Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Archives

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a typically slow-growing cancer which begins in lymphocytes in the bone marrow and extends into the blood. It can also spread to lymph nodes and organs such as the liver and spleen.

CLL develops when too many abnormal lymphocytes grow, crowding out normal blood cells and making it difficult for the body to fight infection.

More resources for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)  from Patient Empowerment Network.

How Can CLL Patients Be Active in Their Care Decisions?

How Can CLL Patients Be Active in Their Care Decisions? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients take a more active role in their care decisions? Dr. Matthew Davids details considerations for CLL treatment and explains ways that patients can take action to ensure their patient voice is heard for their care.

Dr. Matthew Davids is Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Davids here.

See More from Engage CLL


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Who Is on a Patient’s CLL Care Team?

Transcript:

Katherine:

Lately we’ve been hearing the term “shared decision-making,” which basically means that patients and clinicians collaborate to make healthcare decisions.

And it can help patients take a more active role in their care. What are your thoughts, Dr. Davids, on how best to make this process work?

Dr. Davids:

Yeah, I fully support that model. I think for most patients it’s very helpful to be an important decision-maker. Really the patient is the ultimate decision-maker to say what they want for their own treatment. And sometimes it’s hard for me to predict what a patient will want for themselves, so I see my role for most patients as providing the information that they need to make the best decision possible for themselves.

I do try to steer patients a bit in the directions that I think they should be thinking. I’m not going to necessarily present a laundry list of things to patients. I’m going to try to narrow it down to what I think are the most reasonable choices for a patient to make.

I feel that’s part of my job. I do still have patients who just say, “Just tell me what to do,” and I respect that, too. Not all patients want to be part of shared decision making, and they just want me to decide, and that’s fine. But I do find that most patients like the idea of having a voice and being the one to decide, and that way I can help to guide them, but ultimately, it’s up to them.

Katherine:

Well, speaking of patients having a voice, are there questions that patients should consider asking when they’re thinking about a proposed treatment plan?

Dr. Davids:

Yeah. I think some of the key ones revolve around basic stuff, but sometimes it’s hard to think of it in the moment. But thinking about, what are the risks of this therapy? What are the specific side effects that are most common? When you look at a package insert or you look at a clinical trial consent form, you’re going to see 100 different side effects listed. I always promise patients, “You won’t have every single side effect that’s listed here, but you may have a couple of them.” And again, my role often is to identify which are the more common side effects that we see and how can those be managed?

And then, I think often you’re just asking simply about what are the potential benefits of this therapy? What are the odds that I’m going to get into remission? How long is this remission likely to last?

And then, something that is often challenging for patients to think about – it can be challenging for me as well – is to think about what’s the next step? So, I think a good question to ask is, “If I choose Therapy A, what happens if I need therapy again in a few years? What are the options at that point?” because we’ve been talking so far mostly about what we call frontline therapy, making that initial choice of treatment. But then, once you get into what we call the relapse setting, a lot of the decision of what to receive at that point depends on what you got as the first therapy. And so, trying to think at least one step ahead as to what the next options are I think can be helpful, certainly for the physicians but also for the patients.

Katherine:

Do you have any advice to help patients speak up when they’re feeling like their voice isn’t being heard?

Dr. Davids:

That’s always a challenging situation, but I encourage patients not to be shy about asking questions.

There’s often an imbalance in terms of the information where the oncologist may know more than the patient about a particular condition. And so, I think reading up and trying to educate yourself as much as you can. Whenever possible, including a family member or friend as part of the visit to also help advocate for you. And then, if you’re not being heard the way that you think you should be, thinking about seeking out another provider who may be able to listen more.

And sometimes that can be again helpful to have a touchpoint with a CLL specialist who may be able to reinforce some of what you’re thinking. If what you’re reading online or seeing online is different from what your oncologist is telling you, that may be a sign that it’s good to get a second opinion and just make sure you’re on the right track.

What Are the Goals of CLL Treatment?

What Are the Goals of CLL Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are some of the goals of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment? Dr. Matthew Davids outlines some different treatment goals and how the goals are impacted by a patient’s age and other considerations.

Dr. Matthew Davids is Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Davids here.

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Who Is on a Patient’s CLL Care Team?

Transcript:

Katherine:

With CLL, what are the goals of treatment?

Dr. Davids:

I like to say to patients, “The goals are to make you live longer and live better.” You want to obviously have treatments that prolong life, but you also want to have treatments that are helping with symptoms, and giving patients more energy, and making them feel better, and protecting them from some of the risks of the disease. And so, I think the goals do vary a bit based on the stage of life that patients are at.

I see a lot of patients in their 70s and 80s, and in those patient’s symptom control, having the disease be in a good remission, allowing them to live their life is a good goal. I sometimes see patients in their 40s and 50s, and some of those patients want to be a bit more aggressive and try to do a strategy that will get them a very long-term remission, and even potentially explore potentially curative strategies.

If I have a higher-risk patient with deletion 17p who’s young and fit, and they’ve already had some of the novel treatments, that’s where we start thinking about clinical trials of some of the cellular therapies like CAR-T cells that people may have heard of where you use the T cells from the patient to try to use that as a therapy to kill off the disease. Or even a bone marrow transplant is something that we have used historically in CLL. We don’t use it as often now, but for younger patients with high-risk disease it’s still a consideration to try to achieve a cure of the CLL even though the risks of that are significant.

What Should CLL Patients Know About Clinical Trial Treatment Options?

What Should CLL Patients Know About Clinical Trial Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What do chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients need to know about clinical trial treatment options? Dr. Matthew Davids explains how clinical trials fit into the array of CLL treatments, the benefits of speaking to a CLL specialist, and online resources for finding clinical trials.

Dr. Matthew Davids is Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Davids here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Right. Where do clinical trials fit in with the treatment approaches?

Dr. Davids:

So, clinical trials are really how we’ve made all these advances in CLL over the last decade. It’s how we learn about new treatments. It’s how we learn about how to optimize the treatments that we have. I think sometimes patients have a misconception that clinical trials are a last resort, the idea that you’ve exhausted all the standard options and then you go to a clinical trial as your last hope. But I actually like to kind of turn that on its head and say that clinical trials are actually the first resort, the first best option for patients. Whenever patients can get access to a clinical trial at any stage of their disease, I would really encourage them to consider it.

