The Importance of Clean Air for Recovering Cancer Patients

Air quality is an important part of living a healthy life, and studies show that patients with certain forms of cancer can face more difficult odds during recovery if they live in areas with heavy air pollution. Patients who live in wide open, green spaces can also be affected, however, as homes have been known to contain, sometimes, even more pollutants than the air outside. And, you don’t even have to be diagnosed with lung cancer in order to feel affected by mold spores and other pollutants that are circulating throughout the air in a home or recovery facility. Learning how to combat at-home air pollutants and keep other bacteria at bay will help ensure a quicker, easier recovery.

Special Attention on Avoiding Infection

When recovering from cancer treatment, it’s especially important for patients to avoid contact with other people or any sort of allergen that could cause infection. This is why hospital rooms are kept so clean, in order to allow your immune system to build itself back up over time. Most recovery facilities and rooms will feature a HEPA air purifier that has the ability to catch and destroy any virus, bacteria or mold in the air. Air filters, therefore, are a great tool when to facilitate quick recovery, especially for patients diagnosed with upper respiratory types of cancer. High-quality filters can clean the average-sized hospital time up to 12 times per hour. If you’re going to invest in an air filter or purifier for your home, it’s important to look for one with a HEPA filter as it will help capture microscopic dust and allergens that can cause harm even after your treatment and recovery are over.

Keeping Home Clean During Recovery

Once you’ve been discharged from a hospital or care facility, it’s extremely important to keep your home very clean, for much of the same reasons of avoiding infection or viruses. While this includes washing bedding and clothing in hot water nearly daily and cleaning all hard surfaces with disinfectants, it also means managing the humidity and mold in your home. Seeing as humidity is the cause of a lot of home health problems, it’s a good idea to first invest in a portable humidity meter to stay on top of the levels. Then, you’ll want to ensure that the humidity levels never rise above about 60%. Doing so can permit mold, which can cause autoimmunity, fatigue, nausea, and even asthma, all of which are things you’ll want to avoid especially if you’re recovering from cancer treatment.

Clean Air Equals Peace of Mind

The great news is that there’s currently no scientific evidence to back the idea that exposure to mold spores can lead to cancer. The real issue at hand is purifying and dehumidifying the air to ensure that no other types of bacteria or virus can enter into your lungs and compromise your immune system during such a delicate recovery period. Clean air will ensure you can breath easily and relax as you embark on the journey that is recovery, and that peace of mind will mean everything once you’re back at home and ready to just rest.

A Conversation With Dr. Jo-Anne Vergilio

A new year means new programs! We’d like to introduce to A Conversation With, which is a collection of conversations with healthcare leaders, including patient advocates and various healthcare professionals, to take a closer look at the topics and issues important to empowered patients, care givers, and their families.

In our first segment of A Conversation With, we spoke with Dr. Jo-Anne Vergilio the Senior Director in Pathology; Senior Associate Medical Director in Laboratory Operations, and Senior Hematopathologist at Foundation Medicine, Inc. Dr. Vergilio discusses what patients should know about biomarker testing and answers the following questions:

  1. How does biomarker testing work?
  2. How does biomarker testing help a cancer patient’s doctor with determining next steps in treatment?
  3. When in a patient’s course of treatment would they want to get biomarker testing?
  4. What is the difference between different kinds of biomarker tests?
    • Single marker vs. comprehensive
    • Tumor vs. liquid
  5. What does it mean for a biomarker test to be FDA-approved?
  6. If a doctor isn’t offering biomarker testing, what are some things that patients might say to their doctor?

Tips on Finding a New Job or Changing Career after Cancer Treatment

In this three-part series, I’ve been exploring different aspects of returning (or continuing) to work after a cancer diagnosis. So far I’ve tackled issues from preparing to return to work and handling your workload, to dealing with problems such as fatigue and concentration.  In the final part of this series, I’m turning my attention to finding a new job after cancer treatment has ended.

There are a number of reasons why you might be looking for a new job after cancer. Perhaps you crave a fresh start, somewhere where you’re not known as the co-worker with cancer.  Or perhaps you need more work flexibility – such as the option to work part-time –  but your current employer isn’t in a position to make the adjustments you need. Or maybe you want to change career, switching direction towards something more meaningful and fulfilling.

Whether you’re looking for a new job or considering a new career direction, this month’s article has plenty of practical advice to help you.

1. Get Clarity on Your Direction

A good place to start is by getting clear on your new goals, financial needs and current skills and abilities. Grab a pen and some paper and take some time thinking about your responses to the following questions.

  • What are my core skills and strengths? Am I using them to their fullest in my current (or previous) job? Which skills and interests from my previous jobs will transfer over to a new position or field?
  • What new insights or skills have I gained through cancer? Do I want to be able to use these in my job?
  • Have my career goals changed? Do I want to work in a similar job but with more work-life balance? Or do I want to try something new?
  • Do I have the required skills for a new career interest? Will I need to retrain? How will this impact me financially?
  • Do I have the stamina to take on something new? Do I need to consider the impact of any long term side-effects from treatment on my ability to work?

2. Update Your Resume

The next step is to get your resume in order.  If it’s been several years since you last applied for a job, you may need to take into account that resume writing has changed quite a bit in the past decade. For example, the chronologically based resume (listing job titles, companies and dates in chronological order), while still popular, is giving way to a more dynamic skills-based one.   This is good news if you want to work around a gap in your employment history.  For a skills-based resume, you will create a relevant summary of your skills, career accomplishments and career goals and position this directly below your name.  You should aim to provide an example of an area of accomplishment related to each specific skill.

Pro Tip: When it comes to including employment dates, don’t include months in the dates, only years. This helps narrow the work gaps.

3. Develop Your Network

Make a list of everyone you know who is currently working in your industry or the industry you’d like to be in. Take a strategic approach by setting achievable goals for the number of people you want to connect with every week. Reach out to them and tell them about your plans to find new work or change career direction. Ask them to keep you updated of any new job openings and leads. Hiring managers are more willing to consider you for an interview after a personal recommendation.

Pro Tip: When it comes to building your professional network there’s no better tool than LinkedIn. LinkedIn multiplies your existing personal and professional networks by making the connections of your connections available to you at the touch of a digital finger.

4. Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile

Your LinkedIn profile is the cornerstone of your professional brand online. While you may already have a profile on the platform, is it optimized for a job search?   LinkedIn profile optimization simply means that your LinkedIn profile is fully updated to maximize your visibility on the platform. Everything you do on LinkedIn begins with your profile. Yet many professionals still treat their LinkedIn profile as little more than a place to park their resume and promptly forget about it.

You won’t be effective at LinkedIn networking if your profile doesn’t entice people to get to know you. Here are some quick tips to optimize your profile (for a step-by-step guide with more detailed information, click here).

  • Make your first visual impression count by displaying a high-quality professional photo.
  • Adding a background image directly behind your photo will help brand your profile. Think of it as your professional billboard.
  • Create a strong professional headline. This is a critical step because your professional headline is not just highly visible on LinkedIn, it’s also searchable by Google.
  • Nurture your LinkedIn relationships through regular engagement. This is not about making large numbers of contacts; rather, it’s about making meaningful connections.
  • Join industry relevant groups. Job openings are often posted by recruiters in industry groups. You will find groups by clicking on Interests > Groups from your profile or searching keywords to identify groups with interests similar to yours.
  • Become an active and engaged user. When you log into LinkedIn, notice each time who shows up in your home feed. Most likely you will see the same few people. These individuals are getting more visibility because they are more active. If you make the commitment to become more active in your network, you will increase your visibility
  • Be strategic about when you’re active on LinkedIn. As a general rule, LinkedIn users are most active right before and after work (7–8 am and 5– 6 pm), as well as during lunch time.

Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to use social media to your advantage: if you know the hiring manager’s or recruiter’s name, add them on LinkedIn.

5. Mind Your Digital Footprint

Employers are increasingly carrying out social media checks on prospective employees. Anticipate this by googling yourself to see what turns up.  Here is where a professional profile on LinkedIn can be enormously helpful to present the best impression. Because of the way Google’s search algorithm works, an optimized LinkedIn profile will frequently show up in the first few places of a Google search for your name.

While LinkedIn is an asset, other forms of social media may harm your search for a new job. Sharing personal information about your treatment through a blog, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook is publicly searchable by potential employers.  Many of us turn to social media sites and blogs to keep our families and friends updated on our progress and to seek support during cancer treatment.  But when your focus returns to work, you may not want your employer or prospective employer to know of your cancer history.

Pro Tip: Take some proactive steps to protect your privacy online.  Set privacy settings on things like Facebook so that nothing can be seen by people who aren’t “friends” (including pages you are a fan of – an often forgotten detail). Delete what you can from your postings on Facebook and other media that talk about your cancer. Set up a Google Alert to monitor mentions for your name.

6. Handling the Job Interview

A job interview is stressful at the best of times, but when you’re anxious about handling the question of cancer, it’s doubly so. Sixty-one percent of cancer survivors looking for a job said they fear disclosing their cancer diagnosis will negatively affect their chances of getting hired.

Rehearsing what you plan on saying ahead of time greatly reduces any anxiety you may feel. The more prepared you are before the interview, the more relaxed and at ease you will appear during the interview. Draw up a list of potential questions and practice your answers.  Accentuate the positive. For now, put aside your worries about how to explain the gap in your resume and spend some time focusing on why you are the right person for the specific job that you are applying for. List at least ten great qualities and skills you have and ask friends and family to help you brainstorm more. Try to find a willing friend or family member who will role-play the interview with you.

Remember you don’t have to disclose your cancer history either on your application or during an interview. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from asking job applicants about a disability (this includes cancer) before offering them the job.  However, you may decide you want to be upfront about a work-related absence. If this is the case, you can deal with it by briefly explaining you had some time off work for a health (or family) related reason, but that’s behind you and you’re now looking forward to re-joining the workforce. Keep it simple, stick to one sentence or two and don’t be tempted to digress. Then switch the direction of the questioning back to your skills and qualifications for the job.

Pro Tip: Do your research before going into an interview. By showing off your knowledge of both the company and the industry, you are conveying to the interviewer that you are still up-to-date even if you have been absent from work for a period of time.

7. Considering a Career Change

Cancer changes your outlook on life.  Alongside an increased awareness of the preciousness of time, you may also have decreased tolerance for spending time on meaningless tasks. Many cancer survivors, my own self included, have felt a calling for more meaningful work after their treatment has ended.    I’d like to finish this back-to-work series by sharing the stories of three such people who have used their cancer experience as a way to help others and forged new careers in the process.

Jennifer Elliott was a pre-kindergarten to elementary school age music teacher before being diagnosed with bilateral synchronous breast cancer in 2014. Since her diagnosis, her focus has shifted to patient advocacy.  “My advocacy began when I realized that my access to industry trained people, thanks to where I live and who my friends are, was impacting my care in a positive way,” said Jennifer.   “That made me angry, because we should all have equal access to quality care.  I’m now applying to graduate degree programs in public policy because, as I’m advocating for breast cancer survivors I’ve learned that all the things I’m advocating for are impacted or dictated by policy and if I want to have the broadest impact I need some policy skills and training.”

