with womb cancer.
The survival rate for "all cancers" is also lower than it would be because of a huge recent increase - an epidemic, say authorities - of just one kind of cancer with a poor general outlook. This is lung cancer, the cigarette smokers' disease, for which overall five-year survival, is 6 per cent among blacks, 9 per cent among whites.
Also, authorities said, some persons with any kind of cancer, especially those caught in an early or localized stage of the disease, may survive far longer than any "average."
Nonetheless, the participants in the war against cancer use the overall rates as marks of progress or lack of its against one of humankind's greatest killers.
The latest survival rate was called "provisional" - in effect, an estimate - by cancer institute statisticians, since a complete five-year followup is not yet possible for all persons whose cancers were diagnosed in 1967-73.
The statisticians pointed out, too, that their figures are based on survival in the two states, California and Connecticut, with state tumor registries that keep good track of cancer treatment, as well as statistics at two other hospitals, the University of Iowa's in Iowa City and Charity Hospital, in New Orleans.
The statisticians called it "impossible" to know how well their figures reflect the nationwide situation, but said they believe they represent a broad picture with no strong statistical bias.
The statisticians reported that:
The black survival rate is far poorer than the white for most cancers, probably largely because of lower socio-economic status which dictates poorer health in many ways. Overall five-year survival among all blacks was 32 per cent in 1967-73, compared with 29 per cent in 1950-59 and 28 per cent in 1960-66.
The greatest improvements for black patients (see diagram) came in breast, prostate, bladder and rectal cancers; but for whites, only in bladder and prostate cancers.
There was no improvement at all in white survival in lung, stomach and female cervical cancers (the cervix is the neck of the womb) since 1960-66, and no improvement in black survival in colon and lung cancers.
There was a change of just one percentage point - from 64 to 65 per cent - in white breast cancer survival. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women and is the leading cause of death among women.
Dr. Arthur Upton, new director of the cancer institute, called the overall trend "heartening" dispite "room for improvements." He pointed to the improved results in bladder and prostate cancer among major cancers and in the leukemias (or blood cancers) and Hodgkins disease among less common cancers.
But Morton Klein, a health economist in the office of the deputy assistant secretary of health, education and welfare, said: "Acute lymphatic leukemia and Hodgkins disease are areas of good improvements, but they represent less than 2 per cent of all cancers. For the major cancers we've seen very disappointing results up to this point."
Dr. Frank Rauscher, senior Vice President of the American Cancer Society and the cancer institute's head until last year, predicted that "we're going to see some dramatic increases in survival" as a result of present treatment efforts, but "it will be 1978 until we have enough data."
However, Dr. E. Cuyler Hammond, vice president and director of epidemiology and statistics for the society, called progress of recent year "disappointing" and predicted only "slow" future progress too.