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Crisis looms in cancer treatment, says panel

Bev Veals, left, undergoes chemotherapy treatment, accompanied by

Bev Veals, left, undergoes chemotherapy treatment, accompanied by her husband Scott at Duke Cancer Center in Durham, N.C. As the baby boomers age, some fear that their cancers could overwhelm the health care system. (Aug. 27, 2013) Credit: AP

A crisis is looming in cancer treatment as the population of older people continues to rise amid a dwindling oncology workforce and escalating health care costs, a panel of experts reported Tuesday.

The alarm was sounded by an Institute of Medicine committee, which identified baby boomers as the population at the epicenter of what could turn out to be one of the biggest calamities in the not-too-distant future unless something is done now.

"We have an aging population that will have a growing demand for cancer care," said oncology nurse Mary McCabe, a member of the institute's panel. The institute is a federally chartered nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that provides advice to government agencies, lawmakers and the public.

"These are complex individuals because they are more likely to have other [medical] problems complicating their care, such as diabetes and hypertension," added McCabe, director of Memorial Sloan-Kettering's Survivorship Initiative in Manhattan.

Those changing demographics will put new pressure on the nation's cancer care infrastructure as the stream of adults reaching 65 and beyond -- the years when tumors are most likely to occur -- grows during the next 17 years.

Currently, an estimated 14 million people are cancer survivors and 1.6 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed annually. By 2030, cancer incidence is expected to rise by 45 percent to 2.3 million new diagnoses per year, panelists said.

The nation's oncology workforce is insufficient to care for the expected tsunami of patients because medical training programs lack the capacity to expand rapidly, according to the report.

On Long Island, cancer accounts for about 15 deaths a day, statistics from the American Cancer Society show.

Costs for cancer treatment and subsequent care are another challenge, according to the institute report. They're rising faster than in any other medical sector, jumping to $125 billion in 2010 from $72 billion in 2004. If spending continues at the current rate, costs will increase another 39 percent to $173 billion by 2020.

Dr. Yusuf Hannun, director of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center, said the institute report "gives an authoritative voice" to what cancer-care leaders have been anticipating: a shortage of oncologists, increasingly complex treatments and skyrocketing costs.

"We are aware of all of these issues and we are trying to be ahead of the curve," Hannun said Tuesday. "We are building a new cancer center and that will help us address a lot of these issues and enhance our ability to see more patients."

He said the cancer center has long focused on team-centered cancer care, which is one solution to the workforce shortage.

Dr. Patricia Ganz, the panel's chairwoman and a professor at UCLA's schools of medicine and public health, emphasized the need to propose solutions.

"As a nation, we need to chart a new course for cancer care," she said. "Changes are needed across the board, from how we communicate with patients, to how we translate research into practice, to how we coordinate care and measure its quality," she said.


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