As oncology experts and cancer patients search for a cure to the disease, they are turning to public health programs to help them organize collaborative efforts to meet these goals. In today’s post by Charlotte Kellogg, she explores different methods that advocates who have trained for careers in public health help cancer-fighting communities crowdsource the discovery of better treatments and a possible cure to the disease. Here, Ms Kellogg elaborates on one of Medicine&Opera’s posts about the importance of not just fighting cancer, but of ultimately ending its occurrence.

As incidence of cancer continues to rise, and scientists across the globe remain immersed in their quest for better treatments and a cure; however, with new, digital technologies and instant communication comes a new opportunity for the world to work together in a way that was never possible before.

The Cancer Journal for Clinicians reported that 1,638,910 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in 2012 and 577,190 people died of the disease. This data indicates that physicians are able to detect cancer more accurately as 1,596,670 people were diagnosed in 2011. These data do not necessarily indicate that more people are developing cancer – more sensitive diagnostic tests allow earlier diagnosis which may not always lead to better survival.

Although many people fear the disease and take an interest in whether or not a cure has been found, with many even donating to cancer research institutes, few people are aware of specific improvements to treatment and preventative measures. In light of this, many researchers believe that the quickest path to finding a cure involves engaging the public in a collaborative effort to end the disease.To date, the most effective methods in cancer treatment are preventative in nature and take place on an individual level. Actions such as quitting smoking, exercising regularly, and reducing consumption of alcohol are the most effective methods of reducing the likelihood of being diagnosed with cancer. For example, male smokers are 23 times as likely to contract cancer than non-smokers, and over the last twenty years there has been a reduction of occurrences in this demographic.

Social Media Rises to the Occasion

The reduction in the incidence of lung cancer is credited, in part, to increased outreach and information. Public health entities around the world have all gone on the offensive to curb the number of people lighting up for the first time and encourage current smokers to quit for good. Though these efforts began with commercials and billboard, the rise of social media has also been instrumental in these outreach and an example of a new technology being utilized in the fight against cancer. Facebook groups like “Smoking is Disgusting” have caught the attention of hundreds of thousand of people, teens in particular, and as a result teen smoking, though still high, has fallen from 34.4% having tried tobacco to 23.1%.

Unfortunately, other forms of cancer, such as HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer and esophageal adenocarcinoma are beginning to pop up and spread rapidly. Once again, however, though cancers of this nature are not a direct result of a preventable behavior, public outreach is helping curb incidence of the disease as information about the HPV vaccine sits in sidebar ads on Facebook and plays in commercials urging girls to get vaccinated that preclude many popular Youtube videos. Though it is true that social media can’t cure people of the disease, these sites are doing their part to help prevent people from being diagnosed.

The Reality of Fighting a Rising Tide

Once cancer develops, even with the best treatments available, it often remains fatal; though there has been progress in the efficacy of treatment over the past few decades. According to the American Cancer Society, the survival rate of cancer patients has increased from 45% (from 1975-1977) to 67% (from 2001-2007). This demonstrates significant progress. To put that figure in perspective, if oncologists were suddenly thrust back into 1976, they would lose 901,400 of their new patients this year, instead of 540,840. [Editor's note: survival data are difficult to interpret because of lead time bias]

Crowdsourcing for the Cure

Though doctors and scientists can take pride in these improvements, many are still working tirelessly to improve survival rates. Writing for Forbes, Haydn Shaughnessy champions the application of crowdsourcing to cure cancer. Crowdsourcing is a concept that has been made popular recently by corporations, such as Facebook and Starbucks, both of which have found effective solutions to various problems by approaching consumers and asking for feedback. Scientists have been taking a note from these corporations and using crowdsourcing in new, innovative ways themselves.

One of the reasons that crowdsourcing has been so successful is that it brings together different areas of research to provoke innovation, two things that will undeniably be necessary to curb the increasing incidence of cancer. The basic idea is to gain a fresh perspective on an old problem. In the case of cancer, this would mean asking professionals and amateurs to apply their expertise to help find better and more efficient methods of diagnosing, treating and, hopefully, curing cancer.

There are already several examples of cancer-research crowdsourcing in existence. Pink Army uses open source principles to guide collaboration to find a cure for breast cancer. This group argues that traditional research methods have been great for understanding cancer, but not as effective in improving treatments as new drugs can take more than 15 years to hit the market. Pink Army looks to act as a middleman, so to speak, who partners researchers, doctors, and those seeking treatment to help speed the process of research, testing and drug development. Cancer Commons, a community of cancer patients who want to help advance medical research, is another organization that focuses on collaborative efforts to fight cancer. Once again, it is a patient focused effort that many hope will speed the pace at which research is possible and revolutionize the treatment of many types of cancer.

Though cancer remains a daunting and growing problem that many believe, including the author, will be solved because of new information sharing systems and abilities to connect patients, researchers and treatments will rise to the occasion and eventually eliminate the problem altog