What role do CAR T-cell therapy care partners play in patient recovery? Expert Sarah Meissner shares her perspective on the role of a care and discusses potential side effects to look out for after the therapy. Care partner Adrienne talks about the side effects her husband experienced, and how they were managed.
Sarah Meissner, RN, BSN, BMTCN, is a Blood and Marrow Transplant and Related Donor Search Coordinator at the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute. Adrienne is a Care Partner to her husband, who underwent CAR T-cell therapy.
What is the care partner’s role in helping the patient through this process? And why are care partners so critical for a patient’s recovery?
So, the care partner is a huge part of this process. After the cells are infused, there is a 30-day close monitoring period. And it’s a requirement for our center that the patient have a 24/7 caregiver during that time. There are a lot of side effects that can happen, and the patient is not going to be able to drive for two months.
So, they need somebody with them at all times to be monitoring for these symptoms as well as bringing them to their appointments, helping them with their medications, day-to-day stuff at home as well.
Adrienne, if you don’t mind, what sort of side effects did your husband have?
No, I don’t mind. He had from the immunosuppressing chemotherapy, he had really low numbers for a while and that just made him feel pretty bad. And he didn’t have any really bad side effects where we had to go to the hospital. Well, I guess we did a few times. He had just a little bit of fever, which you have to report and make sure that it’s okay.
So, we did have to go twice. But it really didn’t end up being anything too bad. He did have a fall down the stairs at our house. So, if we did it different, I think because we had to be there every day for two weeks and the monitoring, I think that we would probably have rented a hotel that didn’t have these stairs just because he’s used to going up and down the stairs, but I don’t know if he just lost his footing. But it was extremely scary with everything else that he was going through. And that might have been part of the cognitive thing. I feel like most of his side effects, actually, started hitting months after the cognitive things.
But the stress was more on just caring for him and making sure that he was okay and just being ready just in case something happened.
Yeah. It’s like being on high alert 24/7.
Sarah, could you describe some of the common side effects?
Yeah. So, there are two main sets of side effects that we’re looking for with CAR T therapy. The first is something called cytokine release syndrome. So, this happens when the CAR T cells latch onto those cancer cells and kill them and stuff gets put out into the patient’s blood stream. That can cause what’s called a cytokine response. And it’s, basically, proteins that cause inflammation. So, common side effects that we see with that are fever, low blood pressure, high heart rate.
Some people need some oxygen. It looks very similar to what we would see in sepsis or a severe infection. The good news about that is there is a medication that’s very effective in treating cytokine release syndrome. And so, that’s why it’s important for the caregiver to notice these things and bring them into the hospital so they can get that treatment right away. The other set of side effects is something called neurotoxicity. So, if you think of the brain as a group of wires that is sending signals throughout the body, with neurotoxicity, those wires can kind of get jumbled. They’re not necessarily cut. This isn’t an irreversible thing.
They get jumbled and can kind of mix up those signals. So, we can see patients that are confused. Patients can have seizures. We start everybody on anti-seizure medication as a prevention method. They can get a tremor and we can see changes in their handwriting.
So, we assess for this twice a day during those first 14 days by asking them a simple set of five questions. To name certain objects, to count back from 100 by 10, ask them what day it is, that kind of stuff and then, to write out a sentence. And we can see subtle changes in that functioning in the handwriting. So, this like the cytokine release syndrome, if we start to see it, there are medications that we can use to treat it. We usually put people in the hospital for a little closer monitoring. But these are things that the caregiver usually will catch onto before the care team because they know them best.
And they can catch onto those subtle changes maybe in their personality or little confusion or stuff like that.
Well, that leads me to the next question, which is what sorts of questions should care partners be asking their team?
So, they should be asking what they should be looking for, what side effects would constitute something that they need to report. They should be asking, “Who are we reporting to, what phone number or who are we reporting these things to?” Those are the main things to be looking for. We use a home monitoring system at our center. So, maybe some specific questions about monitoring dependent on your center and how they’re having the caregiver look for these side effects.
But back to the cytokine syndrome, my husband did have this effect where he had the high fever, and that’s why we went in. And we did get the Toci dose [tocilizumab], which is a special medicine that kind of calms the inflammation down. So, I think that some of the questions that I would have pretty much are what to expect but I was given that. And I think maybe it would be good to meet other people that had gone through this before you’re actually going through it.
I didn’t have that luxury, because my husband was only the second person in our hospital to do it. But to know what’s going on from another caregiver’s perspective would be nice.