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Cancer is no longer a death sentence

On March 22, Elizabeth Edwards joined 10 million other Americans who are living with cancer.  NBC Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman reports on why more and more doctors now treat cancer as a chronic disease, not a death sentence.

On March 22, Elizabeth Edwards joined 10 million other Americans who are living with cancer.

"The thing that is true is that her cancer will not be cured now," said her husband, former senator and current presidential candidate John Edwards. "Elizabeth will have this as long as she's alive."

But "cure" is exactly what most patients hope for when they are diagnosed.

John Donahue has already survived malignant melanoma, diagnosed 11 years ago. And now, he's facing prostate cancer. There's only one thing he wants to hear.

"That I'm cured," he says. "That would be the best thing."

But some doctors are saying cure isn't always the end game, and instead, are increasingly considering cancer as a chronic disease that can be managed — like diabetes, heart disease, even HIV.

"With advances in detection and treatment, we now have the tools to keep the disease at bay for a long period of time," says Dr. Mary Daly.

Keeping the disease at bay is something Tania Stutman knows all
about. Her doctor gave her only a year to live, but nine years later, she's still here.

"Doctors don't have the right to rob a patient of hope," she says.

For Stutman, hope came in the form of a breakthrough medicine called Gleevac.

"I call it my pot of gold," she says.

And with other medical advances on the horizon, everything from designer drugs to gene therapy, there's now a place between cure and death — it's living with cancer, and managing it day by day.

"I would say that all cancer patients need to hold on to life," says Stutman. "Even if I had been given only a 1 percent chance of living, I would run with it."