We have quite a few clinical trials now in the frontline setting, meaning as an initial treatment for CLL, including some that are in development and will open soon. And these are the studies that are going to really help us define what the optimal regimens are. What’s the optimal sequence of these different novel agents?

And in CLL, really, we’re at a point where the research on the disease is so mature that when you’re in a clinical trial you’re either going to be on one regimen that you know you’re getting and you know it’s going to be an effective regimen, or you might be in a comparative trial where you could be randomized to one of two or three different regimens, but you know that each one of those regimens is one that we think is a great regimen. We just don’t know which one is optimal for individual patients. So, this is not a situation where there’s placebo-controlled trials where you don’t know if you’re going to get an active treatment or not. CLL is an area where we design our clinical trials so that all patients are going to be benefiting from cutting-edge approaches.

And so, not all patients have access to trials, and that’s okay. Again, we’re fortunate that we have many good options that can be given locally, but I do encourage patients even if they’re only able to travel to a CLL specialist once to have an initial consultation to think about doing that to get a CLL specialist on your team, so to speak. That way they can identify clinical trial options that may be a good fit, and even if not, they can advise on what the optimal treatment options are to receive locally with your own oncologist.

Katherine:

How do patients find out about these clinical trials?

Dr. Davids:

I do think the best way is through a CLL specialist because certainly they would have a great pulse on the trials, they have available at their own center. They should also have a sense for what trials are available maybe at other centers. Some of that can also be, there’s a great resource through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society where they can help navigate patients toward specific trials that may be applicable to them.

There’s also a website called clinicaltrials.gov. It can be a little challenging if you’re not familiar with it to navigate the site, but it is actually pretty straightforward. You can put in the disease and look at different options for trials based on different drugs, for example. They’ll list the eligibility criteria for the trial. That’s often I find a way that patients can begin to identify whether they may be a candidate. You can’t tell from the website whether you’re definitely a candidate or not. You really need to partner with an investigator who’s on the trial to learn that, but it certainly can be a good starting point to figure out what’s out there.

An Overview of CLL Treatment Types

An Overview of CLL Treatment Types from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the treatment types for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)? Dr. Matthew Davids details each type of treatment – and which type of patients some treatments may be most appropriate for. 

Dr. Matthew Davids is Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Davids here.

See More from Engage CLL


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How Can CLL Patients Be Active in Their Care Decisions?

Transcript:

Katherine:

Well, once it’s time to treat, of course, then it’s time to think about treatment options. Let’s walk through the types of treatments that are used today to treat CLL.

Dr. Davids:

As I alluded to before, we historically have had chemotherapy-based approaches to treat CLL. And that was an effective way to temporarily put the disease into remission, but it had a lot of side effects and inevitably the CLL would come back. And the challenge particularly with chemotherapy-based approaches it that when the CLL does come back after chemotherapy, it tends to behave more aggressively and be harder to treat.

So, there have been quite a few studies over the last few years trying to figure out ways that we can avoid using chemotherapy as the first treatment, and this can involve treatments such as monoclonal antibodies. People may have heard of rituximab or a newer drug, obinutuzumab. There are the inhibitors of the B-cell receptor pathway, and this is for example ibrutinib (Imbruvica), which targets a protein called BTK, also a newer one called acalabrutinib (Calquence), which targets BTK. And then, I mentioned at the beginning these fixed-duration therapies that stop after a period of time. Many of those are based on a newer oral drug called venetoclax (Venclexta), which when we give it as a first therapy, we give in combination with that antibody obinutuzumab (Gazyva).

So, a bit of an alphabet soup. I know it gets confusing with all the different treatments, but the good news for CLL patients is, 1.) we have a lot of options, which is great, 2.) we don’t necessarily need to use chemotherapy anymore, and in fact I use it pretty rarely these days. One situation where I do still consider chemotherapy is for younger patients – which in the CLL world is sort of under age 60 or so – if they have very favorable biology to the disease, in particular this mutated IGHV.

That’s a scenario where the older chemotherapy regimen, FCR, can be very effective. It’s a six-month treatment, and we have patients with those molecular characteristics who are now 12, almost 15 years out from their initial six months, and they’re still in a complete remission. So, many of those patients have been functionally cured of their CLL from the six months of treatment. But again, there are some risks to that approach. We worry about other cancers that may be more likely after receiving FCR. We worry about infections, and particularly in the COVID situation, we worry about COVID infection in patients on chemotherapy.

So, it’s been pretty rare that I’ve been using that approach these days. I’ve been opting more for the novel agent-based approaches. So, often now the conversation as an initial therapy comes down to, “Do you prefer more of a continuous treatment strategy with a BTK inhibitor drug like ibrutinib or acalabrutinib, or do you like the idea of a time-limited therapy with one year of venetoclax in combination with obinutuzumab?” And I would say there’s pros and cons to both approaches, and we don’t know which one is the optimal one for CLL patients to start with, but probably I think most patients at some point in their lifetime are going to need one therapy or the other.

So, maybe in the end it doesn’t matter too much which one you start with if you’re going to get both eventually anyway. But we don’t know that yet.

How Does CLL Progress? Understanding the Stages of CLL

How Does CLL Progress? Understanding the Stages of CLL from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the specific stages of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and how does CLL progress? Dr. Matthew Davids details the stages of CLL and indications for when it’s time to treat the condition.

Dr. Matthew Davids is Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Davids here.

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An Overview of CLL Treatment Types

Transcript:

Katherine:

Okay. So, how does CLL progress? When do you know when it’s time to treat?

Dr. Davids:

The stages of CLL involve the progression of the disease. When we first meet patients, often they only have cells circulating in the blood, and that’s called stage 0 disease. It’s one of the few cancers where there’s actually a Stage 0 before even Stage I, and the reason for that is that many patients can go for years on Stage 0 disease. But as the burden of the CLL cells begin to accumulate in the body they can start to collect in their lymph nodes, and the lymph nodes can start to swell up whether it’s in the neck or the armpits or elsewhere. That’s stage I disease.

