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Fighting Cancer

When it comes to what’s new and next in cancer care, Dallas leads the way.

Publication: D Magazine

Taking time out of your busy schedule to see a doctor for suspicious symptoms, a new ache or pain, a nagging cough, or any other unexplainable health concern doesn’t usually rank high on the list of things to do. But it should, especially if the concerning symptoms could be cancer.

Most types of cancers have the best chance of being successfully treated when caught in their earliest stages. Ignoring symptoms can be dangerous, or even deadly.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically slowed down routine medical exams and screenings. Doctors in all specialties continue to urge people to keep appointments for their annual exams, see their doctors for new health concerns, and get recommended tests and screenings. “COVID-19 has been a challenge in many ways, including significantly reduced medical screenings,” says Dr. R. Steven Paulson, medical oncologist and president and chairman of the board at Texas Oncology. “People are delaying cancer screenings, such as mammograms and colonoscopies, and the result has been an increase in the overall of number of cancer patients. We are seeing more advanced cancers at the time of diagnosis. Our message is, when cancers are screened for and caught early, the quality of life for a cancer patient is excellent and the chance of a cure is much, much higher. Screening is still critically important—even in a pandemic.”

Although there is collective concern from physicians about the potential uptick in cancer diagnoses due to a decline in screening rates during the pandemic, there is still plenty of good news in the field—particularly in Dallas. Just 10 years ago, most cancer treatments were designed to address cancer cells that were growing faster than normal cells. Essentially, treatments were directed at eliminating the fast-growing cancer cells with the hopes that healthy cells would recover, Dr. Paulson says. “Today, rather than differentiating treatments based on rapid cell growth, we look at mutation patterns and target the specific mutations that turned the cells into cancer,” Dr. Paulson says. “This results in much less damage to the normal ‘good guy’ cells around it. Innovative treatments, such as immunotherapy and CAR-T where we can target specific aspects of cancer cells through the immune system, are significant advances that have improved the longevity of those with cancer, as well as their quality of life.”

Dr. Paulson predicts that therapies like this will only continue to improve. For instance, CAR-T therapy can be curative for hematologic cancers, but in the future, it will expand into the treatment and management of tumors. In the next three to five years, these treatments should allow for increased outpatient therapy that is more affordable and less toxic. And Texas—specifically Dallas—will be a major player in these advances in cancer care. “Texas, as a whole, has excellent cancer care, and when you look at Dallas’ overall survival rates, they are much better than the national average,” Dr. Paulson says. “Even in rural Texas where there are some challenges with access to care, the overall quality of care and survival rates are quite good.”

For anyone diagnosed with cancer today, particularly if the cancer is caught in its earliest stage, the outlook for successfully managing and, hopefully, beating the disease is better than ever. But it all starts with being proactive in your care. According to Dr. Paulson, it’s important to be educated and do research about your cancer diagnosis, but to heavily lean on the advice and expertise of the physician you choose to partner with you in your care.

“The most important thing you can do is talk to your referring physician about recommendations,” he says. “Be frank with your physician about your anxiety and be prepared with questions. Choose a physician you have confidence in and feel comfortable with. Pay attention to your own body; if something seems or feels different, don’t delay screening or an evaluation. You are your own best advocate when it comes to your health. Get evaluated early so the disease is still in most treatable stage."

This story appeared in the December 2021 issue of D Magazine.

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