Cancer and the promise of digital health

Breast Cancer and Digital Health Photo

By Beth Linas, Ph.D, MHS

A few years ago, a family member had a routine mammogram that indicated the early stages of breast cancer. Until that point in my life, breast cancer — any type of cancer – hadn’t affected anyone in my immediate family. Within seconds after receiving the devastating news, I desperately sought advice from my cancer epidemiologist and doctor friends, asking them about the most recent research and treatments. I frantically googled the side effects of different cancer medications, and I scoured insurance company policies to determine what treatments would and wouldn’t be covered. Thankfully, after a double mastectomy, my family member is healthy and cancer-free. I know how lucky I am to say that.

The Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program at the National Cancer Institute provides data on cancer statistics. The findings are meant to help scientists better understand and ultimately reduce the cancer burden among the U.S population.

The SEER program estimates that in 2017, approximately 1,688,789 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States. Since 2014, close to 15 million people have been living with cancer.  When the researchers looked at just breast cancer, they reported that over 252,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in 2017, representing 15 percent of all new cancer cases.

Despite these grim statistics, today there is some hope for those struggling with breast cancer – 90 percent survive beyond five years.

The higher survival rates among breast cancer patients can be attributed in part to greater attention to cancer control measures, to improved early detection and diagnostic tests.

In the U.S., there is much excitement about genomic medicine as well as precision medicine for cancer treatment and care. Genomic medicine is an emerging field that involves using a person’s DNA and genetic information for diagnostic and clinical decision-making. Precision medicine is a model that proposes the customization of healthcare and considers an individual’s environment, lifestyle, medical history, and genes. An additional goal of precision medicine is to learn how to better capture health information using digital technologies such as mobile phones, and wearable and implantable sensors – called digital health.

Though tools used in the field of digital health are far from being able to detect or cure breast cancer, the data they gather can help empower patients along their journey to becoming cancer free. Many technologies and apps allow patients to monitor their symptoms, connect with other people suffering from the same disease, and track and seek out medication information that can help improve their quality of life. They can also improve communication between a patient and a physician. Research suggests digital technologies can encourage healthy behaviors and that the direct communication with doctors and nurses, medical coaches and peers, improves health outcomes. It’s my hope (and the hope of other researchers like me) that the data from these interactions will be collected and analyzed in real-time in order to improve the technology, provide actionable insights, and to further improve treatments and our understanding of cancer. But we aren’t quite there yet.

The promise of digital health is immense for advancing research and science, and for improving health outcomes for patients (and their families).

Cancer touches almost everyone in our country. I hope advances in technology in private industry and among academic and government researchers continue to press forward and that these experts will come together to make the path ahead a healthier one for all who are affected by cancer.

Dr. Beth Linas is an infectious disease and digital health epidemiologist. She is a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and is currently Manager of Research & Science at Vibrent Health. You can follow her on Twitter @bethlinas.

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