South Dakotans are doing our part to wage a war on cancer. Our state is among the top ten in the country in the percentage of women who get regular mammograms. And the number of South Dakotans who receive colorectal cancer screenings has increased significantly over the past five years, thanks in large part to the concerted effort of many of the state’s leading health providers. Clearly, we recognize the importance of preventive healthcare.
And yet, according to projections published by the American Cancer Society, nearly 1,600 South Dakotans will succumb to cancer this year. Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic led patients to put off regular health checkups. The consequence could be that we lose even more of our friends, family members and neighbors as cancers go undetected.
The core obstacle to further driving down the cancer mortality rate is the inherent limitations in our screening capabilities. The technologies we utilize to detect breast, colorectal, cervical, lung, and prostate cancers have saved lives by enabling early and effective treatment. But, therein lies the problem. Those are the only five cancers that have available screening services. Almost three of every four cancer deaths in the United States are variations of the disease that don’t have screenings. As long as this remains the status quo, we can make strides in the battle against cancer, but there will still be too many loved ones dying too soon.
One of the solutions is coming via medical science. Right now, large-scale clinical trials are taking place on a screening test that applies machine learning to the genetic components of a single blood draw, detecting the traces of more than 50 different cancers. Some in this field are currently administering clinical trials with well over 100,000 participants and the results have been promising.
To put it simply, this advance could be monumental once it makes its way through Food and Drug Administration approvals and is widely available. If cancer is detected early, the five-year survival rate is 89%. If it is found late, after the disease has spread, that survival rate drops to 21%. A simple blood test that can detect multiple times the number of cancers for which we can screen today would be a game changer.
Will a revolutionary blood test be broadly used when it receives FDA approval? Will it be available to large numbers of South Dakotans in towns and small rural clinics throughout the state? These are critical questions and the answers — which unequivocally need to be “yes” — should begin taking shape now. We must start the conversation with those who set health policy and those who provide coverage for healthcare services so that this multi-cancer blood exam will be made accessible. This is particularly important for subsets of the population, like the elderly, who have a higher risk for various cancers. Unfortunately, under current law, seniors will face huge obstacles to Medicare coverage of new cancer screenings.
Those of us who advocate for cancer patients and for continued cancer research celebrate the victories we’ve seen and the successful and important work done in our state to strengthen cancer prevention. But, nearly 1,600 deaths this year is still far too many. If medical science can drive that number downward, then the powers that be in government and health insurance need to start planning how they can support implementation.