The nation’s first 47 physicians specializing in tumor treatments and recognized by the Japanese Society of Medical Oncology made their debut earlier this month.
Designated as “doctors specialized in cancer drug treatments,” the Japan Society of Clinical Oncology is also planning to create a specialist system. In the United States, tumor physicians debuted 40 years ago and now play a central role in treating cancer.
Surgery, cancer drugs and radiation form the pillars of cancer treatment, but surgery has so far been the primary course, and treatment with drugs has also been carried out by surgeons, pushing other physicians into the background in this area of medicine.
“That’s because cancer drugs were not effective in the past,” said one of the new specialists, Chikashi Ishioka, a professor and a tumor physician at Tohoku University Hospital.
Drugs, however, are growing more important in treating leukemia, breast cancer and other types of cancer. The kinds of drugs available are also increasing, and delivery methods are diversifying, including oral drugs and continuous drips over long hours.
Even if it remains impossible to cure cancer, the use of drugs is making it possible to prolong life. The main players on this front are tumor physicians, and one method they employ is chemotherapy for outpatients.
In recent years, a growing number of people are being treated as outpatients who regularly visit hospitals and receive cancer drugs through drips.
“Medical treatment must respond to the wishes of patients who want to spend more time with their children or continue working,” said Kiyohiko Hatake, head of the outpatient treatment center at Cancer Institute Hospital Ariake.
The center is one of the country’s largest institutions, treating some 1,600 people in February alone.
It has 34 reclining seats, each separated by curtains, in which patients receive drips while watching TV or reading magazines.
Outpatient treatments have become popular because side effects can be prevented or lessened by using vomit-control drugs and G-CSF, which can stop white blood corpuscle reductions.
Except for elderly people and patients with complications, chemotherapy is given to all outpatients at the hospital.
“If the side effects are too strong, patients will be hospitalized, but fundamentally, all others are outpatients,” Hatake said.
There are only three other hospitals that have outpatient treatment centers with more than 30 beds — the National Cancer Center’s Central and Higashi hospitals, and the Shizuoka Prefectural Cancer Center.
On the other hand, MD Anderson Cancer Center, which plays a central role in cancer treatments in the U.S., has 72 beds for outpatients alone and is building a specialized ward with 150 beds.
The Ariake hospital will increase its number of beds to 60, and the Chemotherapy Center at Tohoku University will increase its number this year to 30 from 12. Most other facilities are small and do not have specialized staff.
Japan has made a start with its 47 new tumor specialists, but it has some way to go to match the 9,700 in the U.S. The Japanese Society of Medical Oncology plans to recognize more such physicians annually, aiming to increase the number to around 4,000 in the future.