David Mitchell, a lymphoma survivor and Canadian Cancer Society survivor storyteller, sits in his home in Ottawa on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Blood cancer survival rate rising fastest, Canadian stats find

Cancer survival rates have increased by eight percentage points since the early 1990s

There was a time David Mitchell didn’t believe he would survive until his 50th birthday.

But he reached that milestone earlier this year, thanks to a life-saving stem cell transplant to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“They basically said, ‘Yup, there is zero sign of cancer anywhere,’” the Ottawa resident recalls of a checkup that followed previous failed rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

“It was astounding.”

Today, the Canadian Cancer Society says Mitchell can count himself among the growing number of people who are surviving blood cancer due to precision medicine — treatments based on a person’s genes or other unique features of the cancer the person has.

New statistics released Wednesday suggest the survival rate for blood cancers is outpacing the survival rate of any other cancer.

The overall survival rates have improved to 63 per cent — up eight percentage points since the early 1990s. But the most gains have been among common blood cancers, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma and leukemia. The survival rate for these cancers increased 16 to 19 percentage points.

Society spokeswoman Leah Smith says that’s largely due to advancements in precision medicine.

“Precision medicine as an approach helps take cancer treatment to an entirely new and different level,” says Smith, noting that includes new medications and advancements in stem cell transplants.

“Certain new drugs that have come on the market have really been game-changers for blood-related cancer.”

Smith says this is the first year in several years the organization has had updated data on cancer survival rates.

An estimated 21,000 Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with blood cancer in 2019, representing about 10 per cent of all cancer diagnoses that year.

“Across the board, we’re seeing improvements in survival with almost all of the cancers that we studied,” Smith says, adding that no survival rates dropped among the 23 cancers studied.

“This is reassuring that we are moving in the right direction.”

The report compared data gathered from 1992 to 1994 with data gathered from 2012 to 2014.

Mitchell’s cancer was already advanced by the time he was diagnosed May 15, 2015. Tumours were found buried in his abdomen, groin, spine and neck, with a grapefruit-sized mass on his spleen.

Chemotherapy and radiation failed, and doctors told him he had three weeks to live, Mitchell recalls. He was told his best shot was to find a donor who could provide healthy stem cells from their bone marrow to replace his damaged cells — but finding a match would take months.

So doctors bought time in July 2016 with an autologous transplant instead, which used stem cells from Mitchell’s own body. Mitchell says that kept him alive until September 2016, when he got a match through an international donor program.

A year later, he was given the momentous news.

“At that point I was so conditioned to have bad news that I was expecting bad news and to get news like that, it’s probably the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” he says.

In other findings, the society’s 2019 report also notes female breast cancer death rates have decreased by an estimated 48 per cent since they peaked in 1986, thanks to improvements in early detection and treatment. That’s an improvement from the society’s 2017 report, which had estimated death rates would drop by 44 per cent, says Smith.

However, pancreatic cancer is now on track to become the third leading cause of cancer death in Canada in 2019, overtaking breast cancer.

“Pancreatic cancer isn’t a cancer that’s talked about a lot for a couple of reasons — it’s only the 12th most commonly diagnosed cancer but it has one of the lowest survival rates of any cancer,” says Smith.

“It’s becoming an increasingly large contributor to the overall cancer burden. From a relative perspective, we’re seeing it’s inching its way up.”

The five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is about eight per cent, a slight improvement from five per cent in the early 1990s, but Smith says that more work clearly needs to be done.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death while lung cancer continues to be the leading cause of cancer deaths by far in Canada, accounting for more than colorectal, breast and prostate cancer deaths combined.

Smith notes that lung cancer rates have declined over the last several decades, but primarily among males. The society’s 2019 study is the first to detect a decline in lung cancer and lung cancer death rates among females — likely due to smoking prevention, cessation and education programs, she says.

“It’s really a reflection of past smoking patterns,” says Smith. “Males started smoking earlier and then they quit smoking earlier.”

Smith says it’s not clear what an apparent prevalence of vaping among children will do for these rates, but there is concern that numbers could backtrack, especially if social acceptance of vaping encourages the renormalization of smoking.

“We don’t know the health effects of vaping at this stage, it’s still a relatively new habit, new product,” she says.

The data was collected in conjunction with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Statistics Canada.

Nearly one in two Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. This year, an estimated 7,450 people in Canada are expected to die of a blood cancer. Mitchell considers himself to be among the fortunate.

“I didn’t actually think I was going to see my 50th, but here I am,” he marvels.

READ MORE: New B.C. pilot to probe how blood tests might improve cancer treatment

READ MORE: More women may need breast cancer gene test, U.S. guidelines say

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Supreme Court of Canada will hear Sinixt appeal May 12

B.C. has appealed aboriginal hunting case through several levels of court starting in Nelson in 2016

New ‘hub’ model takes regional approach to doctor recruitment in West Kootenay

Kootenay-Boundary a provincial leader in effectively attracting doctors to work here

Missing Slocan City man found dead

Douglas Morrison went missing in mid-January

School District 51 turns its focus to students’ mental health

‘It’s a shift in our thinking, from what we expect schools to be like and what they are now’

IN PHOTOS: 2020 Wilgress Lake Fishing Derby

Fishermen dotted Wilgress Lake for the Boundary Métis Association’s annual event

VIDEO: Illicit drug overdoses killed 981 in B.C. in 2019, down 38%

Chief coroner says figures were down about a third in the province’s fourth year of the opioid crisis

VIDEO: B.C.’s seventh coronavirus patient at home in Fraser Health region

Canada in ‘containment’ as COVID-19 spreads in other countries

B.C. takes over another Retirement Concepts senior care home

Summerland facility latest to have administrator appointed

RCMP pull office from Wet’suwet’en territory, but hereditary chiefs still want patrols to end

Chief says temporary closure of field office not enough as Coastal GasLink pipeline dispute drags on

Prescription opioids getting B.C. addicts off ‘poisoned’ street drugs

Minister Judy Darcy says Abbotsford pilot project working

Royals, Elvis, Captain Cook: Hundreds of wax figures find new life in B.C. man’s home

Former director of Victoria’s Royal London Wax Museum still hopes to revive wax figure tourism

Teck CEO says Frontier withdrawal a result of tensions over climate, reconciliation

Don Lindsay speaks at mining conference, a day after announcing suspension of oilsands project

Okanagan man swims across Columbia River to evade Trail police

RCMP Cpl. Devon Reid says the incident began the evening of Thursday, Feb. 20

‘Hilariously bad’: RCMP looking for couple with forged, paper Alberta licence plate

Mounties said the car crashed when it lost a wheel but the duo ran away as police arrived

Most Read