For each metastatic breast cancer patient, there are several variables to consider to access the best treatment path. Dr. Lisa Flaum explains key factors to consider, and discusses how the risks and benefits are weighed when making treatment decisions for an individual patient.
Dr. Lisa Flaum is a Medical Oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more here.
So, when we’re determining a treatment approach, there are a number of variables. So, to some degree, based on a patient’s individual characteristics, their age, their other health issues, may guide what treatments are available or indicated or even desirable from a patient’s standpoint. To some degree, the locations and extent of disease are important. So, if someone has cancer and that’s causing a particular symptom, with bony sites being a particular example, there may be a role for something targeted; Something like radiation, and in rare cases, surgery to target a specific symptomatic or worrisome spot of metastatic cancer.
In general, the mainstay of treatment for metastatic breast cancer is what we call systemic treatment or medical treatment, treatment that’s going to go everywhere and treat the cancer wherever it is. In some situations, we may be deciding between more or less aggressive treatment, and the locations and sites of disease may be important in determining that. If someone has extensive disease, for instance in a vital organ like the lung, the liver, the brain, we may start with something more versus less aggressive to try to get it better under control quickly. Whereas people with more limited metastatic disease may be able to start with something less aggressive.
And then beyond that, a lot of the decision-making is based on those molecular markers that I alluded to, which are defined by the hormone receptor status. So, whether the tumor expresses those estrogen and progesterone receptors, and whether the tumor over-expresses HER2. And then to a lesser degree, based on other markers that may be defined by additional tests.
So, every treatment discussion we have is a two-way street. So, our job is to present the data, present options, present recommendations. And often, we have an opinion on where we would fall and if there are a number of different options. But to me, it’s a collaborative discussion. And if there are options, it’s weighing what potential benefit do we get from a single option or from adding something to that particular option versus what are the downsides? And some of it is discussion about logistics. Do we do something IV versus oral? Is there a particular side effect that we’re hoping to avoid, such as hair loss? Which of course, we’re trying to avoid. Some treatments may have a higher likelihood of working, but a higher likelihood of causing hair loss. That may factor into our decision.
So, whether it’s the first decision point when we’re deciding on preliminary therapy or future decision points as we go through this journey, there is always a discussion about this is where we are, these are what our options are. Here’s how we’re going to weigh the pros and cons. And then it comes back to a collaborative decision about how we weigh the risks and rewards and where we’re going with an individual patient.
So, clinical trials are always part of at least the conversation, so they’re always a consideration at each step of our discussion. So, from a preliminary treatment standpoint, we’re always going to go through here are our standard options. Here’s, again, what we think is most appropriate. And if there’s a clinical trial that’s appropriate in that scenario, we’ll lay that out there as an option. So, a clinical trial is always worth discussing. It’s always worth asking that your doctor, “Is a clinical trial appropriate for me at this point?” But it’s not always the right recommendation.
So, there are a lot of scenarios, especially at the beginning of treatment for metastatic disease where we have so many options, and so many new and novel treatment options and drugs that have been approved fairly recently that have defined the standard of care, that the standard is going to be often what we recommend. And a clinical trial may be something that we would use if that treatment fails to work or at some future point down the line. And at other points in time, we have very good, appropriate clinical trials that could be indicated at any step along the way. So, it’s worth the discussion. Whether it’s the recommendation or not depends on the circumstances, it depends on the time. What we have today was very different than what we might’ve had available six months ago and six months from now. But clinical trials are out there, and if the location that a patient is going doesn’t have access to clinical trials, it’s always reasonable to ask too, “Should I be going somewhere else to see if a clinical trial is appropriate?”