They can accumulate in the spleen, which is an organ in the abdomen. It’s kind of a big filter for your bloodstream, and as the filter traps more of these lymphocytes the spleen can slowly enlarge over time. That’s stage II disease.

And then finally, the CLL cells can get into the bone marrow, which is like the factory for making your blood cells. And if the factory floor gets all gummed up with CLL cells it can’t make the normal red cells, that’s called anemia. Or it can’t make the normal platelet cells, that’s called thrombocytopenia. And when we start to see those more advanced stages III and IV of CLL, that usually does require treatment. And what the treatment does is it clears out the factory floor and it allows for the normal machinery to make the normal blood cells again. So, that’s one of the more common reasons why treatment is needed is due to anemia and low platelets. Second reason can be if the lymph nodes or spleen get so bulky that they’re uncomfortable or threatening organs internally. We want to treat before that becomes a real threat.

And then, the third thing that usually happens as the disease progresses, patients can develop some symptoms, what we call constitutional symptoms. These can be things like unintentional weight loss, drenching night sweats that are happening on a consistent basis, and those sorts of things. So, if that’s happening at the same time as these other factors are progressing, those would be reasons to treat.

And notice that one thing I did not say is the white blood cell count itself.

That’s a common misconception. Some people think that as the white blood cell count goes higher – and people use all different thresholds, 100, 200 – that by crossing that threshold you need to start treatment. And in fact, that’s not the case. We have many patients whose white blood cell count can get very high but then it can kind of level off and plateau for a period of several years, and as long as they don’t meet those other treatment indications, they don’t need to be treated just based on the white count alone.

Should Patients “Watch and Wait” Before Starting CLL Treatment?

Should Patients “Watch and Wait” Before Starting CLL Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What do chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients need to know about watch and wait? Dr. Matthew Davids shares the meaning of watch and wait, when it’s appropriate for CLL patients, and which factors are monitored to ensure the best care.

Dr. Matthew Davids is Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Davids here.

See More from Engage CLL


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An Overview of CLL Treatment Types

Transcript:

Katherine:

We have a question from the audience. Linda writes, “I’ve heard that CLL doesn’t need to be treated right away. Is that true?”

Dr. Davids:

That is true for the majority of CLL patients, and it’s actually a very counterintuitive thing. We’re conditioned that if you have cancer that it’s important to be proactive and get rid of it as quickly as possible, the sooner the better, and that is actually not the case in CLL. And we didn’t just take a guess that that’s the best approach. This is actually something that’s been studied in clinical trials. There were several clinical trials launched in the ‘70s and ‘80s looking at an early intervention strategy using a chemotherapy-based approach to see if treating at the time of diagnosis would be better than waiting until patients developed more significant symptoms.

And all of those studies did not show a benefit to early intervention.

Now, more recently those studies have been challenged as somewhat out of date, which is a fair criticism because they used an older chemotherapy drug. And so, there is a newer study now going on in Europe that is looking at early intervention with the drug ibrutinib, which is one of our novel agents for CLL, looking to see if early intervention with ibrutinib (Imbruvica), particularly for patients who have a higher risk form of CLL, may be beneficial.

But we have seen some data now already presented from this study that do not show any improvement in how long the patients live by treating with ibrutinib early, and we do see some of the typical side effects that we’re accustomed to seeing with ibrutinib. So, even with the newer data that we’re seeing, we still do not recommend early intervention for patients with CLL.

Katherine:

I’ve heard this term “watch and wait.” What does that mean?

Dr. Davids:

Yeah, it’s not the best term because it’s very passive. That refers to this observation strategy. I like to think of it more as “active surveillance.” It seems more proactive because you’re doing something about it.

You’re really checking the blood counts, you’re getting your physical exam, you’re checking in on symptoms, these sorts of things, and really keeping a close eye on the disease. And that’s the approach that we like to take

with our patients to really keep them engaged, making sure they’re staying up-to-date on their screenings for other cancers, making sure they’re getting vaccinations, these sorts of things are all the things we do with active surveillance.

Katherine:

How is someone monitored during this watch-and-wait period?

Dr. Davids:

It varies depending on individual patients. We’ve alluded to the fact that there’s different genetic subgroups of CLL already, so there are some patients that have higher-risk disease. The example of that usually is deletion 17p that people may have heard of on the FISH test. For those patients I usually am seeing them every three months or so, physical exam, checking on their history, checking their blood work. But there’s quite a few CLL patients who have lower-risk disease. If they have for example mutated IGHV, if they do not have the 17p for example, those patients may be able to be seen once every six months or so with a similar setup.

I don’t routinely get CAT scans on a regular basis for most patients. Most patients don’t need bone marrow biopsy tests unless they’re starting treatment. So, it’s mostly it’s exam, talking to patients, and checking the blood work.

Who Is on a Patient’s CLL Care Team?

Who Is on a CLL Patient’s Care Team? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Who are the members on a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient’s care team? Dr. Matthew Davids explains the members of the healthcare team – and shares advice for ensuring the patient receives complete information for optimal care.

Dr. Matthew Davids is Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Davids here.

See More from Engage CLL


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An Overview of CLL Treatment Types

Transcript:

Katherine:

When a person is diagnosed with CLL they have a whole healthcare team. Who’s typically on that team?

Dr. Davids:

It’s definitely a multidisciplinary team.

Usually there’s an oncologist-hematologist who’s leading the team as a physician, but there’s a very large team of other people who are involved, whether it’s an advanced practice person such as a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant. They’re often very closely involved with the day-to-day patient care. There’s nurse navigators in some places that can help with getting access to these novel agents and with looking into clinical trial opportunities. There are pharmacy folks who are very helpful sometimes in checking in on side effects, and advising on dosing, and so forth.

That’s more on the provider side of things. But, of course, the care team really includes the caregivers for the patient, whether it’s family members or friends, who are really a crucial part of this. The field is very complicated, and one of the challenges with COVID recently is that I’ve always invited family members and friends to come to visits with patients, because I do think it’s helpful to have many people listening. And that’s been hard because we’ve had to restrict visitors usually to either no visitors or one visitor because of COVID precautions.