Terri Coutee was focused on a life-long dream of completing a Master’s program in teacher leadership when she received news of her second breast cancer diagnosis. “The diagnosis was the catalyst to evaluate my professional career,” explained Terri.  “I had to focus on my treatment and major surgery over a period of seven months. This gave me time to re-evaluate, research, and refocus. I learned less than 25% of women and men were not being given their options for breast reconstruction after mastectomy. As a life-long educator, I realized I could educate those affected by breast cancer and learn from my experience. A blog about my successful breast reconstruction experience led to opening a non-profit Foundation to educate a global audience through social media, attending medical conferences, and making as many personal connections as I could to assist others through their own journey. The need is endless because we haven’t found a cure for breast cancer, yet. Until we do, I will continue to educate and provide resources for the very best medical care for others faced with mastectomy.”

At the age of 51, Chris Lewis wasn’t looking for a career change. “I was working for myself and was at the peak of my earning power,” he said. “Then a poor prognosis of incurable blood cancer and my life was turned upside down. I have since had many years of complex treatment meaning I could not return to employment of any description. As my survivorship moved from months to years I needed a purpose. My body was in bad shape but I still had a business mind.”

Unhappy at the poor resources and help for people living with cancer, Chris took to the Internet to voice his displeasure, leading to him running his own successful website Chris’s Cancer Community.  “This led to me becoming a global expert speaker and writer”, said Chris. “I am self-taught in social media and an award winning writer. As a patient advocate I speak at many high profile conferences. Cancer has taken a lot from me, but has shown me a new way of life I would never have experienced. The big bonus is the incredible people I get to meet and talk to daily. It seems even at my age I have found a new career!”


Starting the Year Empowered #patientchat Highlights

On Friday, January 11th, we hosted an Empowered #patientchat on starting the new year off empowered. This time of year is a good time to reflect on the past year and set goals for the new year – including being empowered in your health.

Being an empowered patient can have many different definitions, but most include patients taking an active role in their health by furthering their education on disease and treatment options, participating in shared decision-making with healthcare professionals, and advocating for themselves to get the best care they deserve.

The Top Tweet Takeaways…


You Are the Expert of YOU

Inspire by Example

Organization is Key

Full Conversation

Singing Through Cancer Helped Me Survive

I was not very curious about the nuances of singing and producing pitch during my younger adventures in a choir. A solid chorus member, I enjoyed the demands of music acquisition, the camaraderie, and the chance to conjure my inner diva, when appropriate.

My perspective changed when I heard the words “You have cancer.” That year, those four syllables cracked me and my beautiful, imperfect, 45-year-old life wide open and handed me the dramatic role no woman desires. I found myself memorizing not Latin and French lyrics, but malignancy’s bewildering status symbols: grade, stage and node, hormone reception and recurrence. I donned drafty hospital gowns instead of costumes or robes, and summoned the diva, not to perform, but to confront a relentless, faceless villain. When offers of support poured in, I learned “Yes“ and “Things will be OK” were the only lines I needed.

I completed my transformation, from ordinary woman to infiltrating breast carcinoma patient to survivor, in just eight months. During the harrowing passages, I felt scared, boxed-in, smaller than before. Carrying the role of cancer patient sometimes left me gasping and utterly out of tune. And I’m one of the lucky ones.

Facing a life-disrupting disease didn’t give me special gifts, but it reminded me that strength and healing come from unexpected places, and it deepened my appreciation for the restorative powers of singing and music. I’ve never regretted the nights I showed up to sing when I was too weary to speak or even stand.

– – –

Singing in perfect pitch tests professionals and amateurs alike. It’s an acoustical feat of mathematics, physics and human anatomy. We climb musical scales powered by our vibrating vocal folds. The higher we go, the faster the vibrations. Those frequencies are measurable, but how our ear perceives pitch is subjective and more complex as we approach our voice’s upper limits. It’s tough for one accomplished soloist to stay the course. That challenge expands exponentially when many differently gifted vocalists attempt the crossing together.

Diabolical phrasing, chords that don’t resolve, inadequate breath control, nerves and the winter’s chill lead us astray. Sorrow enters our rehearsal spaces, announcing itself with drooping shoulders and sagging tones.

When the choir drifts off-key, directors “tune” our voices with exercises to improve pitch accuracy. We might vocalize in sections over a major chord or focus on creating an elusive, well-tuned third and then, at the director’s signal, migrate to a lower one. Interesting things occur as we’re sustaining our notes. Vibrations collide, blanketing us in an exhilarating cloud of sound that helps us recognize if we’re hovering under or over so we can recalibrate. If our tone flattens, we brighten it together, modulating up in barely-perceptible increments until all singers land on a near-perfect third or triad.

The instant when 10 or 20 choir members lock into magical harmony to sing as one voice defies description, like a ballerina’s floating, a perpetual string of fouettes. It isn’t buzz, scream, or reverb, but when an ensemble gets it right, the air celebrates with us.

– – –

I was hitting my mid-life stride when those four syllables knocked the wind out of me. I had a loving husband, amazing sons, good friends, interesting work, and meaningful volunteer pursuits. I’d even forged a delicate peace with painful childhood circumstances that bled into adulthood, and I was envisioning my next chapter.

In the lead-up to Thanksgiving, I came under bombardment. Dad and I were saying reluctant goodbyes. We knew he was running out of options and precious time. Many afternoons, I held his hand, saw his battered body succumb to cancer’s onslaught. I returned home at dusk to quietly plot my own body’s defense amid an escalating campaign of biopsy and MRI results and five-year survival projections. I had just reassured Bob and our kids (and myself) that, after my treatment, things would be okay when we were called to gather at Dad’s hospice.

On his final night, Dad’s chest labored with every subsequent breath until we watched him draw in and hold onto his most important one. The air patiently awaited permission, then transported my father to his next home. Dad died of cancer four days before my surgery; I attended his funeral, in a haze, five days after.

Amid the pandemonium, I refused to abandon the singing and ballet that anchored me in other storms, but my positive outlook didn’t spare me the progressive toll of chemotherapy, radiation and estrogen-destroying medications. Cellular warfare punished my stamina, spirit, and untrained, lyric soprano. Amid brain fog, hobbling myalgia, crushing fatigue and disappearing hair, my suffering soprano seemed like cancer piling on. What was clear and steady became temperamental and prone to croaking or evaporating mid-larynx. The diva went into hiding.

I smiled when people said, “You’re so strong.” Making peace with vulnerability was harder; it required a system override or an existential re-tuning.

I noticed the subtle, curative powers of music-making, how it awakens emotions and gently moves us into community. I soaked up the beauty of silences and admired how we stagger breathing in torturous passages to support the sound and one another and how a lush, alto line sends descants floating to wondrous heights.

There were some bruising remarks and sour notes. One regretful solo I should have refused, accomplished with sleep-inducing quantities of antihistamines. Yet I mostly recall how gracefully my musical community tuned me. Changing seats to accommodate scary side effects. Steadying arms when emotions overtook me. The kind diva passing me missing choreography, instead of scowling, when I accidentally trampled on her solo.

Friends raising a glorious roar when I could barely chirp, reminding me we belong to something mightier than any hardship or disease.

Singing through cancer punched up my playlists for the blessedly ordinary and terrible days and taught me to treasure songs that speak directly to our broken places. I count on the haunting, intersecting supplications of Renaissance master Victoria and Bach and Coldplay to calm the MRI chamber’s mayhem. It’s Prince, Bowie and Jackson Browne inviting me to dance in my kitchen. I memorized those melodies that carried hope and faith back to me when they went missing for a spell.

– – –

I’m still okay. Gratefully, still a lucky one. I reclaimed my diva and, shortly after our move to Connecticut, joined a lovely women’s chorale. I’m discovering anew how routine vocalizations can realign not only discordant notes, but our anxious minds. At a recent rehearsal, I could almost see all our invisible burdens yielding to the room’s overtones, then evaporating in the swirling, ephemeral soundscape.

I believe the best choirs accept our offerings of exacting diction, buttery timbre and angelic tones, along with our heartaches, to grow something of honesty, tenderness and majesty. Sing long enough and you’ll one day find yourself harmonizing with and holding up someone who’s making her way out of a dark or lonely valley.

The fragile heart and unpredictable, faithful voice rising with the descant (and missing an entrance or two) were once my own. People said I inspired them by sharing my voice while my body was so visibility under siege. It was uncomfortable, almost as unnerving as cancer itself.

Looking back, I think that was the point.

Non-Medical Remedies For Managing Cancer Pain

Treating cancer often involves treating multiple symptoms, both physical and emotional. The symptom of pain, however, has been highlighted as one of the most critical due to the effect it can have on recovery and overall mental well-being. Pain is seen in approximately 25% of newly diagnosed patients, 33% of those having active treatment and up to 75% of those with advanced disease according to The American Pain Society. The World Health Organization have also identified cancer pain to be a global health concern, and also mention that a large percentage of patients are not adequately treated for pain.

While the normal regimes of medication treatments are usually prescribed by a variety of healthcare professionals, some elements of the pain or personal circumstances can be overlooked. In some cases the clinical approach doesn’t always work, leading many patients to look for alternative or holistic approaches to managing their pain.

Acupuncture, Reflexology and Art Therapy

Known as a physical therapy, medical acupuncture is an evidence-based medicine. It involves inserting sterile needles into certain points in the body which then stimulates the nerve to release natural chemicals which in turn give you a feeling of well being. Acupuncture, used alongside established drug therapy, has been shown to be most effective.

Reflexology is a type of massage that focuses on applying pressure to the hands and feet. There is no scientific evidence to support its use, but many people have reported positive outcomes in managing their pain. The belief is that having your feet and hands massaged in a specific way stimulates certain organs in the body which allows for the natural release of the body’s healing process and energy pathways – similar to the way acupuncture works.

Art therapy is a type of mental therapy that helps channel your focus away from the pain itself. “Art therapy does not replace the need for pain medication, but it can be used as an effective complement and reduce perceptions of pain experiences,” says Kelsey A. Skerpan, an art therapist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Furthermore, a study done in early 2018 and published inThe Arts in Psychotherapy looked at approximately 200 people who had been hospitalized for pain and found that just 50 minutes of art therapy significantly increased moods and lowered levels of pain.

The Benefits of Exercise

Depending on the stage of cancer you’re at and the treatment you’re having, exercise may be an option to help with chronic pain. Exercise regimes can be specifically tailored depending on your personal circumstances. Studies have shown that aerobic exercises like running, walking, cycling and swimming can have a positive influence on the way individuals react to their pain, resulting in effective pain management in the long-term.

The Importance of Sleep

Sleeping is the body’s natural way to rejuvenate and heal. If you’re living with chronic pain due to your cancer, a good night’s sleep may be difficult to achieve. Some medicines used in the treatment of cancer can also affect your sleep. To help get a better night’s sleep, try and be active during the day, avoid caffeine and carbonated drinks at night or sleep on a special mattress that curves to the shape of your body.

Pain can be difficult to manage if you have cancer. Speak openly and honestly about your symptoms with your doctor or nurse. If you’re planning on trying any therapies or alternative ways of managing your pain, always check with your healthcare team first.

Finding the Funny When the Diagnosis Isn’t

It’s not easy hearing your name and [insert dread diagnosis here]. I know this only too well after having to find the funny in my own journey through cancer. Cancer is, however, most often a diagnosis that you fight to a defined end. What’s it like to find the funny in a chronic condition like multiple sclerosis, or HIV, or diabetes?

I have a number of friends dealing with the life-long aftermath of an MS diagnosis. One of them tipped me off to Jim Sweeney several years ago. Jim’s MS journey started with vision problems in 1985, he was officially diagnosed in 1990, and has been wrestling with the impact of that diagnosis – finding the funny most of the time – ever since. Jim’s body of work includes decades of live improv, and his one-man show “My MS & Me,” which you can hear on the BBC Radio 1 site. His MS has progressed to the point that he’s now in a wheelchair, and his public presence is mostly limited to Twitter, where his profile says he “can’t complain but sometimes do,” and YouTube.

