June 22, 2021

Surviving, and thriving, after cancer

Cancer patients at Kaiser Permanente are living longer and better thanks to our integrated model.

After participating in a clinical trial for a precision cancer medicine, Robert Binkley (shown above with his wife, Dianna) has exceeded his life expectancy.

By Nancy Gin, MD, Executive Vice President, Quality, and Chief Quality Officer, The Permanente Federation


When Robert Binkley of Yorba Linda, California, was diagnosed in 2006 at age 57 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia — an incurable cancer of the white blood cells in his bone marrow — his doctors told him that he could expect to live about 10 years.

Eight years later, at 65, he joined a clinical trial for a targeted, “precision medicine” cancer treatment, and he has been in remission ever since.

“It was a great decision for me to go on this clinical trial,” said Binkley, now 72. “I try to keep a positive attitude, and I wasn’t about to let this illness hold me captive.”

Binkley is not alone. Due to better screening, early detection, and innovative new treatment options, more and more patients are not only surviving cancer diagnoses, but living longer and better. The National Cancer Institute estimates that there are nearly 17 million cancer survivors in the United States, about 5% of the population. That number is expected to exceed 22 million by 2030.

Comprehensive screening saves lives and reduces disparities

A new Kaiser Permanente study published in the American Journal of Managed Care found that our members in Southern California with 8 common cancers (breast, prostate, lung, colon, melanoma, uterine, kidney, and bladder) had better survival rates over a 5-year period than patients with other types of health insurance.

Importantly, the study of 165,000 people found that Black cancer patients diagnosed at non-Kaiser Permanente hospitals had an astonishing 14% higher risk of death and Latino patients had a 23% higher risk of death than those who received care from us. More people receiving care at Kaiser Permanente are surviving cancer in part because they are better screened for preventable cancers — especially cancers of the breast, colon, and cervix. For example, Kaiser Permanente members in Northern California were 52% less likely to die from colorectal cancer after we launched a comprehensive screening program.

Surviving with high quality of life

Cancer patients receiving care at Kaiser Permanente are followed carefully and supported throughout all stages of cancer.

Because we have all of our members’ information in our electronic health record system, we can connect their cancer care with any other medical issues they may have, such as diabetes and heart disease. Trusted physicians and care teams who have cared for these patients all along manage their health issues during cancer treatment and beyond.

Kaiser Permanente members Robert and Dianna Binkley, hugging

Research has shown that 4 in 10 cancers in the United States are preventable. With guidance from their doctors and care teams, Kaiser Permanente members learn to adopt healthy-living strategies that stop cancers from starting in the first place, while cancer patients learn how to prevent future cancers. By smoking less, eating better, exercising more, and reducing stress, cancer survivors are often living better than they did before being diagnosed and treated.

“I bike ride, I walk, I play golf, I travel, I work in the yard, I do home remodel projects. I constantly try to stay healthy in any way that I can,” Binkley said. “All of this activity helps me keep the right frame of mind, and I think that helps a lot in battling cancer.”

Paying it forward

At Kaiser Permanente, research and clinical practice are integrated to promote continuous improvement. Physicians draw upon their medical experience to propose cancer research; the results of those studies are then taken by physicians and clinicians and applied to create new, evidence-based approaches that improve cancer care, treatment, and outcomes.

At the same time, participating in clinical trials and survivorship research creates community and empowers cancer survivors with opportunities to pay it forward.

“I hope people aren’t scared away by the term ‘clinical trial,’” Binkley said. “They’re so well researched and are not offered until they’ve shown themselves to be of benefit to patients. I think it’s important that people like myself get involved, not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others who come after us.”