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Cancer treatment advances are helping patients and dropping death rates

Posted at 8:35 AM, Feb 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-17 12:46:41-05

BEL AIR, Md. — Cancer deaths have been on a steady decline for the last 26 years, according to the American Cancer Society. The decline is driven by long term drops in lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers.

The latest cancer reports show the largest one-year drop in cancer deaths. Lung cancer actually drove the drop, even though it is still the leading cause of cancer deaths.

Dr. Matthew Ferris, a radiation oncologist and assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the decrease in lung cancer deaths is because of the decline in smoking, early detection and the advances in treatment. Dr. Ferris works with patients at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center’s Kaufman Cancer Center in Bel Air. That’s where WMAR-2 News met a 46-year-old Army Veteran, from Aberdeen, who’s going through treatment for stage three lung cancer.

Jimmie Bahr started off with a negative mindset but after working with Dr. Ferris and the rest of his staff, he’s confident he’s going to beat this thing!

“You hear lung cancer you think oh man, you're a goner. You're done for. My mother died of cancer, I watched that. My father-in-law died of cancer, I watched that. They just wither away to nothing,” said Bahr. He added, “I figured I got cancer, I’m gonna die too.”

That’s why Bahr waited a year before actually getting his diagnosis after doctors found a cyst.

“I went into the doctors one day because my fingertips were turning purple so they wanted to do a chest x-ray and they did. They found a nodule that was .85 cm,” said Bahr. He explained how a year later, that nodule more than tripled in size to almost three centimeters. He believes it’s from years of smoking. Bahr added, “I don’t know what else could have. I’ve been smoking cigarettes since I was 14. I started buying my own when I was 16.”

Now, with weekly chemotherapy and daily radiation, the tumor is smaller.

“It’s shrinking! It’s testimony! So I can only think the skies the limit after this,” said Bahr. He added, “thank God they have this new technology and stuff because they can actually pin point it and not hurt everything else which is remarkable. I just imagine if the people that I lost had that technology.”

Dr. Ferris explained how he created Bahr’s specific plan for treatment, something he says it possible because of the increase in technology.

“The techniques have gotten really sophisticated and that has led to, what we’re seeing with the drop in cancer death rates. It’s not only a testament of the increase efficacy of the oncologic agents but also the lower toxicities,” said Dr. Ferris. He said now they are able to mathematical calculation based on each patients and are able to block certain structures from being damaged during radiation. For example, in Bahr’s case, they’re protecting his esophagus and spine. Dr. Ferris said they’re able to do this by getting each patient in the same position for radiation treatment every time. Two radiation therapists make that possible. They first line him up on the table. “We are lining him to the marks on his skin. We do these the very first day. This is exactly where the doctor would like to treat so this helps us get him into position,” said Kristen Buchanan, a senior radiation therapist.

Christina Hustler, another radiation therapist,” added, “we use these lasers on the wall to line up to these marks every day so I can tell her we need to roll.”

After the therapists line the patient up, they exit the radiation room and double check on the computer. Buchanan explained, “this is his original scan here and this is today so we’re matching them up to get him in the same exact position for his treatment.” Bahr was in a good position so they were able to begin treatment, a quick and painless process.

“The improvement in linear accelerators, the improvement in software that let us to design the radiation plan really led to decrease side effects and we’ve seen that across most cancers,” said Dr. Ferris. He said the side effects are the most uncomfortable thing for the patients.

“There are side effects with treatment, no cancer treatment and really no medication of any kind are completely benign so there are some side effects,” said Dr. Ferris. However, he added, “side effects are a lot more mild than they have been in years past.”

Bahr definitely has his bad days, with feeling sick, but said the biggest change in his taste buds. Right now he craves, “shakes, jalapenos, pickles. Sometimes I feel like I’m pregnant or something some of the foods that I’m eating and some foods I don’t eat anymore.” He said chemo even makes him hate the taste of cigarettes. He’s quit for good now and is looking forward to life after cancer, even heading back to work.

“I had a lot of plans before I got this. I hope to accomplish those plans and hopefully travel the world someday,” said Bahr. He said he knows he’s going to beat this thanks to the help from the hospital, his friends, family and coworkers. He added, “with all the support I have, thank god. Yeah, I got this. I’m gonna beat this and everything's gonna be cool.”

The big takeaway Bahr wants you to have is to go to screenings and listen to your body. If something is wrong, get checked out because it could save your life. Dr. Ferris said cancer is a combination of bad luck, genetics, age and exposure.

We can’t change most of the factors but we can minimize exposure, like avoiding smoking.