Some other sterling examples of funny-or-die in managing chronic disease are Mark S. King’s fabulously funny My Fabulous Disease blog. Mark is HIV+, so he shares information, resources, and myth-busting about all things HIV in his posts and videos. He’s brutally honest about pretty much everything, with plenty of humor to soften the impact of what it’s really like to live with what anti-retroviral treatments have made a chronic illness, not the death sentence it too often was in the first two decades after the viral epidemic started in 1980.

Then there’s the “laugh out loud at the absurdity” Six Until Me site from Kerri Marrone Sparling, who writes about her life as a Type 1 diabetic. She covers everything from exceedingly random TSA security agent behavior when confronted with diabetes-related medical devices, to “pregnant while diabetic” to dealing with the emotional impact of living with a busted pancreas, all with a good dose of highly-readable snark.

How much courage does it take to laugh out loud, in public, at an incurable disease? Jim, and Mark, and Kerri certainly have courage – and comedy chops! – at the level required.

On the provider side, there are a number of docs who are breaking up the waiting rooms and wards.

The most visible of these comedic clinicians is Dr. Zubin Damania, a/k/a ZDoggMD  – “Slightly Funnier Than Placebo” was his tagline for years, before he shifted to “The Voice of Health 3.0.” ZDogg is a hospital medicine specialist who’s built an empire of snark over the last decade plus, some G-rated and some most definitely NSFW. His videos alone guarantee hours of laughter, and he’s one of the best users of Facebook Live around.

I’ve even found a scholarly article entitled The Use of Humor to Promote Patient Centered Care – be warned, though, that (1) it’s a “scholarly article,” meaning that it’s had all the laughs surgically removed and (2) they want $42.50 for it. You have been warned.

What’s my point here? I actually have two:

1. Laughter really is the best medicine.

Humor keeps us in touch with our humanity, and – unless it’s insult comedy, which I do not recommend in the health care arena, unless it’s insulting bad health care – it helps to comfort others in the same situation.

2. Patients and providers need to work together to help each other find the funny.

If you’re a doctor, don’t just say “you’ve got [insert dread diagnosis here], here’s the treatment plan, call if you have any questions, … NEXT!” Look your patients in the eye, and channel your inner comedian whenever it’s appropriate. If you’re a patient, connect with other people in your situation and see how they’re finding the funny. And help your doctors find their funny. If they can’t find it, you should find another doctor.

We all need to work together to break each other up. Laughter can comfort, can calm, it can even heal.

That’s real disruptive health care, no prescription required.

ASH 2018 – Exciting News in CLL Treatment

CLL patient advocate, Lee Swanson, interviews Dr. Adrian Wiestner, Senior Investigator, Laboratory of Lymphoid Malignancies National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), National Institute of Health (NIH), about the exciting news in treatment of CLL.


Lee Swanson:

Hello.  I’m Lee Swanson, and this is the American Society of Hematology conference in a chilly San Diego today, at least by San Diego standards.  And we are here today just outside one of the meeting rooms where a lot of people, clinicians and researchers are finding out about new developments.  And joining me is Dr. Adrian Wiestner from the National Institutes of Health, the Heart, Blood and—Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

And what are the exciting things to you about the research developments in CLL at this conference?

Dr. Wiestner:
So what’s most exciting really is the development of novel therapies for patients, and that’s—you can only say it’s starting to be old news, because ibrutinib (Imbruvica) has been approved two years ago, but we’re still learning about how well this treatment actually works for people and how it can start to replace chemotherapy probably for most everybody with CLL.

And then there is exciting developments in regards to other treatments, venetoclax (Venclexta), some of the newer kinase inhibitors, so a lot of treatment choices being really worked out for patients.

Lee Swanson:
And those are drugs we know about, the ones that you’ve mentioned.  There are a lot of things in the pipeline as well, aren’t there?

Dr. Wiestner:
There are things in the pipeline, but I think we actually have the tools or the color, if you wish, and now it’s about really painting the path forward in the sense that how do we best integrate these different tools into one strategy.  And there’s research on what strategy is maybe best fitted for some genetic profiles in CLL versus others. So if you have a very benign genetic profile in CLL, maybe just ibrutinib alone or a kinase inhibitor alone will work.

We’re learning that other patients will need combination therapy.  We’re seeing that combinations can be done safely.  We’re learning that combinations can improve efficacy.  An example is the combination of these chimeric antigen receptor T cells, the CAR‑T cells, is highly effective and patient‑derived cells that can attack CLL.  So that becomes more efficacious and actually also better tolerated when you combine it with ibrutinib.  I think that’s—this is an example of how we’re still learning how to put the things together.

Lee Swanson:
So from a patient’s perspective how should they find out about clinical trials or new developments like this?  What’s their best path?

Dr. Wiestner:
So there are many good places to learn about this.  Patient Power is one of them.  There are other patient organizations that can be found on the ‘net.  There’s The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society that has information.  Then there is the NIH has several resources for patients.  So you can Google “clinical center CLL.” You can Google “NIH” in general.  There is a website that’s called clinical trials where people can search with a disease, with a diagnosis, with a location, even with a treatment.  So it’s very customizable to search for clinical trials in your area.

Lee Swanson:
And then, of course, they have to figure out, work with their doctor to fill out if that’s a fit for them.

Dr. Wiestner:
Right.  Obviously, yes, for all clinical trials.  Yes.  Yes.  That’s—but a lot of the really exciting developments are transitioning into also clinical care.  There are big clinical trials set up by cooperative groups across the country, so there are—will be opportunities to really participate.  And I think it’s—it is key to keep participating in the trials.  We have the tools, but again how to best put them together can only be found out by clinical trials.

Lee Swanson:
Okay.  Well, thank you very much.  Appreciate you being here with us today.

Dr. Wiestner:
Thank you.

Lee Swanson:
And I’m Lee Swanson at the American Society of Hematology conference.  American Society of Hematology.

Digital Sherpa™ Program Featured on Change Together

Editor’s Note: Our Digital Sherpa™ was featured on Astellas’s Change Together blog and was originally published here.

Advocacy groups join forces to provide digital health education for cancer patients

As the saying goes, there’s no point reinventing the wheel – which is why two patient advocacy groups driving for patient empowerment have teamed up on a program of digital health education for cancer patients and their caregivers.

The Patient Empowerment Network’s (PEN) Digital Sherpa program, in which tech-savvy young people teach older cancer patients to access online health information and resources, has been piloted by three Cancer Support Community (CSC) affiliate groups.

Digital Sherpa workshops, which first featured on Change Together earlier this year, proved extremely popular when trialed with CSC groups in San Francisco, Dallas and Los Angeles.

Katie Dimond, Program Manager at CSC said she knew it was a perfect partnership as soon as she discussed the opportunity with PEN’s Executive Director, Andrea Conners.

Perfect partnership

“We have an existing population of less tech-savvy people who would really benefit, and I knew immediately it would work and that there would be an interest for this,” she said.

“We knew some of our affiliate groups would love to do something like this, but might not have the resources. To be able to give them everything they need to provide for their existing populations and even get new people in is a win/win for everyone.”

And they were right. In fact, the pilots went so well that the two groups are now discussing the possibility of rolling this out to more CSC affiliate groups next year.

“We really want to empower patients and part of that is our online resources – making sure people are aware of the type of cancer they have; the side effects of treatment and they can be part of the decision-making process. Working with PEN is such a great partnership,” she said.

Shannon La Cava, PsyD, Program Director at Cancer Support Community’s Los Angeles affiliate group agreed the program was a perfect fit.

“I was very interested because it sounded like it would be a great benefit to our members. The average age of our members is 55 and people often come in to ask how to get onto online services,” she said.

While PEN recruited the volunteer Sherpas, the CSC groups organized and marketed the events.

Shannon’s colleague, Allison Brown, LCSW, was at the Los Angeles workshop which saw almost 40 people receive a lesson in patient portals, digital health information and even social media from UCLA and USC student volunteers.

“The students did a great job and worked with what the members were asking for. It was really nice to watch the students and our members work together,” she said.

Shannon added that this opportunity for the volunteers and their typically older tech trainees to connect was an unintentional benefit of the workshops.

Joy of collaboration

Andrea said she was delighted to be able to work so closely with the organization and said the collaboration was a “mutually beneficial relationship”.

“The mission of CSC is very much aligned with our mission, and we really admire and respect what they do and how they do it.”

“CSC is providing quality programming that will help patients become more health literate and it wants to help them access those resources – and we just so happen to have a program that does exactly that,” she said.

Attendees at a Digital Sherpa workshop:

Digital SherpaDigital Sherpa


Emerging Research and Promising AML Treatment Approaches

Downloadable Program Guide

Leading experts shared recent breakthroughs in AML treatment and research announced at the 2018 American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting. The panel discusses new drug approvals, emerging clinical trial data, innovative, individualized approaches to treat distinct AML subtypes, and how these advances translate to the real world and impact AML patients.



Hello, and welcome to today’s webinar. I’m Beth Probert. I am an MPN patient, was diagnosed a few years ago with polycythemia vera. Today’s webinar is where are we headed with the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia. What can patients look forward to for the coming year?

This is a Patient Empowerment Network program. And I’d like to thank our sponsors. As always, our sponsors have no editorial control over the content. Today, we’re going to talk about topics like recent breakthroughs in AML treatment and research announced at the 2018 American Society of Hematology ASH Annual Meeting. We’ll look at emerging clinical trials and how to access them, individualized approaches to treat distinct AML subtypes, and how will these advances translate for patients. You’ll also hear from AML patient Steve, as he shares his first-hand experience facing AML and how he’s doing now.

We will also answer viewer questions. And if you have a question, please keep in mind, we can’t get real specific with these questions, so try to keep them general, really geared more towards information and questions.

And we’d like you to send your questions throughout the program. We will try to answer all questions that come through. And if we can’t get to all of them, we will certainly address them through future webinars. Now, I’d love to introduce you to today’s guest. Our first guest is Dr. Naval Daver, associate professor, Department of Leukemia at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Welcome, Dr. Daver. I’m so glad you could join us today.

Naval Daver:

Hello. Thank you for having me. Glad to join.


And our next guess is Leah Szumita. And Leah provides clinical trial support at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. So, Leah, thank you. I’m glad you can be here today.


Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.


And our next guess is our patient panelist, Steve Buechler, and he is an AML patient who has had a remarkable journey. Steve, welcome from Minnesota.


Thank you. I’m happy to be here.


Great. Well, Steve, we’d like to get started with you. I’d like for you to tell our viewers a little bit about your life with AML. And if you can include how did you get diagnosed, what was that like getting diagnosed, and how did you react, who is your support team, and just what you’ve been though. So, I’ll turn it over to you now.


Well, at age 64, I was living what I thought was a normal, healthy life. I had no symptoms. My primary care physician had been monitoring my white blood cell count for a couple of years because it was borderline low but not too alarming. And then, in the spring of 2016, it began to drop more precipitously.

So, he recommended I see a hematologist, and I went to do that. And the hematologist said I should probably have a bone marrow biopsy. And so, I agreed to do that sort of to humor them because I didn’t feel sick. I didn’t have any symptoms. I didn’t have any idea anything was wrong. It was a memorable week. The biopsy was on a Monday. On Tuesday, I swam my normal 50 laps. I did some shopping. I ate dinner out. Wednesday morning, I played in a weekly poker game with some retired guys. So, life was normal, until that phone call that came Wednesday afternoon informing me I had acute myeloid leukemia, and I had to get to a hospital right away.