Even if that’s the case, you can still have people dial in by phone or use technologies like FaceTime to try to have them there with you, because I think having that extra set of ears can be helpful as you hear all this information coming at you from your oncologist.

Recent Developments in CLL Treatment and Research

Recent Developments in CLL Treatment and Research from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the latest developments in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment and research? Dr. Matthew Davids summarizes the latest treatment news and goals of the treatments – and shares CLL resources for patient care.

Dr. Matthew Davids is Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Davids here.

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Who Is on a Patient’s CLL Care Team?

Transcript:

Katherine:

Have there been any recent developments in CLL treatment and research that patients should know about?

Dr. Davids:

Yeah. We could spend a few hours on this, but I’ll try to summarize it. There are a lot of exciting developments in the field. I would say at a high level obviously, over the last decade the entire field of CLL treatment has been transformed. Whereas we only had chemotherapy-based approaches before, now we have a whole number of different drugs that we call novel agents. And the reason why their novel is that they target the CLL cells, but they spare the other cells in the body, so there’s less collateral damage there. What that means is that they have fewer side effects, and they’re more effective, so it’s really a win-win situation for patients.

There have kind of been two main approaches for this.

One is to start a novel agent drug and to continue it for as long as it’s helping, which fortunately for most patients is a long time, many years. And then, a newer approach is actually to do what’s called time-limited therapy where you start usually at least a couple of these different novel drugs together but hopefully achieve what we call a very deep remission, meaning excellent shrinkage of lymph nodes and improvement of blood counts and bone marrow disease. And by getting these very deep remissions the idea is we can do a finite period of treatment, whether it’s one year or two years, it kind of depends on the regimen. And then, stop therapy and hope that patients can then enjoy many years of remission while off therapy, which can be nice in terms of reducing side effects and costs and all these other things.

So, those are the biggest developments in the field right now, the continuous novel agent therapy and time-limited novel agent therapy. And a lot of the clinical trials that are getting off the ground now are starting to compare these two strategies to figure out really what’s the optimal way to treat CLL patients.

Katherine:

How can patients stay up-do-date on developments like these?

Dr. Davids:

It’s definitely challenging. It’s challenging even for us who are in the field to keep up with things on the academic side. I think for patients, seeking out patient-friendly sources of information on the web are helpful, but sometimes it can be hard to know what’s reliable information on the web. So websites like this and programs like this I think can be very helpful. Another resource that a lot of my patients find helpful is the CLL Society, so www.cllsociety.org. Brian Koffman really curates a lot of the new developments in the field on that website nicely. He interviews a lot of different CLL experts in this short format that can be very digestible for patients. Patient Power is another great website. So, there are a bunch of them out there, and I think those can be a great resource for our patients.

What Should CLL Patients Know About COVID-19 Vaccines?

What Should CLL Patients Know About COVID-19 Vaccines? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What should chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients know about the COVID-19 vaccines? Dr. Matthew Davids shares information on COVID-19 vaccine safety and efficacy – and whether a specific vaccine is recommended for CLL patients.

Dr. Matthew Davids is Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Davids here.

See More from Engage CLL


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Who Is on a Patient’s CLL Care Team?

Transcript:

Katherine:

Let’s start with a question that’s on the mind of many of our audience members. Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for CLL patients?

Dr. Davids:

Very timely question. The simple answer is yes. There are now actually three different vaccines that have been granted emergency use authorization by the FDA.

And I would say that so far, we’ve seen clinical trial evidence suggesting these are very safe vaccines in the general population.

Our own experience with our own CLL patients so far has also suggested safety, so I think it’s very important that our CLL patients get vaccinated as soon as they can. I think the bigger concern more than safety is on the efficacy side of the vaccine, meaning how effective are these vaccines going to be for CLL patients? That’s not something that we know yet from the larger clinical trials that have been done. So, those numbers you see quoted, 95 percent protective, that’s in the general populations.

We do worry a bit based on our experience with other vaccines in CLL patients that they may not be quite as effective, but we don’t know that yet. Fortunately, that’s something that we’re studying now, both at our center and in some nationwide efforts, to look for example at the antibody production that CLL patients can make before and after vaccination. I’m hopeful that over the next few months we’ll start to learn about how effective these vaccines are specifically for CLL patients.

We certainly expect they will have some benefit, so that’s why we recommend vaccination for all of our CLL patients. But once patients are vaccinated, it doesn’t give them a free pass to then take their masks off and go back to normal life. Particularly CLL patients I think need to be careful even after vaccination to continue to do social distancing, hand hygiene, and all these things.

Katherine:

Is there one type of vaccine that’s more suited for CLL patients?

Dr. Davids:

Nope. As far as we can tell, all three of the approved vaccines so far are safe and should have some good effects for CLL patients.

There’s no benefit of one versus the others, so the best one to get is the one that’s in your muscle and injected. Whatever you can get access to, that’s the best one for you.

How to Play an Active Role in Your CLL Treatment Decisions

How to Play an Active Role in Your CLL Treatment Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can you partner with your healthcare team to feel confident in your CLL decisions? In this webinar replay, Dr. Matthew Davids discusses CLL treatment approaches, developing research and tools for partnering with your healthcare team. Dr. Matthew Davids is the Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

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Which CLL Treatment Approach Could be Right for You?

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to explore the factors that guide CLL treatment decisions, including your role in making those decisions. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during the webinar. And at the end of this program, you will receive a link to a program survey. This will allow you to provide feedback about your experience today, and it will help us plan future webinars.

Finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Refer to your own healthcare team. All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Matthew Davids. Dr. Davids, would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Davids:                  

Hi, Katherine. Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be with everyone today. I’m Matt Davids. I’m a CLL-focused physician based at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and I’m also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. And I get to wear many hats here. First and foremost, I take care of patients, particularly patients with CLL, but I also have some administrative roles. I direct our clinical research program in the lymphoma division. I also run a research laboratory focused on CLL and other lymphoid cancers, and I run about a dozen clinical trials mostly focused on developing new treatment options for patients with CLL.

