Nearly 1.7 million people were diagnosed with cancer in the United States in 2016. In the same year, nearly 600,000 people died of the disease. Those statistics from the National Cancer Institute puts into perspective the importance of developing new ways to treat this disease.

For the first time in decades, physicians and researchers are touting the benefits of a new defense against cancer. At the Lifespan Cancer Institute, we share the excitement as we move forward into what is known as “precision medicine.”

What is precision medicine?

Precision medicine is defined by the National Institutes of Health as “an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.” That means, in simpler terms, personalized and targeted treatment for each patient. No longer does the one-size-fits-all approach to cancer seem relevant in light of results we’re seeing.

One area within precision medicine is known as "immunotherapy." You may have heard about President Jimmy Carter’s remarkable recovery from stage 4 melanoma. President Carter previously mentioned that he thought he only had two to three weeks to live. Yet through immunotherapy, he’s now thriving in his early 90s.

Immunotherapy uses treatments that stimulate a patient’s immune system to prevent or attack the cancer. In other words, it’s a way to turn on the body’s own defense mechanism to fight cancer.

The Lifespan Cancer Institute currently has a number of investigational immunotherapy studies under way, focusing on cancers of the brain, head and neck, lung, stomach, breast, bladder, and liver. We partner with leading biotechnology companies that provide state-of-the-art agents, which give our patients the best possible outcomes through the latest treatments.

The second area of precision medicine is known as “molecularly targeted treatment.” This method allows us to look at the genetic make-up of the cancer in an individual to find the mutations that drive it to grow. We then use treatment that precisely finds and attacks those cancer cells. This approach is highly effective for a growing list of cancers and generally involves less damage to normal cells than traditional methods, such as chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

There are now tests for hundreds of genetic abnormalities, and we fully expect that number will increase. There are also nearly 1000 targeted drugs that are in the development pipeline. This approach will continue to expand with research.

Of course, there are challenges to making inroads with precision medicine. Many patients do not have access to the latest clinical trials and most promising drugs have not yet been fully tested for safety and effect.  For now, our efforts will continue to focus on accelerating the progress of research by developing the right strategies for certain diseases, and figuring out why some respond to these treatments while others do not.

For many years, the “cure” for cancer has been a dream. But with more research and dedicated teams working to find better treatments, we’re getting closer to making it a reality.

For more information on the Lifespan Cancer Institute and our ongoing research, visit our website

David E. Wazer, MD

Dr. David Wazer is the director of the Lifespan Cancer Institute of Rhode Island, The Miriam and Newport hospitals as well as radiation oncologist-in-chief at Rhode Island Hospital. He is also professor and chairman of the departments of radiation oncology at both The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and Tufts University School of Medicine, and is an internationally recognized expert in the application of new technology in the field of radiation oncology. Click here for more on Dr. Wazer.