So, the next day, I checked into a hospital. The day after that, Friday, I started chemotherapy. So, in 48 hours, I went from feeling perfectly healthy to 24/7 chemotherapy drip. And they started me on this standard treatment that’s been use, I think, for a very long time called 7 + 3 Cytarabine and Daunorubicin to try to get the cancer into remission. And so, I spent a week on that medication.

And then, I waited for the inevitable drop in my white blood cell count and my immune system. I was going to be very vulnerable to various kinds of infections. And as predicted, I came down with colitis and an E coli infection, body rash, and a bunch of other stuff that they couldn’t even identify. But the infectious disease doctors stepped in and dealt with those issues one at a time. So, I ended up spending 5.5 weeks in the hospital for my counts to recover. But the good news was, one month after starting chemo, they did a bone marrow biopsy that found there was no residual leukemia. So, the first goal had been reached, at that point. I was in remission.

Adding to the story, of course, the first night I spent in the hospital, my wife was with me and left late in the evening to go home. And as she arrived home, she had a stabbing pain in her right leg. The next morning, she got up and could hardly get out of bed, called 9-1-1. They brought her to my hospital in an ambulance through the ER.

And it turned out she had a fractured femur. So, I was on one floor of the hospital in the chemo ward, and she was on another floor of the hospital awaiting subsequent surgery to repair her leg. And then, she went off to a transitional care unit for rehab. So, when I realized our house was going to be unoccupied for about a month, I started to write to our neighbors on email. And I found it was a really useful way to communicate. So, I ended up, over the many months that followed, adding maybe 60 people to that email list and sending over 60 emails out, over the course of a year and a half to keep people informed of what was going on.

I, subsequently realized, as I was writing for other people that I was really using that writing to make sense of my own experience. I struggled to figure out what was going on and how I could capture it and how I could explain to people. And it was useful to get their responses back, but it was useful for me. It was very therapeutic for me just to have that writing experience to make sense out of what was going on.

After 5.5 weeks, I got permission to leave. I went home for a while. But I was awaiting the genetic testing of my cancer to figure out what the next round of treatment would be. Because I think people know, with AML, there needs to be a second arm of the treatment. It can come back very fast and very ferociously. I was told that the genetic testing of my cancer would put me in either a low risk or a high-risk category for recurrence. And that would point towards either chemotherapy, if it was low risk, and stem cell transplant, if it was high risk.

When the results finally came in, they said, “Well, you’re kind of in an intermediate category.” So, the way forward was not as clear as I thought it might be. So, I talked to my initial oncologist. I did my own research. I, subsequently, went and talked to a transplant oncologist at the University of Minnesota Medical Center who sort of nudged me towards the transplant option. I went to the Mayo Clinic and got a second opinion. And all of the indications really were that I would be a good candidate for transplant. I had no comorbidity. I had no other health problems.

And everybody thought I should probably be able to withstand the conditioning fairly well. So, eventually, I came around to that decision to have a stem cell transplant. I had a brother who was a half match donor. But the folks at the BMT unit said we also have some good umbilical cord blood matches for you. And so, I was, again, faced with the decision about which way to go. But it turned out they had a study. Don’t they always have a study? I was randomly assigned to the cord blood donor option. So, my brother was off the hook.

And I ended up having a double cord blood stem cell transplant in October of 2016, about four or five months after I was initially diagnosed. That procedure went very smoothly. And within three weeks, a biopsy revealed that one of my cord donors was 99% engrafted, which is pretty early for a cord blood procedure. So, that was good news. I was able to go home, at that point, and begin a pretty long, extensive, and sometimes arduous process of recovery.

The first 100 days, they offered me to come back to clinic daily for the first month or so to get blood tests, to get platelets, to get red blood cell transfusions, whatever it is that you need to keep you healthy. It’s a pretty vulnerable time. One of the oncologists, at the transplant unit, described this whole procedure as, first, we bring you to the brink of death by killing off diseased immune system. And then, we try to bring you back again. Well, it worked, in my case, I’m happy to report. So, by early 2017, I was beginning to taper off my anti-rejection medication. That ended in April of that year.

And then, it was just a process of gradually getting more strength, getting better. And, in my case, very fortunately, I avoided any trace of graft versus host disease. So, that allowed me to have a pretty healthy recovery. One year after my transplant, of course, I had to go in and get my baby shots, my vaccinations and needles because my previous immune system had been obliterated. And they only gave me the dead vaccines, at that point, because they reasoned I couldn’t handle the live ones.

So, that happened at Year 2. And that was recently completed about two months ago. I got the rest of my vaccines. The other good part of the story is, although there was a 60 to 70% chance of graft versus host disease, I never had any trace of that. I’ve since become very active in talking with other patients as a volunteer, doing some writing, becoming involved in the cancer community. And I’ve come to appreciate really how fortunate my story was. I think the three big indicators were I got into remission on the first try. I’ve talked to a lot of patients who haven’t been able to do that.

My transplant engrafted within three weeks, which was a very solid, early result. And a lot of patients don’t have that kind of success. And I had no graft versus host disease. So, that’s about as good of a story as you can have with AML, as I understand it. So, obviously, I’m very grateful to have done that. And something like that gives me a lot of motivation to try and give something back. So, I’ve been participating in various ways in the cancer community.

Believe it or not, that’s the short version.


Steve, you have a remarkable story. I just heard – we talked earlier, and just to keep hearing your story again is really just so noteworthy. And the three points you made, just having the early remission the first time with chemo is amazing. And early engraftment just within three weeks and no graft versus host disease. And your enthusiasm and wanting to give back and just with your writing. And we’ll talk a little bit later. I know that you have a book that’s coming out. So, your story is, for someone like me, amazing. But Dr. Daver, I’d like to turn to you, for a few moments, and tell me, is Steve’s story typical?

And what kind of feedback do you have on his journey?

Naval Daver:

So, Steve’s story is a very good outcome story. It’s not necessarily typical, as Steve mentioned. About 70 to 80% of our patients will go into remission with the first induction. So, it’s a high number, but it’s not 100%. And if you don’t go into remission with the first induction that is actually one of the very high risk or adverse features. It’s called primary refractory AML. And those patients usually do have a much harder time. The second thing is about 60% of patients will fall in what we call intermediate groups. So, we do do molecular and cytogenetics. And if we find that we have favorable molecular cytogenetic changes, then, those are considered to be good.

And we may not do transplant. On the other hand, if you have unfavorable cytogenetic molecular, then, it’s very clear a transplant probably is the only hope for long term survival. But, unfortunately, a lot of patients fall into intermediate group.

Now, that intermediate group is becoming smaller and smaller because we are understanding more and more about the molecular machinery, the cytogenetics, and the prognostic impact of new molecular mutations. So, we are able to triage patients better into high risk or low risk, which helps us make the transplant decision. But I think the most fortunate thing, in Steve’s case, was the lack of GVHD. And that actually is very uncommon. Most of the patients we see will have some degree of GVHD. It may be acute. It maybe chronic. In most cases, I will say that it is manageable. We rarely see very severe ICU requiring GVHD or fatalities from GVHD.

But about 60 to 70% will have some degree of GVHD, will require some treatment for it with steroids or additional immunosuppression. And in some cases, it can take many months and can be a major discomfort and affect quality of life. So, I think that was fantastic that he did not have the GVHD. And I think all of those features, although are seen in a traditional AML story, I think Steve was fortunate, and the outcome was very favorable so far.


Great. I really like that feedback. And what I wanted to ask you, as well, in regard to the no graft versus host disease, you said about 60 to 70% will actually encounter that. So, am I correct in assuming then that, when you do a transplant with someone, you account that that’s probably going to happen, the graft versus host disease and you have treatments and things lined up in anticipation of that happening?

Dr. Daver:

Yeah, absolutely. When we do the stem cell transplant itself, we actually do prophylaxis for graft versus host disease. Almost all patients will be on steroids, some form of immune prophylaxis. It may be tacrolimus. It may be sirolimus. There are some newer drugs. And in spite of that, if we see graft versus host disease, we have some very good medications.

In fact, some recent drugs approved such as Ruxolitinib, Ibrutinib, etc., which can work. But in spite of all of that, I would say a majority of patients do face a struggle with graft versus host disease. And they do have some degree. Now, again, it may not be severe. It may be in the form of graft versus host disease of the mouth, which causes your ability to eat to be decreased, or it may be the skin, which may be itchy or uncomfortable, or it could be ocular, which causes eye irritation and burning and requires eye drops. So, they may not be severe, but they hugely do cause discomfort of that quality of life.

But yes, we do try our best to avoid it. And in some patients, we are able to get away with none. And in some patients, they will have mild to moderate, which has to be treated. Luckily, with the newer generation of immune prophylaxis monitoring treatment, we have very few severe graft versus host disease, which is a good thing.


Great. I’m so glad you touched on that. So, I wanted to shift gears a little bit, Dr. Daver, and find out from you what are some of the key takeaways for AML patients and care partners from ASH.

And I also wanted to say what I’ve heard a lot, in regard to AML is that, for almost 40 years, there was just a standard way of treating. And all of a sudden, in the very recent years or maybe year, I’m hearing that there’s so much now, new drugs and things happening. So, would you mind touching upon some of those key takeaways?

Dr. Daver:

Absolutely. I think, this year 2018 was clearly the year of AML. There’s just, compared to all of the other malignancies, in the last two years, there’s just been a huge amount of progress in the way of approvals. Now, what I do have to say is, although we are seeing the fruits of a lot of efforts, actually, the research in AML has been very intensive for the last 15 to 20 years. And what we’re now seeing is really the combination of a lot of those efforts. Molecular, immune analysis, which have led to these drug approvals.

But today, really, I think, compared to even three years ago, when we did not have a number of these drugs, the whole outlook for treatment of AML has changed dramatically. So, we’ve had eight new drugs approved in a few years. And, to put it in perspective, for the 40 years before that, we actually really had almost no drug approved. There was one drug, Gemtuzumab, approved, but it was actually withdrawn from the market. So, when they say when it rains, it pours, that kind of really did happen, in the case of acute myeloid leukemia. But what’s really important, I think, I that there are now a number of targeted therapies towards particular mutations.

And some of these have actually been approved, in the frontline setting. So, now, it has become very important that we don’t just treat all AMLs as one disease. In fact, that’s something we knew for about 20 years that AML is one of the most heterogenous of all malignancies. Lung cancer and AML, these are probably the two most heterogenous cancers where it’s not really this is AML, it’s different types of AML, which can have prognosis of 95% cure rate all the way down to 10 to 15%.

So, identifying these groups was very important for prognosis. And that’s something we have been doing but more important for treatment. So, for example, a mutation that is called an FLT3 mutation is very, very important because, on its own, it is associated with an adverse prognosis. These patients had high white counts, proliferative disease, and their three year or five-year survival was usually 20 to 25%, when we first identified this mutation in 2001. Now, there are new drugs called FLT3 inhibitors that specifically inhibit the FLT3 mutation pathway.

And with the addition of FLT3 inhibitors, specifically a drug called Midostaurin that was FDA approved 1.5 years ago, plus stem cell transplant, and even more so, at the recent ASH 2018 meeting doing post stem cell transplant, FLT3 inhibitor, when we do all of these three interventions, we’re now getting up to five year plus survival rates of 75%. So, this is amazing.

