WASHINGTON — The number of Americans dying of cancer has been on the decline since the mid-1990s. But the number who will develop cancer remains startling high. One in two American men and one in three American women, according to the National Cancer Institute, will be struck with some form of cancer during their lifetimes.
With so many people surviving cancer, HBO decided to explore new medical advances that make cancer treatable and help provide resources for those engaged in the struggle. The result is the documentary "Cancer: Evolution to Revolution," which will be shown tonight at 8.
The pay-cable channel has asked local cable operators around the country to make the program available to all cable viewers.
In 2 1/2 hours, the documentary provides an educational overview of the four most common types of cancer: breast, prostate, lung and colon. Told through the stories of patients who have battled back, the film encourages viewers to take control of their own health.
Being an "active patient" saved the life of Gary Schine, a 46-year-old businessman from Rhode Island who is featured. When he was found to have sickle cell leukemia in 1991, he was told there was no treatment and that he would die.
Refusing to accept the prognosis, Schine began researching the cancer and discovered a medical article published three months before his diagnosis that detailed a new leukemia protocol. After treatment at Scripps Cancer Center in La Jolla, the disease went into remission; Schine has been cancer-free for nine years.
Though Schine's case is extreme, the show's producer says it illustrates the necessity for patients to be informed.
"It is important that people have the sense of helping themselves," said producer, director and reporter Joseph Lovett, whose family's history with cancer inspired him to make the film.
When his sister, Tricia Lovett Stallman, was found to have ovarian cancer in the mid-1980s, Lovett researched the latest treatments and found that little information was available to the public.
Using his contacts and resources as a television newsman, he eventually was able to get the most recent news for his sister, who later helped establish a cancer support center in Rhode Island. Stallman died in 1991.
"You shouldn't have special access [to medical care] because you have special information," Lovett said.
Though his mother survived thyroid cancer, Lovett lost his father and two brothers to various forms of the disease. It became even more personal for Lovett when he had two polyps removed from his colon.
Interspersing details of his family's history with the stories of others who have sought aggressive treatment, Lovett showcases the struggle against cancer.
Following its victims from the hospital and into their homes, Lovett captures the intimate moments of their life: breast cancer survivors sitting around a locker room and comparing their scars from surgery, a 10-year-old leukemia patient modeling the collection of hats she wears to cover her balding head and a wife tearfully contemplating her future when it becomes clear her husband will not survive colon cancer.
"The most alarming myth is that a diagnosis of cancer is a death sentence," Dr. Richard Klausner, director of the National Cancer Institute, says in the film. "Now the majority of patients diagnosed with cancer will not die of that cancer."
Medical research has produced a growing body of knowledge that takes us closer to understanding cancer and the factors that put people at risk of having some form of the disease, from gene alterations to such outside factors as sun exposure, diet, smoking and pollution.
Meanwhile, doctors are experimenting with new treatments and hoping more people will enroll in clinical trials. Some 60% of children who have cancer participate in clinical trials, which test various treatments; only 3% of adult patients take part in these tests.
Meanwhile, more than 350 anti-cancer drugs are in clinical trials or awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
These numbers demonstrate the progress the medical community has made in the last decade, said Lilly Tartikoff, the show's narrator. When her husband, television executive Brandon Tartikoff, was found to have Hodgkin's disease 18 years ago, the information and treatments available today did not exist.
To be given a cancer diagnosis in the 1980s was, she said, "like falling into a black hole." After several periods of remission, Tartikoff died in 1997, yet the emphasis placed on cancer research today gives his widow hope for a cure.
"It's like a new frontier," she said. "We're really going to see the face of cancer change."
HBO has launched a cancer Web site tied to the program that can be reached at http://www.hbo.com.
* "Cancer: Evolution to Revolution" can be seen tonight at 8 on HBO. Nonsubscribers can ask their cable operators if the program will be made available.