Katherine:                  

Wow. Sounds like you’re a busy guy. I’m glad you have the time to join us today.

Dr. Davids:                  

My pleasure.

Katherine:                  

Let’s start with a question that’s on the mind of many of our audience members. Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for CLL patients?

Dr. Davids:                 

Very timely question. The simple answer is yes. There are now actually three different vaccines that have been granted emergency use authorization by the FDA.

And I would say that so far, we’ve seen clinical trial evidence suggesting these are very safe vaccines in the general population.

Our own experience with our own CLL patients so far has also suggested safety, so I think it’s very important that our CLL patients get vaccinated as soon as they can. I think the bigger concern more than safety is on the efficacy side of the vaccine, meaning how effective are these vaccines going to be for CLL patients? That’s not something that we know yet from the larger clinical trials that have been done. So, those numbers you see quoted, 95 percent protective, that’s in the general populations.

We do worry a bit based on our experience with other vaccines in CLL patients that they may not be quite as effective, but we don’t know that yet. Fortunately, that’s something that we’re studying now, both at our center and in some nationwide efforts, to look for example at the antibody production that CLL patients can make before and after vaccination. I’m hopeful that over the next few months we’ll start to learn about how effective these vaccines are specifically for CLL patients.

We certainly expect they will have some benefit, so that’s why we recommend vaccination for all of our CLL patients. But once patients are vaccinated, it doesn’t give them a free pass to then take their masks off and go back to normal life. Particularly CLL patients I think need to be careful even after vaccination to continue to do social distancing, hand hygiene, and all these things.

Katherine:                  

Is there one type of vaccine that’s more suited for CLL patients?

Dr. Davids:                 

Nope. As far as we can tell, all three of the approved vaccines so far are safe and should have some good effects for CLL patients.

There’s no benefit of one versus the others, so the best one to get is the one that’s in your muscle and injected. Whatever you can get access to, that’s the best one for you.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Davids, have there been any recent developments in CLL treatment and research that patients should know about?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah. We could spend a few hours on this, but I’ll try to summarize it. There’s a lot of exciting developments in the field. and I think we’re going to get into some of the specific treatments in a few minutes, but I would say at a high level obviously, over the last decade the entire field of CLL treatment has been transformed. Whereas we only had chemotherapy-based approaches before, now we have a whole number of different drugs that we call novel agents. And the reason why they’re novel is that they target the CLL cells, but they spare the other cells in the body, so there’s less collateral damage there. What that means is that they have fewer side effects, and they’re more effective, so it’s really a win-win situation for patients.

There’s kind of been two main approaches for this.

One is to start a novel agent drug and to continue it for as long as it’s helping, which fortunately for most patients is a long time, many years. And then, a newer approach is actually to do what’s called time-limited therapy where you start usually at least a couple of these different novel drugs together but hopefully achieve what we call a very deep remission, meaning excellent shrinkage of lymph nodes and improvement of blood counts and bone marrow disease. And by getting these very deep remissions the idea is we can do a finite period of treatment, whether it’s one year or two years, it kind of depends on the regimen. And then, stop therapy and hope that patients can then enjoy many years of remission while off therapy, which can be nice in terms of reducing side effects and costs and all these other things.

So, those are the biggest developments in the field right now, the continuous novel agent therapy and time-limited novel agent therapy. And a lot of the clinical trials that are getting off the ground now are starting to compare these two strategies to figure out really what’s the optimal way to treat CLL patients.

Katherine:                  

How can patients stay up-do-date on developments like these?

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s definitely challenging. It’s challenging even for us who are in the field to keep up with things on the academic side. I think for patients, seeking out patient-friendly sources of information on the web are helpful, but sometimes it can be hard to know what’s reliable information on the web. So websites like this and programs like this I think can be very helpful. Another resource that a lot of my patients find helpful is the CLL Society, so www.cllsociety.org. Brian Koffman really curates a lot of the new developments in the field on that website nicely. He interviews a lot of different CLL experts in this short format that can be very digestible for patients. Patient Power is another great website. So, there are a bunch of them out there, and I think those can be a great resource for our patients.

Katherine:                  

When a person is diagnosed with CLL they have a whole healthcare team. Who’s typically on that team?

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s definitely a multidisciplinary team.

Usually there’s an oncologist-hematologist who’s leading the team as a physician, but there’s a very large team of other people who are involved, whether it’s an advanced practice person such as a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant. They’re often very closely involved with the day-to-day patient care. There’s nurse navigators in some places that can help with getting access to these novel agents and with looking into clinical trial opportunities. There’s pharmacy folks who are very helpful sometimes in checking in on side effects, and advising on dosing, and so forth.

That’s more on the provider side of things. But, of course, the care team really includes the caregivers for the patient, whether it’s family members or friends, who are really a crucial part of this. The field is very complicated, and one of the challenges with COVID recently is that I’ve always invited family members and friends to come to visits with patients, because I do think it’s helpful to have many people listening. And that’s been hard because we’ve had to restrict visitors usually to either no visitors or one visitor because of COVID precautions.

Even if that’s the case, you can still have people dial in by phone or use technologies like FaceTime to try to have them there with you, because I think having that extra set of ears can be helpful as you hear all this information coming at you from your oncologist.

Katherine:                  

Yeah, absolutely. So, it really does sound like it’s a whole team approach. We have a question from the audience. Linda writes, “I’ve heard that CLL doesn’t need to be treated right away. Is that true?” 

Dr. Davids:                 

That is true for the majority of CLL patients, and it’s actually a very counterintuitive thing. We’re conditioned that if you have cancer that it’s important to be proactive and get rid of it as quickly as possible, the sooner the better, and that is actually not the case in CLL. And we didn’t just take a guess that that’s the best approach. This is actually something that’s been studied in clinical trials. There were several clinical trials launched in the ‘70s and ‘80s looking at an early intervention strategy using a chemotherapy-based approach to see if treating at the time of diagnosis would be better than waiting until patients developed more significant symptoms.

And all of those studies did not show a benefit to early intervention.