The patient who was 25% 12 years or 13 years ago, when we first identified this mutation, could today, if appropriately treated with FLT3 inhibitor transplant and FLT3 inhibitor maintenance, could be in a 75% long term survivor rate. So, tripling those outcomes. And similar things are being seen for other groups. For example, APL, acute promyelocytic leukemia, is one disease where we actually are able to treat these patients without chemotherapy. So, you can give a combination of ATRA arsenic, which gives you 95% cure rates.

So, the key now, and what I tell a lot of our community doctors, our fellows, other academicians is it’s not about just rushing in treatment, which has been the paradigm for 30 or 40 years, but more important, it identifies specific molecular mutations or cytogenetic changes and choose the best treatment because the impact of choosing the appropriate molecular or non-chemotherapy or antibody based treatment is, actually, much more than quick therapy. And I think that message now is going out.

And things are improving overall.


Wow. And what I’m hearing are two things. Eight new drugs, however, those eight drugs are specifically going to be used, in regards to different mutations. And so, my question to you is it’s very obvious that genetic testing, for these mutations, is a huge puzzle piece to this. And could you talk a little bit about that. At what point can a patient get this genetic testing from the mutations. And if you could just speak to that because it just sounds that is essential?

Dr. Daver:

Yeah, absolutely. I think that is probably the No. 1 takeaway for both patients, caregivers, and physicians. So, the genetic testing should be done for all new AMLs at the time of diagnosis. And there are a number of different labs across the country, commercial labs, that are able to do this new genomics, foundations, hematologic, all of these are not insurance approved and covered.

Some of the larger academic centers have their own molecular testing analysis. The most important thing is that we should usually wait for these results before rushing into therapy. And just to give an example, when we see a new AML at MD Anderson, we will rush their cytogenetics and molecular testing. We’re looking for cytogenetics to rule in or rule out APL, acute promyelocytic leukemia because this can be treated without chemotherapy with 95% cure rates. The other big group we’re looking at is what we call core binding factor leukemia. These are a group of specific chromosomes associated leukemias.

And if you find those, then, that is the group or the addition of the antibody treatment called Gemtuzumab Ozogamicin or Mylotarg, which is FDA approved, can improve the survival rates by almost 20%, which is a huge amount on top of chemo. So, you don’t want to miss identifying this core binding factor of chromosomes. Then, if we don’t find one of these two, then, we rush our molecular panel.

We are fortunate. We get the molecular results in 48 hours. That’s one of the places in the country. There are a few other groups that are in the same range. But even in the commercial setting, I know for a fact that they’re able to get these results in six to seven days. So, I think it is actually possible and feasible. And even on some of the large trials we’ve done across 100 plus centers, we were able to safely wait for those results. Two molecular results were most important looking for our FLT3, if you find that mutation. We want to add the FLT3 inhibitor up front, and then, IDH1, IDH2 mutation.

And if you find those, we may consider, on a trial basis, adding IDH1, IDH2 mutations. And then, if none of those mutations or chromosome groups are identified, then, we will consider standard treatment. But even there, we have trials where we’re adding new drugs, which have shown very high activity like Venetoclax or Nivolumab or immune therapies to standard chemo. So, really, this is now personalized therapy. There are five clear subsets of AML that will have different treatment approaches.

And addition of the appropriate agent could improve your survival and cure rates from anywhere from 10 to 30 or 40%. So, I think this is quite important.


It’s just amazing. And what I’m also picking up on, and what I’ve been told about AML, is that you need to move quick. This is, once diagnosed, time is of the essence, and especially with the different subtypes. So, we’re talking about genetic testing. And I really, really was very interested in hearing how it works and how quick it could be turned around. But what would you say – we very often hear, like in Steve’s case, it was his doctor who referred him to a local hematologist and then, eventually, to a specialist? Sometimes, we hear people being rushed to the hospital or going to their local doctor. But time is of the essence, in getting this genetic testing.

What advice do you give patients who, typically, might go to a local doctor, how to move along in this process and how to advocate for that genetic testing? Do you have any feedback on that?

Dr. Daver:

Yeah. I think there’s a fine balance. And that’s where it’s hard to make a generalized recommendation across the board because there are some AML patients who come to us who have a very high white count, more than 100,000, for example. They may have evidence of leukemia already infiltrating their liver or kidney, with organ abnormalities and lab changes. And in those patients, we may have to start treatment very early. But those are the minority. We’ve published, as other groups have looked at this, those make up about 5 to 10%. So, in the majority, it is, actually, a mindset change.

And this is something we’re doing a lot of education on, as well, is that that mindset of the sun should never set on AML. We have to treat right away, actually, was true, when you didn’t have other effective therapies that could be added that could change your outcome from 25% to 75%.

But today, in fact, I think it’s much more important to select the appropriate treatment or the addition of the appropriate molecular immune therapy than rushing into treatment. In fact, our group, as well as a number of other groups in the country, have published it. So, what we recommend, in general, is we get a new AML. We would admit those patients. I still think this is an inpatient disease. We would monitor them closely. We send, on the same day that we see them, a molecular chromosome panel. We ask it to be rushed. And then, usually, we can get these results in three to five days.

And I would wait to get those results because, based on those results, we may choose a FLT3 inhibitor. We may choose the antibody Gemtuzumab. We may choose IDH therapy. We may choose ATRA arsenic. So, I think, for most patients, what you could do, of course, you have to be careful when you’re discussing it with a physician, you don’t want to push on them too much. But I think it’s important to ask about molecular therapies, molecular trials, whether we could get the molecular information early, and how we could incorporate that.

I think, the good thing is we’re seeing, across the country, most of the physicians are taking this approach. And there is very intense education. But I still think it doesn’t hurt to ask about it and make sure that that testing is being done because I think it could make a huge difference in your outcome.


Great. Wonderful feedback. Now, Leah Szumita, I’d like to bring you in on this conversation because we heard eight new medicines right now. That’s huge. And as Dr. Daver said, those are the results of clinical trials. And, recently, I heard that only about five to eight percent of adult cancer patients are participating nationwide, in the United States, in clinical trials. That seems like such a small number. And we depend on these patients to participate in these clinical trials to come out with these eight new meds.

There’s definitely a gap. And I’d like to hear your feedback about just that. And then, if you can go into – I’m going to ask you a few more questions about how people get involved in clinical trials. So, take us through that.


Great, I will. So, I have to echo Dr. Daver’s sentiments about the importance of the genomic testing as well. And really, the new breakthrough in AML therapy is just a testament to the ongoing research. As he said, the research has been happening for 15 or 20 years. And we’re finally seeing the fruits of the labor. So, it’s encouraging. And that five to eight percent is low, but there’s room for improvement. And I think many different organizations have identified barriers to why these enrollment rates are so low. I will say that, of all of the clinical trials, somewhere between two and ten percent of clinical trials have to close because of low accrual rate.

So, there is just serious work to be done. I think, you can look at barriers in two different ways. There are patient barriers. There’s just a lack of awareness that clinical trials exist for all stages of diseases. So, many people believe that a clinical trial is only for those who have exhausted all other treatment options. And so, that’s actually not true. There are trials for every stage of disease. Previously untreated, newly diagnosed, relapse refractory, maintenance and remission. There are other barriers that people are afraid to be a guinea pig.

And so, I think, as healthcare providers, that’s our job to really educate that clinical trials are very controlled, closely monitored situations, provide education on the different phases and what those mean. There are very complex and stringent inclusion/exclusion criteria to clinical trials, which, in one way, can make it very difficult to understand, if you’re even eligible for a trial.

And so, that’s why clinical trial nurse navigators, such as myself, can really help patients and caregivers sort through that information. And then, sometimes, physicians aren’t aware of all of the trials that are out there either. And that is not to slight practitioners, but, again, it’s just an overwhelming amount of information. It takes time to stay on top of all of this research. It takes time to go through all of this research and all of the different protocols.

And so, it’s really important for patients and caregivers to have an advocate to try to identify what clinical trial is right for them.


And so, through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, you offer this service, if I understand you correctly. So, patients and their caregivers can reach out to your department and find out what is there for me. What comes to mind, also, I hear quite often, and we’ll get Dr. Daver’s opinion on this as well, in just a moment, but there seems to be roadblocks to people, not only I don’t want to be a guinea pig and understanding that piece of it, but also are there some financial hurdles, geographic hurdles?

I hear from patients, quite often, that I live so remotely. I’m in a rural area. How would I manage this? So, could you give a little feedback about that?


Sure. First, with regards to the financial barriers, another common myth is that a clinical trial is free. And, unfortunately, it’s not. I would say that, often times, whatever is being studied, either a new drug or a combination of drugs that usually is covered by the sponsor of the trial. But the rest of the care needs to be billed to insurance. And then, there’s this third bucket of cost, which is the money it takes to get someone and their family members to and from all of these appointments, prolonged hospital stays away from home. So, those are significant financial barriers to participate, in a clinical trial.

There are resources out there to help navigate through some of these obstacles. And, again, I would encourage people to contact Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. We can help steer you to those resources. With regards to the geographic barrier, it’s correct. A lot of these large, academic medical centers are not in proximity to people in rural areas. And that is one key point of clinical trials that needs to be improved upon. And I think a great goal would be to get some of these later stage, later phase trials out into the community setting where they may not require quite as intensive monitoring.

But it can also be available to more patients and really diversify the patient populations.


Great. Really great feedback. And then, Dr. Daver, I know that your center is very proactive with communicating clinical trials to patients. And could you just speak about that a little bit?

I know it must be overwhelming. You’re doing your research. You’re a clinician working with your patients and to keep on top of every clinical trial. But, again, I know that that’s something you’re very, very on top of. But could you give a little feedback about how you approach that?

Dr. Daver:

Yeah. As an AML expert, I would still say I’m not really aware of every AML trial, in the country. It’s not possible. There’s 200 or 300. And they keep changing every week. So, nobody really, at a clinician level, is going to be completely aware. Now, what we do know is the comorbid areas, the targeted groups, the particular mutational groups of trial, the new trials, and, of course, what’s looking more exciting, whether it’s in Phase 1, Phase 2, or Phase 3 development. I completely echo the sentiments. I think 100% of our efforts should be to get patients on trial. And, at MD Anderson, we have 180 trials in leukemia alone of which about 70 or 80 are in AML.

And, of course, this is on the higher end of the spectrum. But the focus is really to enroll people on trial. And, I think, what patients often, and I hear this almost every day in clinic, is that they’re concerned because, when you say a trial, they are thinking experimentation. I think there’s a big difference in experimentation and clinical investigation. So, our effort is always to offer trials that give you standard of therapy plus something. And, in fact, whenever we’re treating a frontline patient, no leukemia expert, least of all, in a very large academic center, is going to randomize the patient to something other than standard of care.

But what we do want to see is can we improve the standard of care. And that’s how all of these new drugs go approved. So, we were doing these trials with FLT3 inhibitors added to chemotherapy for almost 10 or 11 years at some of the large centers in the country. Similarly, with IDH inhibitors or Gemtuzumab. And I have many patients who, seven, eight, nine years ago, were able to go on these trials, many, many years before the FLT3 inhibitors approved and get those benefits.

So, the way we like to put it is to try to get you tomorrow’s therapy today. So, you’re going to get access, approximately, four to five years before a drug is approved. And almost always, you will get the standard treatment plus something. So, you’re not going to get less. You’re going to get more. Now, of course, all of the additions may not work. But the chance is that at least you’ll get the benefit of standard agent plus something. And a lot of times, when we explain that, then, patients, of course, say I would like the trial rather than just standard of care.

