Drugs give fresh hope as cases of skin cancer soar
Cases of a serious and aggressive form of skin cancer have reached record levels in Ireland - but patients are benefiting from major advances in treatment of the disease, a leading oncologist revealed last night.
Cork oncologist Dr Derek Power said figures showed that 1,041 people were diagnosed with melanoma in 2014 - the first time the number breached the 1,000 mark.
"Melanoma cases are rising, but thanks to research advances, there are more ways to treat this form of cancer than ever.
"As an oncologist, I've seen first-hand the difference cancer research has made to the lives of my patients," he told a 'Decoding Cancer' public meeting, organised by the Irish Cancer Society.
He said that, prior to 2010, melanoma was the "poor relation" when it came to treatment advances compared with other forms of the disease.
"The treatment available for advanced melanoma was ineffective. Chemotherapy did not work and drugs which stimulated the immune system to fight the disease were very toxic and overall results were poor.
"In a decade where new treatments were becoming available for other cancers and outcomes were improving all the time, melanoma was seen as the poor relation," he told the gathering.
However, in the last decade to 15 years, there have been major improvements in the drug treatment of advanced and localised melanoma.
He said it was now seen as "the poster-child for modern targeted therapy and immunotherapy".
"We now have many treatments in both tablet and injection forms that can prolong life and have tolerable side effects."
There are now well conducted clinical trials which offer many patients treatment options that can "very realistically offer long-term survival."
Dr Power said genetic mutations that drove the disease could be targeted by several tablets. The patient's immune system can be stimulated.
"Many of the new drugs are now showing activity in localised melanoma which is at high risk of returning after surgery.
"It is a very exciting time for a doctor like me who sees many patients with melanoma.
"It is wonderful to see patients benefiting from modern therapies and living good quality life. It is a privilege to be involved in the treatment of melanoma and to have seen the progress that has been made over the last 15 years," he said.
There has been a near trebling of cases of melanoma in the last 20 years. Nine in 10 patients survive for at least five years, although Ireland still has the highest mortality rate for the disease in Europe.