Now, more recently those studies have been challenged as somewhat out of date, which is a fair criticism because they used an older chemotherapy drug. And so, there is a newer study now going on in Europe that is looking at early intervention with the drug ibrutinib, which is one of our novel agents for CLL, looking to see if early intervention with ibrutinib, particularly for patients who have a higher risk form of CLL, may be beneficial.

But we have seen some data now already presented from this study that do not show any improvement in how long the patients live by treating with ibrutinib early, and we do see some of the typical side effects that we’re accustomed to seeing with ibrutinib. So, even with the newer data that we’re seeing, we still do not recommend early intervention for patients with CLL.

Katherine:                  

I’ve heard this term “watch and wait.” What does that mean?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah, it’s not the best term because it’s very passive. That refers to this observation strategy. I like to think of it more as “active surveillance.” It seems more proactive because you’re doing something about it.

You’re really checking the blood counts, you’re getting your physical exam, you’re checking in on symptoms, these sorts of things, and really keeping a close eye on the disease. And that’s the approach that we like to take with our patients to really keep them engaged, making sure they’re staying up-to-date on their screenings for other cancers, making sure they’re getting vaccinations, these sorts of things are all the things we do with active surveillance.

Katherine:                  

How is someone monitored during this watch-and-wait period?

Dr. Davids:                 

It varies depending on individual patients. We’ve alluded to the fact that there’s different genetic subgroups of CLL already, so there are some patients that have higher-risk disease. The example of that usually is deletion 17p that people may have heard of on the FISH test. For those patients I usually am seeing them every three months or so, physical exam, checking on their history, checking their bloodwork. But there’s quite a few CLL patients who have lower-risk disease. If they have for example mutated IGHV, if they do not have the 17p for example, those patients may be able to be seen once every six months or so with a similar setup.

 I don’t routinely get CAT scans on a regular basis for most patients. Most patients don’t need bone marrow biopsy tests unless they’re starting treatment. So, it’s mostly it’s exam, talking to patients, and checking the bloodwork.

Katherine:                  

Okay. So, how does CLL progress? When do you know when it’s time to treat?

Dr. Davids:                 

The stages of CLL involve the progression of the disease. When we first meet patients, often they only have cells circulating in the blood, and that’s called stage 0 disease. It’s one of the few cancers where there’s actually a Stage 0 before even Stage I, and the reason for that is that many patients can go for years on Stage 0 disease. But as the burden of the CLL cells begin to accumulate in the body they can start to collect in their lymph nodes, and the lymph nodes can start to swell up whether it’s in the neck or the armpits or elsewhere. That’s stage I disease.

They can accumulate in the spleen, which is an organ in the abdomen. It’s kind of a big filter for your bloodstream, and as the filter traps more of these lymphocytes the spleen can slowly enlarge over time. That’s stage II disease.

And then finally, the CLL cells can get into the bone marrow, which is like the factory for making your blood cells. And if the factory floor gets all gummed up with CLL cells it can’t make the normal red cells, that’s called anemia. Or it can’t make the normal platelet cells, that’s called thrombocytopenia. And when we start to see those more advanced stages III and IV of CLL, that usually does require treatment. And what the treatment does is it clears out the factory floor and it allows for the normal machinery to make the normal blood cells again. So, that’s one of the more common reasons why treatment is needed is due to anemia and low platelets. Second reason can be if the lymph nodes or spleen get so bulky that they’re uncomfortable or threatening organs internally. We want to treat before that becomes a real threat.

And then, the third thing that usually happens as the disease progresses, patients can develop some symptoms, what we call constitutional symptoms. These can be things like unintentional weight loss, drenching night sweats that are happening on a consistent basis, and those sorts of things. So, if that’s happening at the same time as these other factors are progressing, those would be reasons to treat.

And notice that one thing I did not say is the white blood cell count itself.

That’s a common misconception. Some people think that as the white blood cell count goes higher – and people use all different thresholds, 100, 200 – that by crossing that threshold you need to start treatment. And in fact, that’s not the case. We have many patients whose white blood cell count can get very high but then it can kind of level off and plateau for a period of several years, and as long as they don’t meet those other treatment indications, they don’t need to be treated just based on the white count alone.

Katherine:                  

Hmm, okay. Well, once it’s time to treat, of course then it’s time to think about treatment options. Let’s walk through the types of treatments that are used today to treat CLL.

Dr. Davids:                 

As I alluded to before, we historically have had chemotherapy-based approaches to treat CLL. And that was an effective way to temporarily put the disease into remission, but it had a lot of side effects and inevitably the CLL would come back. And the challenge particularly with chemotherapy-based approaches it that when the CLL does come back after chemotherapy, it tends to behave more aggressively and be harder to treat.

So, there have been quite a few studies over the last few years trying to figure out ways that we can avoid using chemotherapy as the first treatment, and this can involve treatments such as monoclonal antibodies. People may have heard of rituximab or a newer drug, obinutuzumab. There are the inhibitors of the B-cell receptor pathway, and this is for example ibrutinib, which targets a protein called BTK, also a newer one called acalabrutinib, which targets BTK. And then, I mentioned at the beginning these fixed-duration therapies that stop after a period of time. Many of those are based on a newer oral drug called venetoclax, which when we give it as a first therapy, we give in combination with that antibody obinutuzumab.

So, a bit of an alphabet soup. I know it gets confusing with all the different treatments, but the good news for CLL patients is, 1.) we have a lot of options, which is great, 2.) we don’t necessarily need to use chemotherapy anymore, and in fact I use it pretty rarely these days. One situation where I do still consider chemotherapy is for younger patients – which in the CLL world is sort of under age 60 or so – if they have very favorable biology to the disease, in particular this mutated IGHV.

That’s a scenario where the older chemotherapy regimen, FCR, can be very effective. It’s a six-month treatment, and we have patients with those molecular characteristics who are now 12, almost 15 years out from their initial six months, and they’re still in a complete remission. So, many of those patients have been functionally cured of their CLL from the six months of treatment. But again, there are some risks to that approach. We worry about other cancers that may be more likely after receiving FCR. We worry about infections, and particularly in the COVID situation, we worry about COVID infection in patients on chemotherapy.