The other thing is, with the cost, although it’s true that the drugs may not all be free, at least you may get some or part of, in some cases, all of the drugs free. So, at least there is some incentive there because, a lot of times, people say the insurance covers it. But the cost of a lot of drugs is astronomical. And even if you’re paying just 5% for an average AML drug targeted therapy, which is somewhere between $15,000.00 to $20,000.00, that 5% can be $1,000.00 to $1,500.00 a month.

So, a lot of times, what I see from my patients is, when they go on our trial for FLT3 inhibitors and IDH inhibitors, and even the fact that they’re not paying their co-pay, often offsets their cost of coming to MD Anderson or coming to Dana Farber or Sloan Kettering or whatever it may be. So, I really think that one should definitely talk to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, other major organizations, so that they can find out what trials are there. And many times, patients say, well, don’t think there’s a trial for me, or their local physician may not be aware.

And I can guarantee you, almost 99 to 100% of the time, there will be not just one but many, many trials that are available to you. So, I think that little bit of effort, emails, phone calls can go a long way.


Great feedback. And Leah, going back to you, excuse me – I’m sorry. I just need to stand up a moment. I’m in a room that decided the lights would go off. But you can all hear me. Speaking to you, and I’m getting towards our lights, can you talk about what questions someone can ask their doctor, in regard to clinical trials?

What are those important questions?


Absolutely. So, there are so many of them. And one of the things that my group of nurses and myself do is really provide people with education about the basics of clinical trials and then, the language and the questions they can use, when they go back to their provider. And then, also, when they go to make that connection with the clinical trial group. So, the list is long. I would say first and foremost, asking what the risks and benefits are. Many times, in a clinical trial, there are different requirements about how often someone might come to and from the site, what the finances might be related to that.

Also, a lot of studies or drugs used in studies have been used in other studies. So, asking if there are any early results or any results from prior studies using those medications is important.

And asking about how this may affect quality of life, all of those different kinds of questions. There’s a very long list. We do have a fabulous clinical trials booklet that patients and caregivers can obtain that have lists of questions. And we always encourage people to read through that material as well. But knowledge is power. So, the more knowledge and research someone does, and bringing someone with them to these appointments to really take notes because it can be so difficult to absorb all of this information, would be some of my recommendations.


Wonderful. Great feedback. So, Steve, I’d like to circle back to you now. You have this overwhelming, very intense journey. Where did you get information about AML? Where did you get support? We hear that so often, when someone is diagnosed, and they have to handle and make decisions fast, what kind of resources did you utilize. And tell our viewers out there, so the can understand what to do and how to do it.


Well, one thing I did not do is go on the internet and scare myself half to death. I trusted my doctors. It did happen so quickly that I was in treatment before I even understood the nature of my disease. So, for better or worse, I was getting on that train and going wherever it was going to take me. But I had a great team of social workers. I had great nurses. My oncologist was excellent in spending as much time with me as I wanted. And so, it was a gradual kind of learning curve for me. And the fact that the early treatment went pretty well, obviously, helped give me confidence.

And the same thing, when I went down to the University of Minnesota Medical Center. They gave me a very thorough explanation of what was going on, recommended the stem cell transplant. I had a colleague whose father actually worked in this area decades ago.

And I talked with him. He stressed the importance of getting a second opinion. So, I was able to go to the Mayo Clinic, which is about an hour and a half drive from where I live. And I talked, first, to a hematologist who said I can tell you some things, but you should come back and talk to the transplant experts here. So, I did that as well. So, between my initial oncologist, my transplant oncologist, my second opinions at the Mayo Clinic, I was pretty confident that not that it would all work out, but this was the best path to follow. And as I followed that path, I did get invited to a clinical trial.

Just from a patient’s perspective, some years ago, I was the caregiver for my mother, as she was struggling and eventually dying of breast cancer. And her oncologist wanted to put her in a clinical trial. And I was very suspicious, and wondering is she not going to get the kind of care that she needs because you want to use her as a subject in a study. And I declined that study. And some years later, I find myself being invited to join a study. And I asked a lot of questions, especially when I saw that 22-page consent form.

That’s pretty daunting. There’s a lot there, and there’s a lot to ask about, and I did. And people patiently answered my questions. And I just came to realize, essentially, in my case, the trial wasn’t even close to experimental. What they were saying is this is how we’re going to treat you regardless. But if you’re willing to do the study, we’re going to track the results. And that can help people down the line. So, at that point, it seemed almost like a no brainer. And I could have chosen my brother as a donor or a stem cell as a donor. Instead, I went into a study that randomized me. And I went into the stem cell, and it turned out just fine.

But they said the five-year survival rates for either path are about the same, so that’s why we’re doing the study to try to figure out what the different pathways are to that outcome and when something will benefit patients in the future. So, at that point, it just seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Helping people understand that you’re going to get the best treatment they can give you regardless, even though you’re in the study. I think that’s, for many patients, the key point. And it sounds like Leah and her folks are working on that angle.

That’s really important for patients.


Wow, that is fabulous feedback. And if you could say – what I’m hearing you say is that you got a lot of support from, it sounds like, the hospital where you received your care. That there was you mentioned social worker, and they sounded like they were really there to give you support. Would you agree that everyone really worked together to help you through this journey?


They did, both the professionals and circle of friends and colleagues. Of course, those email correspondences, as I said, I was getting multiple responses to every email that I sent out, from various people. Sometimes funny, sometimes dark humor, which I especially appreciate. Thank you, Dave, from Milwaukee. So, a variety of things that came in, people prayed for me. I’m not especially religious, but whatever they wanted to do was fine with me. So, the writing, again, was therapeutic.

I practiced a lot of mindfulness and meditation and yoga. I was a very active patient. I walked the halls five miles a day. When I couldn’t leave my room, I was on a treadmill. I just needed to do things that sort of kept my body up and moving. And I think that really helped my recovery. I had nurses tell me, at one point, I was doing better than any other patient, at that stage in treatment. I’m not bragging about it, but I think, again, initial good reactions made it easy to get in this upward spiral. I exercised, I ate as well as I could. And I’ve seen patients have a bad time. And they’re kind of in a downward spiral.

And it’s really hard to reverse that. If you don’t feel good enough to teat, if you don’t feel good enough to exercise, it’s really hard to get out of that box. And so, anything you can do or anything nurses or social workers can do to help patients be proactive, be as active as possible, ask lots of questions, in whatever fashion suits their needs. Try and tell your story, whether it’s Caring Bridge, or emails, or verbal recording of what’s going on, I think there’s a great therapy to just trying to put together, from a patient’s perspective, what the hell is going on here and what’s happening to me and how might it turn out.

And those are some of the things that helped me get through.


That is just great feedback. And Dr. Daver, I’m picking up that Steve has just an amazing attitude. And what kind of feedback do you give about that? These patients, these wonderful people, their lives have been turned upside down. As you tell us, it’s just very quickly, they’re living one life and now another. How much do you see, listening to Steve’s attitude and trying to be proactive and advocate for himself, do you feel that’s an impact on overall success in treatment and moving forward?

Dr. Daver:

Yes, absolutely. I think that the attitude plays a major role. But I think a few things that Steve said are very important.

One is that he did seek out second opinions. He did go to Mayo Clinic, a very large academic center. He got additional input. He learned about clinical trials and outcomes. And a lot of times, we have patients who may contact us or physicians from outside who contact us or come to us. And sometimes, we may not have something different to offer. There may be a standard treatment. A lot of times, the peace of mind of knowing that you have consulted with a large academic center, one of the top centers, whether it’s Mayo or MD Anderson or Sloan Kettering, whichever it may be, often helps a lot.

And then, there may be other times when we actually do say, and this happens quite frequently, that, actually, we have a trial that I think will be a better FLT3 inhibitor or better IDH inhibitor or a better antibody. And this is what I would do, if I was in your place, or if I had a relative in your place. So, I think that helps your peace of mind and your mental framework. And the second thing is – and that’s not something we can control is how you do to the initial treatment.

If you have good responses, if you tolerate it well, then, of course, we do see that those patients are always more optimistic, have a better mental framework, it helps. But I also see that there are some patients who come in, with a very negative framework. And that’s where I think learning that there is so much new progress, that there are so many options, not only in the frontline setting, in the relapse setting, in the maintenance setting, even after post-transplant relapse. We have things that, potentially, could cure patients, which we didn’t have even five years ago.

So, I think knowing that there’s a huge amount of progress, that the cure rates have doubled, tripled, in some cases, in elderly AML and FLT3 AML. And no longer having AML is the end of the world. In fact, in our most recent data update that we are going to publish soon, we see that, in the young patient, 65 and below, the overall survival, if you gave all patients who visited MD Anderson is about 66%. So, 23 patients actually had a long-term cure.

And people are shocked, even physicians I know of in the ICU and ER settings, don’t realize this fact. In elderly AML, it’s tougher, but we are going from 10% to almost 45 or 50% cure rates in patients 65 plus. So, I think, once people hear these numbers, they completely change their mind and are much more optimistic. But getting that information across to patients, to caregivers, to make them do the referral or make them consider treatment, I think, is the first big hurdle that we have to kind of overcome.


Wow. And that is just very right on target. So, I’d like to shift gears a little bit. We do have a few questions we have time for. And Dr. Daver, the first question I’d like to get your feedback on, and forgive me with the pronunciation of the actual medication, I’ll try my best. So, this question comes in, what is the role of Venetoclax, if any, in treating AML. And when might that be FDA approved, from what you might know about this?

Dr. Daver:

So, the Venetoclax is probably one of the most exciting drugs in AML, especially elderly AML. In elderly AML, it is the most exciting drug that we have had probably forever. So, we used to treat elderly AML, meaning above 65 years of age. And these are hugely people not just by age, but also based on the physician’s review who are considered not fit for intensive chemo. They may have kidney problems, liver disease, poor performance status, immobility. And so, we cannot give the high chemo, the 3 + 7 that Steve got. And we have to use lower intensity therapy.

And we used to use Azacytidine alone, with the response rate of about 20 to 25%- and 3-year survival of about 15 to 20%. And now, we’ve done a study using Azacytidine in combination with Venetoclax where the response rates were 73%. So, going from 25% to 73% not doubling or really tripling, and that the survival is now 46 or 48% going from 15 to 18%.

So, that’s a huge, dramatic shift, three times response rate, three times of the potential cure rates. So, I think, right now, we believe that Azacytidine and Venetoclax really should be the standard of care for elderly AML, if they’re not going to get induction chemo. And, in fact, it was FDA approved very recently. So, three weeks ago, in fact, right before the ASH meeting, end of November, Azacytidine in combination with Venetoclax, as well as low dose Cytarabine and combination with Venetoclax were FDA approved.

And I think, now, with the approval, although we were doing this even before the approval, no elderly AML patient should get Azacytidine or low dose Cytarabine alone. I really think addition of Venetoclax now is the standard of care, triple response rate, triple survival. There’s no reason not to do that.


Wow. That is an amazing shift and such good news for our elderly patients. That is great. I do have another question. And I believe it’s targeted for you as well, Dr. Daver.

For those young folks, under 35, who relapse quickly, within about 100 days after MUD allo transplant for AML, M5, no mutation target, what will be a sustainable way to buy time and bridge for that next transplant. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Daver:

So, that’s a very tough scenario. Relapsing post-transplant itself is a very high-risk feature. It, basically, indicates that disease is aggressive and may not respond to further chemotherapy or transplant. But relapsing early post-transplant, which we usually consider within 100 or 120 days is actually quite an adverse feature. So, for those patients, I think the best chance is if we can find a targetable mutation. So, we will be looking for FLT3 or IDH1, IDH2 mutations. If we find those, then, I think we do have some chance with either a FLT3 inhibitor alone or, more likely, in a FLT3 inhibitor, in combination with low intensity therapy.

