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Fewer lives lost to cancer: RCCA physicians explain why a low note’ sparks high hopes for the years just ahead

The new year opened on a real “low note” in the fight against cancer, and the oncology specialists of Regional Cancer Care Associates, LLC, or RCCA, couldn’t be happier.

Iuliana Shapira, MD, the Chief Medical Officer of RCCA, explained: “On Jan. 8, the American Cancer Society reported the largest single-year drop in cancer deaths ever recorded. The Society released data showing that from 2016 to 2017, the number of deaths from cancer declined by 2.2% in the United States. That record single-year drop is part of a larger trend that has seen a 29% reduction in the death rate from cancer in the U.S. from 1991 to 2017, the latest year for which statistics are available.”

While extremely welcome news, it is not surprising, noted Denis Fitzgerald, MD, Board Chairperson of RCCA, one of the nation’s largest networks of oncology specialists. “These statistics align with what our physicians are seeing — and achieving — at RCCA’s 20+ care centers in New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the Washington, DC area,” said Dr. Fitzgerald, a medical oncologist and hematologist who practices at RCCA’s Little Silver, office. “By providing treatments that target the genetic mutations driving cancer, immunotherapies, gene-based therapies, and other cutting-edge interventions, we are seeing more patients achieve complete remission, or, barring that, significantly prolonged survival accompanied by a good quality of life. Outcomes that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago are becoming almost routine. It is a very exciting time to be an oncologist and to provide care to people with cancer.”

Michael Reale, MD, said that the pace of progress is accelerating, and that physicians and patients can expect more gains in the years ahead. Dr. Reale, a medical oncologist and hematologist who practices at RCCA’s Manchester, Conn., office said, “The ‘pipeline’ of new cancer-fighting agents in late stages of clinical development is very robust. Many of these investigational agents employ mechanisms of action that reflect an expanded understanding of how cancer arises and then spreads, or metastasizes. Additionally, we are drawing on large databases and other resources to determine which combinations of treatments, and in which sequence, are most effective for specific patients.” Dr. Reale explained that RCCA uses an evidence-based, data-driven approach to individualize each patient’s care.

Many of the FDA-approved agents that are extending cancer patient’s lives today, and many more that will join the ranks of approved therapies in the years ahead, first demonstrated their value in trials conducted at RCCA care centers, according to Martin Gutierrez, MD. Dr. Gutierrez serves as RCCA’s Director of Drug Discovery/Phase 1 Unit; he also is Co-Chief of the Divisions of Thoracic Oncology and Gastrointestinal Oncology at the John Theurer Cancer Center of Hackensack University Medical Center, Hackensack Meridian Health. “We participated in the early trials of pembrolizumab and nivolumab, two of the ‘checkpoint inhibitors’ that enhance the immune system’s ability to recognize cancer cells and mount an effective defense against them. Today, those agents play a key role in treating several solid tumors, as well as forms of lymphoma. Many other agents we first evaluated in clinical trials here have become mainstays of cancer therapy, and no doubt others currently under investigation at our centers will go on to secure FDA approval and a place in the treatment regimens of countless people. We are proud to be able to offer RCCA’s patients access to these clinical trials that are literally shaping the future of cancer care,” Dr. Gutierrez said.

While medical research and clinical care are expected to further reduce the cancer death rate in the years ahead, Frederick P. Smith, MD, said that additional progress also depends on people’s choices and actions. “The main contributor to the overall reduction in cancer deaths noted from 2016 to 2017 was a drop in lung cancer deaths, which fell 5% in men from 2013 to 2017, and by nearly 4% among women in that period. The availability of new treatments certainly played a role in cutting lung cancer deaths, but so did declining smoking rates. Further, by choosing to have low-dose CT scans to screen for lung cancer, many current or former smokers facilitated detection of cancer at early stages, when it can be treated more effectively.”

Dr. Smith, a medical oncologist who practices with RCCA in Chevy Chase, MD, said, “In the same way, realizing our full potential to reduce cancer deaths will entail not only physicians’ and researchers’ best efforts, but also an individual’s commitment to addressing their risk factors for cancer — such as obesity and excessive alcohol consumption — and to having the cancer screenings appropriate for their age and medical history, including colonoscopy, mammography, and full body skin examinations. We have an unprecedented opportunity to reduce the toll that cancer takes on individuals and families, but everyone has a role to play in that fight.”

With more than 80 oncology physicians and nurse clinicians practicing at 20+ care centers throughout Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and the Washington, DC area, RCCA provides care to roughly 22,000 new cancer patients and 225,000 established patients each year. RCCA offers those patients immunotherapy, targeted treatment, cell-based therapy and other cutting-edge treatments and diagnostic modalities, as well as access to clinical trials.

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Regional Cancer Care Associates is one of fewer than 200 medical practices in the country selected to participate in the Oncology Care Model (OCM); a recent Medicare initiative aimed at improving care coordination and access to and quality of care for Medicare beneficiaries undergoing chemotherapy treatment.