So, it’s been pretty rare that I’ve been using that approach these days. I’ve been opting more for the novel agent-based approaches. So, often now the conversation as an initial therapy comes down to, “Do you prefer more of a continuous treatment strategy with a BTK inhibitor drug like ibrutinib or acalabrutinib, or do you like the idea of a time-limited therapy with one year of venetoclax in combination with obinutuzumab?” And I would say there’s pros and cons to both approaches, and we don’t know which one is the optimal one for CLL patients to start with, but probably I think most patients at some point in their lifetime are going to need one therapy or the other.

So, maybe in the end it doesn’t matter too much which one you start with if you’re going to get both eventually anyway. But we don’t know that yet.

Katherine:                  

Right. Where do clinical trials fit in with the treatment approaches?

Dr. Davids:                 

So, clinical trials are really how we’ve made all these advances in CLL over the last decade. It’s how we learn about new treatments. It’s how we learn about how to optimize the treatments that we have. I think sometimes patients have a misconception that clinical trials are a last resort, the idea that you’ve exhausted all the standard options and then you go to a clinical trial as your last hope. But I actually like to kind of turn that on its head and say that clinical trials are actually the first resort, the first best option for patients. Whenever patients can get access to a clinical trial at any stage of their disease, I would really encourage them to consider it.

We have quite a few clinical trials now in the frontline setting, meaning as an initial treatment for CLL, including some that are in development and will open soon. And these are the studies that are going to really help us define what the optimal regimens are. What’s the optimal sequence of these different novel agents?

And in CLL, really, we’re at a point where the research on the disease is so mature that when you’re in a clinical trial you’re either going to be on one regimen that you know you’re getting and you know it’s going to be an effective regimen, or you might be in a comparative trial where you could be randomized to one of two or three different regiments, but you know that each one of those regimens is one that we think is a great regimen. We just don’t know which one is optimal for individual patients. So, this is not a situation where there’s placebo-controlled trials where you don’t know if you’re going to get an active treatment or not. CLL is an area where we design our clinical trials so that all patients are going to be benefiting from cutting-edge approaches.

And so, not all patients have access to trials, and that’s okay. Again, we’re fortunate that we have many good options that can be given locally, but I do encourage patients even if they’re only able to travel to a CLL specialist once to have an initial consultation to think about doing that to get a CLL specialist on your team, so to speak. That way they can identify clinical trial options that may be a good fit, and even if not, they can advise on what the optimal treatment options are to receive locally with your own oncologist.

Katherine:                  

How do patients find out about these clinical trials?

Dr. Davids:                 

I do think the best way is through a CLL specialist because certainly they would have a great pulse on the trials, they have available at their own center. They should also have a sense for what trials are available maybe at other centers. Some of that can also be, there’s a great resource through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society where they can help navigate patients toward specific trials that may be applicable to them.

There’s also a website called clinicaltrials.gov. It can be a little challenging if you’re not familiar with it to navigate the site, but it is actually pretty straightforward. You can put in the disease and look at different options for trials based on different drugs, for example. They’ll list the eligibility criteria for the trial. That’s often I find a way that patients can begin to identify whether they may be a candidate. You can’t tell from the website whether you’re definitely a candidate or not. You really need to partner with an investigator who’s on the trial to learn that, but it certainly can be a good starting point to figure out what’s out there.

Katherine:                  

With CLL, what are the goals of treatment?

Dr. Davids:                 

I like to say to patients, “The goals are to make you live longer and live better.” You want to obviously have treatments that prolong life, but you also want to have treatments that are helping with symptoms, and giving patients more energy, and making them feel better, and protecting them from some of the risks of the disease. And so, I think the goals do vary a bit based on the stage of life that patients are at.

I see a lot of patients in their 70s and 80s, and in those patient’s symptom control, having the disease be in a good remission, allowing them to live their life is a good goal. I sometimes see patients in their 40s and 50s, and some of those patients want to be a bit more aggressive and try to do a strategy that will get them a very long-term remission, and even potentially explore potentially curative strategies.

If I have a higher-risk patient with deletion 17p who’s young and fit, and they’ve already had some of the novel treatments, that’s where we start thinking about clinical trials of some of the cellular therapies like CAR-T cells that people may have heard of where you use the T cells from the patient to try to use that as a therapy to kill off the disease. Or even a bone marrow transplant is something that we have used historically in CLL. We don’t use it as often now, but for younger patients with high-risk disease it’s still a consideration to try to achieve a cure of the CLL even though the risks of that are significant.

It sounds like there are several factors to weigh then in making this decision. Lately we’ve been hearing the term “shared decision-making,” which basically means that patients and clinicians collaborate to make healthcare decisions.

And it can help patients take a more active role in their care. What are your thoughts, Dr. Davids, on how best to make this process work?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah, I fully support that model. I think for most patients it’s very helpful to be an important decision maker. Really the patient is the ultimate decision maker to say what they want for their own treatment. And sometimes it’s hard for me to predict what a patient will want for themselves, so I see my role for most patients as providing the information that they need to make the best decision possible for themselves.

I do try to steer patients a bit in the directions that I think they should be thinking. I’m not going to necessarily present a laundry list of things to patients. I’m going to try to narrow it down to what I think are the most reasonable choices for a patient to make.

I feel that’s part of my job. I do still have patients who just say, “Just tell me what to do,” and I respect that, too. Not all patients want to be part of shared decision making, and they just want me to decide, and that’s fine. But I do find that most patients like the idea of having a voice and being the one to decide, and that way I can help to guide them, but ultimately, it’s up to them.

Katherine:                  

Well, speaking of patients having a voice, are there questions that patients should consider asking when they’re thinking about a proposed treatment plan?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah. I think some of the key ones revolve around basic stuff, but sometimes it’s hard to think of it in the moment. But thinking about, what are the risks of this therapy? What are the specific side effects that are most common? When you look at a package insert or you look at a clinical trial consent form, you’re going to see 100 different side effects listed. I always promise patients, “You won’t have every single side effect that’s listed here, but you may have a couple of them.” And again, my role often is to identify which are the more common side effects that we see and how can those be managed?