And there are a number of these agents either approved, but I would actually go for a trial where we’re combining either FLT3 inhibitors or IDH1, IDH2 inhibitors with other exciting agents like Azacytidine and Venetoclax. I think that will be the best shot of getting a long-term remission, potentially, a second transplant. Of course, there are a lot of caveats and variables. And you have to look at the individual patient to make that determination. The other group of therapies that you could use, if we don’t find the FLT3 or IDH because only about 30 to 40% of patients will have one of these three mutations, is immunotherapies.

And these can work really well, especially in the post-transplant relapse setting. And we have drugs such as antibody drug conjugates. These are antibodies that carry a toxin and can attack the leukemia cells. Or what we call immune check point antibodies. They’re also agents that activate your own immune system post-transplant to fight against tumor. And with these, we have seen some very exciting activity, specifically, in the post-transplant relapse.

And a lot of these are all under clinical trial setting because the antibodies and the immune checkpoints are not yet approved. They may be in the next couple of years. So, I think this would be an ideal scenario to find the academic center close to you and try to consider getting into one of the trials, either targeted therapy or immune therapy.


And another question would be do you see post-transplant relapse more in specific mutations? Are those with specific subtypes of AML?

Dr. Daver:

Yes, we do. So, we see the post-transplant relapse most common in what we consider the adverse risk AML. So, the adverse risk AML are the patients we definitely take to transplant. But, unfortunately, even after transplant, they remain the group that have a high risk of relapse. So, these are patients who have what we call TP53, one of the worse mutations. They will often have a high risk of relapse post-transplant or chromosome changes like deletion 7, deletion 5, deletion 17, also another high-risk group.

And the third group is what we call secondary AML. So, there are two ways you could get AML. You could have spontaneous AML, most common. We have a patient, no prior history of chemo radiation, other cancers, who comes in with acute diagnosis of AML. But then, there’s another group making about 20 to 30% called secondary AML. So, these are people who have prior breast cancer, colon cancer, bladder cancer, and got either chemotherapy or radiation for that. Or people who had prior MDS, which is an AML precursor and then, developed AML.

And these people who have secondary AML are much more risky and also more prone to relapse post-transplant. There are a few new drugs like Vyxeos that can work well, in this situation. But, in general, these are probably the high risk molecular or morphological groups that could relapse post-transplant.


Very interesting. Well, I so appreciate all of the wonderful information and feedback that our guests have provided today.

And the timing is great. Just coming off of ASH has been extremely encouraging, Dr. Daver, with you sharing all of these wonderful new eight new drugs and insight that’s going on. And, Leah, your feedback has just been phenomenal. And really, I believe it’s going to ease people’s concerns and fears about clinical trials, and between you and Dr. Daver speaking about the clinical trials, why they’re so essential, and they’re doable. And, Steve, your feedback, not only about clinical trials, but your journey is phenomenal. And I hope our viewers look forward to seeing information.

We may not have mentioned this. Steve has written a book soon to be published about his journey. He has some very interesting feedback that we just didn’t have enough time to share on today’s webinar.

So, thank you, again, to our guests and our sponsors. And a replay will be completed soon. And you’ll receive it via your email. So, our audience, please look forward to that. And remember, be your own advocate. Thank you.

We thank Celgene Corporation, Daiichi Sankyo, Genentech, Helsinn, and Novartis for their support.

ASH 2018 – Tools for Staying Up-to-Date on CLL Research

CLL patient advocate, Lee Swanson, interviews Dr. Anthony Mato, Director of the CLL Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center about the exciting news for CLL patients at the ASH 2018 meeting.


Lee Swanson:

Hello.  I’m Lee Swanson at the American Society of Hematology conference in San Diego joined right now by Dr. Anthony Mato from Memorial Sloan‑Kettering in New York.  And, Doctor, CLL, what’s come out now at this conference about CLL that patients want to know about?

Dr. Mato:

This has been a very exciting ASH meeting for patients with CLL.  There’s been a couple of big themes, but probably the largest is the comparisons of novel agents to chemoimmunotherapy combinations.  We saw two presentations looking at ibrutinib and rituximab as compared to the chemo combo FCR, which is a standard of care for patients who are young and fit, and we also saw a comparison of ibrutinib with or without rituximab, the antibody, compared to bendamustine Rituxan.

The overlying theme of the two presentations is that the patients who received ibrutinib tended to do better, certainly in terms of progression‑free survival and even in terms of overall survival with regards to the FCR comparison.  So a big theme is that there are fewer and fewer patients who are the right candidates for chemoimmunotherapy, and it appears that BTK inhibitors, at least as of this moment, will be the standard of care frontline for patients with CLL.

Dr. Mato:

So the good news and the bad news:  You don’t have to do chemotherapy.  On the other hand, chemotherapy is a defined six‑, seven‑month regimen.  Does this mean you’re taking a pill forever?

Dr. Mato:

Based on the current way that ibrutinib has been studied and labeled that means you’re on a long‑term‑‑it’s a long‑term commitment to ibrutinib.  There have been updates at the meeting of ibrutinib‑based and venetoclax‑based combination therapies where there is the hope that giving ibrutinib with a partner, for example, or venetoclax with a partner will allow us to treat to a fixed duration and then stop for patients, and that duration would either be based on some predetermined time point or on depth of response based on response criteria or minimal residual disease criteria.

So right now it’s a long‑term commitment, especially frontline.  In the long‑term I think we’re headed toward the direction where we can define which patients may stop sooner and then be retreated.

Lee Swanson:

If you stop, can you be retreated with the same?

Dr. Mato:

That’s a great question.  There’s not a lot of information about that, but there’s no reason biologically to think that that wouldn’t be a problem.  Specifically, if you stop in the setting of responding disease it’s not likely you’ve required resistance to that drug, and so retreatment should be a reasonable strategy.  We’re at Memorial Sloan Kettering now designing many trials that will try to answer those questions and allow us to stop either monotherapies by themselves or combinations to treat to a depth of response and then stop, so that’s something we’re really interested in.

Lee Swanson:

So if a patient gets a diagnosis now from‑‑sometimes from a primary care physician, of CLL what’s the conversation they should have?

Dr. Mato:

From the primary care physician?  Well, I think the primaries are great at identifying an elevated white blood cell count and the signs and symptoms of CLL even making the diagnosis.  Flow cytometry is readily available now to anyone who wants to order it.  I think the conversation with a primary care physician should be who should that patient see as a CLL expert to help guide the observation period which is important, as many patients are not treated initially, and also to help them to be informed as to how the field is changing.  Because the progress is so rapid you really need to have someone who is focused in on this area to help guide that particular management strategy long term.

Lee Swanson:

It’s important to get to a specialist, at least get a communication with a specialist.

Dr. Mato:

Exactly.  And of course the local oncologist and the internist are very important in terms of patient management, but ultimately there could be somebody who could help drive that‑‑some of the more important decisions based on the newest standards.

Lee Swanson:

So all of these things coming out, how does a patient keep up on what’s going on?

Dr. Mato:

That’s a really great and difficult question to answer because there’s so many different sources of information, some more reputable than others on advances in the field.  I think that probably the best source is having a physician, a trusted provider who is up to date, who can help interpret some of the more complicated findings from the research studies.  But in addition there are patient organizations and professional societies who are reputable, who provide up‑to‑date, very reasonable recommendations, either through their websites or through the literature that they provide for patients.

I think trying to avoid just general Google searches for advice on management of CLL is a good idea to not do.  I find that oftentimes things that get posted online can be just one‑off examples where somebody’s either extremely happy with care or very unhappy with an event, and it may not necessarily be representative for all patients.  So I would say professional societies, CLL focus, patient organizations, and then of course having a care team that’s very focused and very specialized in the area so that they can interpret what can be complicated.

Lee Swanson:

Okay.  Thank you very much, Doctor.  Appreciate your time.

Dr. Mato:

Thank you very much.  Yep.

Lee Swanson:

This is Lee Swanson.  I’m at the American Society of Hematology conference in San Diego.

On the Horizon for Multiple Myeloma

ASH 2018 Conference Coverage

Dr. Elisabet Manasanch, Assistant Professor Department of Lymphoma/Myeloma at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, shares what’s the latest and on the horizon for Multiple Myeloma.

ASH 2018 – Multiple Myeloma Highlights

A Multitude of Options in Myeloma

Dr. Robert Orlowski, Director of Myeloma and Professor in the Departments of Lymphoma/Myeloma and Experimental Therapeutics at The University of Texas MD Anderson discusses the multiple myeloma highlights and what patients can be excited about from the ASH 2018 meeting.


Esther Schorr: Hi there. This is Esther Schorr from Patient Power coming to you from ASH 2018 in San Diego, and I have with me today Dr. Bob Orlowski who has joined us at Patient Power before. He’s the Director of Myeloma and Professor in the Departments of Lymphoma and Myeloma and Experimental Therapeutics—that’s a very long title—at the University of MD Anderson—University of Texas MD Anderson. Sorry.

Dr. Orlowski: Thanks very much for having me.

Esther Schorr: I’m glad you’re here again.

Dr. Orlowski: It’s a pleasure to be back on Patient Power.

Esther Schorr: Thank you, sir. So what’s going on in myeloma now at ASH? What are the highlights? What are patients going to be excited about, and what are you excited about?

Dr. Orlowski: One of the exciting areas is definitely talking about the different therapies that are targeting what’s called BCMA or B-cell maturation antigen. This is a protein on the surface of myeloma cells, and the excitement about it is it’s a target which is almost only on myeloma or normal plasma cells, not on other kinds of tissues. And that’s important because if you want to target for immunotherapy, you don’t want that target to be on too many normal cells, or the immune therapy will kill those cells and cause side effects.

So there are really three categories of drugs now that are looking very attractive. One is what’s called an antibody-drug conjugate. So this is a plain old antibody that has another chemical attached to it, and it’s given usually IV right now, attaches to the myeloma cell. It then gets inside the cell and the drug is released. So the antibody is essentially like a carrier molecule.

Esther Schorr: Kind of like a cruise missile?

Dr. Orlowski: Sort of like that. I like that analogy, yes. And then it blows up, using that analogy, the cancer cell once it’s inside.

So one of the first of these drugs that already is in the clinic is showing a 60 percent response rate in very heavily pretreated patients. The registration study, meaning the trial that hopefully will get it approved by the FDA, has already finished enrolling, so we’re hopeful that maybe by the end of 2019 this drug as a single agent will be available. And it’s really easy to give. It’s IV once every three weeks, which is pretty darn good.

Esther Schorr: And what’s the drug called? I’m sorry I missed that.

Dr. Orlowski: Well, it’s a good question. Actually, it doesn’t have a name yet, which is why I didn’t tell you what it’s called, but the abbreviation for it is GSK 916.

Esther Schorr: Okay.

Dr. Orlowski: And the reason for that is it’s actually quite expensive to come up with a name, because they have to find a name that, first of all, is not confused with other drugs so that it minimizing errors and also one that us poor feeble-minded doctors will remember so that we prescribe it often.

Esther Schorr: We’re not sure how you can remember all the letters anyway. Okay. So that’s one. Is there something else going on that you got to share?

Dr. Orlowski: So a second category of drugs that target the same protein, BCMA, the first formal presentation of those data were shown here at ASH, and this is what’s called BiTE or Bi-specific T-cell engager. And it’s sort of is a molecule, if you want to use the cruise missile analogy, that has two war heads. One end binds to the cancer cell. The other end binds to the patient’s own T cell, brings them together and the T-cell attacks the cancer cell. So it’s a way to use immune therapy with the patient’s own immune cells, and there are reports here of the first one of these which is called AMG 420. Again, doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s showing in very heavily pretreated patients complete responses with MRD, or minimal residual disease, negativity, which is really exciting.

Esther Schorr: So and that’s different than—and we’ll probably talk about it in a minute—that’s different than CAR-T.

Dr. Orlowski: Exactly.

Esther Schorr: Okay. So we can talk about that in a minute.

Dr. Orlowski: Yeah, that would be great. So the next topic is the CAR-T, also against B-cell maturation antigen, or BCMA. It’s a little more complicated though because what you have to do is you take out the patient’s own T cells and then in a laboratory you infect them with a virus. The virus has a gene in it that expresses a receptor on the T cells so that they can better recognize the cancer cells.

Esther Schorr: An invitation.

Dr. Orlowski: Exactly. Kind of. I like that.

Esther Schorr: Okay.

Dr. Orlowski: And then you infuse the cells back into the patient. They find the cancer cell, they attack it, and they kill it. So it’s great, because it’s personalized. It uses the patient’s own T cells. The problem is that it takes two to four weeks to manufacture the cells after they’ve been taken out of the patients, and so in the meantime the myeloma can sometimes be creeping up. So that’s one problem.

And also there are activities with the disease or with the T cell against myeloma, but there are also some side effects like cytokine release syndrome. But the response rates with some of the more advanced molecules are in the 90 to 100 percent range, and the durability of that is at least a year to 18 months, depending on what patient population you look at. And those are the most mature data of the three categories of immune therapies that we’ve talked about.

Esther Schorr: So of those three are any of them being looked at for first-line therapy, or these are at the moment still for people who have relapsed or are more difficult cases?

Dr. Orlowski: Right now it’s more for very advanced disease, but there are already trials planned with all three of these technologists in earlier patients and some in newly diagnosed patients, especially those with high-risk disease, because they still don’t do as well with standard therapies that we have. So it’s really an exciting time because these are some of the best results we’ve had in very difficult to treat patients, which means they should work even better when we give them earlier.

Esther Schorr: So one other question then. What’s happened to stem cell transplants for multiple myeloma patients? With all of these new combinations of treatment s, where is that in the mix of consideration for treatment?

Dr. Orlowski: Stem cell transplant is still considered part of the standard of care for patients with newly diagnosed myeloma, and in some cases it can be used for relapsed disease, especially if the patient had a really good durable benefit with a first transplant. The advantage of the stem cell transplant right now is that it with works very well, the toxicity profile is very well defined, and compared to a CAR-T cell it’s actually relatively cheap. But as the technology hopefully becomes cheaper and more available there would be great interest in comparing outcomes of people getting chemo plus a transplant, for example, versus chemo plus a CAR-T cell.

Esther Schorr: So it sounds like there’s a lot more options that are coming up for multiple myeloma patients. Is there anything else that patients that are listening would want to know about, that they should feel good about?

Dr. Orlowski: Well, there’s a lot more data with other immune therapies including earlier use of daratumumab (Darzalex), which is an anti-CD38 antibody. One of the presentations, which is still to come on Tuesday, shows the data of that drug with lenalidomide and dexamethasone in previously untreated patients, and the results really look excellent. So that will probably be one of the new standards of care for transplant ineligible patients. And there are studies ongoing with daratumumab in transplant eligible patients as well.

Esther Schorr: That’s a lot.

Dr. Orlowski: And that’s not all of it, but I think that may be all we have time for.

Esther Schorr: Thank you so much, Dr. Orlowski, for being with us again and making this a little more comprehensible for us normal mortals.

Dr. Orlowski: Thank you very much.

Esther Schorr: This is Esther Schorr coming to you from ASH. And remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or PEN. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

ASH 2018 – Latest News and Research in CLL

CLL patient advocate, Lee Swanson, interviews Dr. Kerry Rogers, Assistant Professor, Department of Hematology The Ohio State University Medical Center, about exciting CLL news and research from the ASH 2018 Conference.


Lee Swanson:

Hello.  I’m Lee Swanson, and this is the American Society of Hematology conference in San Diego, and I’m happy to be joined today by Dr. Kerry Rogers from the Ohio State University Medical Center.  And you are a CLL specialist.  What at this conference has excited you that patients should know about?

Dr. Rogers:

I think there’s a couple really exciting things at this conference that will be very important for patients.  Probably the most exciting thing, in my opinion, hasn’t been presented yet but is being presented later today by one of my colleagues.  And then there’s a late‑breaking abstract that will be Tuesday that’s really exciting.

And these are studies comparing ibrutinib‑based regimens to a chemoimmunotherapy regimen.  So that’s a comparison of a pill targeted agent with a course of chemotherapy with an antibody, and the exciting thing here is that taking the pill oral targeted agent seems to be doing better for patients in a really important way which is how long people are living without their CLL progressing or returning.

So this is the first time we’ve had a large‑scale comparison of a chemotherapy to a chemotherapy‑free treatment.  And just to go into a little bit more detail, if that’s okay, there is a study through a cooperative group called the Alliance, and that is a group that does very large studies at multiple centers in the United States that compared BR to ibrutinib to ibrutinib and rituximab.  They found that there is no difference in something called progress‑free survival, which is how long people are alive without their CLL returning or causing problems between both the ibrutinib arms, but a substantial improvement between the ibrutinib treatment and the chemotherapy treatment, which is bendamustine and rituximab.

So this means that ibrutinib regimens are out performing chemoimmunotherapy, and that was in people 65 and older.  And I think that’s very exciting because it’s showing that we can treat CLL more effectively in this way than with BR which is the standard chemoimmunotherapy, and these are all people who are taking their very first treatment for CLL.

There’s a similar study in younger patients comparing FCR to an ibrutinib‑based regimen with very similar results.

Lee Swanson:

Really.  So are we looking at a day when that will become standard of care?

Dr. Rogers:

I firmly believe that‑‑of course, each individual person needs to select a treatment that’s best for them, but I think it is a standard of care now to do an ibrutinib‑based treatment rather than chemoimmunotherapy for the majority of people taking a first treatment.

Now, there are select individual patients who will have a very prolonged benefit from FCR, people who have an IGHV mutated status, so it’s a particular test that shows that these people have just a very nice benefit from FCR, but other than that group it is now the standard to do these ibrutinib‑based treatments.  And I think both these studies are what is showing us that this is a standard.  It’s definitely the most important thing for CLL I think at this meeting.

Just to plug how important this is, my colleague, Dr. (?) Wyak, who’s presenting the Alliance study, is doing so at the plenary session, and that’s the talk where they pick the very, very best kind of studies or data from the entire meeting, so not just CLL but noncancer blood disorders, other blood cancers.  So this is really a very important thing for people with CLL.

Lee Swanson:

Show how does a patient go about talking to their doctor about these emerging…

Dr. Rogers:

Yeah, so I think it’s really important to be able to ask your doctor anything, and this is something that people should talk with their doctor about.  Both these studies were in people taking a first treatment for CLL, but that doesn’t mean that this type of finding isn’t important to other people.  And I think if you’re considering a first treatment for CLL and need a first treatment for CLL I think sitting down with your doctor saying, you know, finding out what they recommend but then also saying, you know, how do you feel about these chemotherapy treatments versus ibrutinib‑type treatments and seeing what they have to say.

And of course I think it’s very fair since this data is going to be presented at this meeting to ask your doctor about these large studies.  These are the type of really big studies that should be understood by the majority of oncologists.  So I think it’s okay to ask them specifically, just, hey, what do you think about the studies comparing chemotherapy to ibrutinib?  How does that apply to me as a person?

Lee Swanson:

So chemotherapy of course is a refined, six sessions or generally.  Ibrutinib, are they then looking at a prolonged use of ibrutinib?

Dr. Rogers:

Yes.  So both these studies, the ibrutinib was continued indefinitely which is the way it’s supposed to be prescribed in the United States, versus chemotherapy, which is a combination of chemotherapy and then antibody for about six months of treatment, so that is an important consideration.

Also at this meeting there’s data about combination regimens that don’t include chemotherapy that are a fixed or limited treatment course, so I think that’s also very exciting.  Those studies are now not very far into follow‑up, so people have only finished those treatments for a year or so.  I think that when we look at these chemotherapy‑free combination treatments we’re really going to need to see how long people do really well after they finished treatment to know what the true benefit is, but that’s also very exciting to see that happening.  It might allow people to avoid chemotherapy, stop treatments and get very good remissions that last years and years.  We just haven’t had them long enough to know the years and years yet like with some of the chemotherapies.

Lee Swanson:

Of course.  So one of the‑‑one of the things about CLL is that it finds a way around treatment often.  They clone cells or what‑have‑you that then, you know, so you’re looking then at second‑ or third‑generation medications sometimes.

Dr. Rogers:

Yes, that’s true.

Lee Swanson:

So that’s going to be a continuing challenge.

Dr. Rogers:

Yes.  I think that is a continuing challenge, and when we see more of these people taking these oral targeted agents, these pill treatments that aren’t chemotherapy that are taken for an extended period of time we’re going to see more people where those treatments stop working or develop resistance, and just because we’ve now shown it’s superior to chemotherapy‑based treatments as a first line doesn’t mean that these are perfect.  So we are still working very hard on what to do after you take something like an oral targeted agent for first treatment or even a second treatment or a third treatment.  There’s a lot of research at this meeting being presented in that area too.

We’ve shown venetoclax works well after ibrutinib, but we still are trying to get a handle on has works well after venetoclax.  There’s some kind of laboratory‑based data around venetoclax resistance being shown at this meeting, and I think that’s going to be important too because that’s what helps us build better treatments for those people is to really take a deep look at what’s happening on a cellular level in the leukemia.

The thing I actually saw this morning that I thought was very exciting for people who might have developed resistance to one or more targeted agents is actually CAR‑T therapy.  I think that the more I’ve seen data coming out with that the better it’s getting, the better we are getting at giving that to people.  And while that is definitely not therapy right now for the majority of CLL patients there are definitely some people that benefit from that type of treatment that have participated in research studies with it.  And I think that’s something that’s going to advance and fill some of the need for what we’re going to ideally offer people who have had their CLL come back on these targeted therapies.

Lee Swanson:

So CAR‑T, it’s worked very well for some people.  It’s worked not at all for other people.  Is there a way to be able to target who’s who?

Dr. Rogers:

You know, I really hope so.  Right now I don’t know that we’ve come up with a firm to target who’s going to benefit the most and who’s not going to benefit, but I do think the more experience we get with that the more we’re going to learn about not only who will benefit but also how to make it so more people benefit.  So going in, instead of saying X many people benefit, have a higher percentage of people that undertake it do well with it and to have the side effects of it reduced.  You know, that’s not a fun and easy treatment, so I think the continued work to reduce the side effects and also get it to work for more people is going to be really important.

Lee Swanson:

Well, thank you very much for your time.  We really appreciate it, and it’s very good to talk to you.  Thank you.

Dr. Rogers:

You’re very welcome.

Lee Swanson:

I’m Lee Swanson at the ASH conference in San Diego.

Jack Aiello

Board Treasurer

Jack Aiello is a former Silicon Valley high technology executive living in San Jose, CA. Jack was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 1995 and has had three transplants for his condition. While the treatments have given him extended survival, he has had disabling side effects. After retiring, Jack has become a leading myeloma support group leader and traveled the US and overseas to attend medical conference, patient forums and inspire advocacy among patients.