And then, I think often you’re just asking simply about what are the potential benefits of this therapy? What are the odds that I’m going to get into remission? How long is this remission likely to last?

And then, something that is often challenging for patients to think about – it can be challenging for me as well – is to think about what’s the next step? So, I think a good question to ask is, “If I choose Therapy A, what happens if I need therapy again in a few years? What are the options at that point?” because we’ve been talking so far mostly about what we call frontline therapy, making that initial choice of treatment. But then, once you get into what we call the relapse setting, a lot of the decision of what to receive at that point depends on what you got as the first therapy. And so, trying to think at least one step ahead as to what the next options are I think can be helpful, certainly for the physicians but also for the patients.

Katherine:                  

Do you have any advice to help patients speak up when they’re feeling like their voice isn’t being heard?

Dr. Davids:                 

That’s always a challenging situation, but I encourage patients not to be shy about asking questions.

There’s often an imbalance in terms of the information where the oncologist may know more than the patient about a particular condition. And so, I think reading up and trying to educate yourself as much as you can. Whenever possible, including a family member or friend as part of the visit to also help advocate for you. And then, if you’re not being heard the way that you think you should be, thinking about seeking out another provider who may be able to listen more.

And sometimes that can be again helpful to have a touchpoint with a CLL specialist who may be able to reinforce some of what you’re thinking. If what you’re reading online or seeing online is different from what your oncologist is telling you, that may be a sign that it’s good to get a second opinion and just make sure you’re on the right track.

Katherine:                  

All really helpful advice, Dr. Davids. Before we end the program, what are your thoughts about the future of CLL treatment and research?

Dr. Davids:                 

I’m very optimistic about where things are right now. We’ve gotten to this point where we have so many different effective options, so it’s fun for us to now design this next wave of clinical trials to really try to optimize the outcomes for patients.

One area I’m particularly interested in is a concept called MRD, which we haven’t talked about yet, but minimal residual disease is a way to look even at a molecular level for tiny amounts of CLL that may be left behind after treatments. And so, one of the things I’m particularly excited about is the idea eventually of using what we call MRD-guided therapy.

So, we talked before about continuous treatment. We talked about what we call fixed-duration treatment where everyone gets a year or everyone gets two years. MRD-guided therapy would actually allow us to vary the length of therapy depending on how a particular patient responds. So, some patients may need one year of a particular combination, but other patients may need two years. This could be a way to really individualize therapy for particular patients. It’s also a way to monitor patients who are in remission after they’ve stopped therapy.

And so, there’s another wave of trials looking at, should we be intervening early when patients develop recurrence of their MRD rather than waiting until they’re having progression of the disease? There’s still a lot of unanswered questions about these sorts of approaches, but I think it’s going to help us get even better at treating CLL.

All of this is contingent though upon the fact that patients continue to be interested in clinical trials and enrolling in trials so that we can really push the boundaries and learn even more about the disease. So, again, if no other message comes through, it’s really to think about clinical trials as a way to continue to improve outcomes for all patients with CLL. I think it’s a great situation where both the individual patient who’s participating in the trial can stand to benefit, but then also you can really be giving back and helping others.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Davids, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s my pleasure. Thanks so much.

And thank you to all of our partners. If you would like to watch this webinar again, there will be a replay available soon. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. Don’t forget to take the survey immed – don’t forget to take the survey immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan programs for the future. To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us.

What You Need to Know Before Choosing a Cancer Treatment

What You Need to Know Before Choosing a Cancer Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

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What steps could help you and your doctor decide on the best treatment path for your specific cancer? This animated video explains how identification of unique features of a specific cancer through biomarker testing could impact prognosis, treatment decisions and enable patients to get the best, most personalized cancer care.


If you are viewing this from outside of the US, please be aware that availability of personalized care and therapy may differ in each country. Please consult with your local healthcare provider for more information.


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TRANSCRIPT:

Dr. Jones:

Hi! I’m Dr. Jones and I’m an oncologist and researcher. I specialize in the care and treatment of patients with cancer. 

Today we’re going to talk about the steps to accessing personalized care and the best therapy for YOUR specific cancer. And that begins with something called biomarker testing.

Before we start, I want to remind you that this video is intended to help educate cancer patients and their loved ones and shouldn’t be a replacement for advice from your doctor.

Let’s start with the basics–just like no two fingerprints are exactly alike, no two patients’ cancers are exactly the same. For instance, let’s meet Louis and another patient of mine, Ben. They both have the same type of cancer and were diagnosed around the same time–but when looked at up close, their cancers look very different.  And, therefore, should be treated differently.

We can look more closely at the cancer type using biomarker testing, which checks for specific gene mutations, proteins, chromosomal abnormalities and/or other molecular changes that are unique to an individual’s disease.

Sometimes called molecular testing or genomic testing, biomarker testing can be administered in a number of ways, such as via a blood test or biopsy. The way testing is administered will depend on YOUR specific situation.

The results could help your healthcare team understand how your cancer may behave and to help plan treatment. And, it may indicate whether targeted therapy might be right for you. When deciding whether biomarker testing is necessary, your doctor will also take into consideration the stage of your cancer at diagnosis.

Louis:

Right! My biomarker testing results showed that I had a specific gene mutation and that my cancer may respond well to targeted therapy.

Dr. Jones, Can you explain how targeted therapy is different than chemo?

Dr. Jones:

Great question! Over the past several years, research has advanced quickly in developing targeted therapies, which has led to more effective options and better outcomes for patients.

Chemotherapy is still an important tool for cancer treatment, and it works by affecting a cancer cell’s ability to divide and grow. And, since cancer cells typically grow faster than normal cells, chemotherapy is more likely to kill cancer cells.

Targeted therapy, on the other hand, works by blocking specific mutations and preventing cancer cells from growing and dividing.

These newer therapies are currently being used to treat many blood cancers as well as solid tumor cancers.  As you consider treatments, it’s important to have all of the information about your diagnosis, including biomarker testing results, so that you can discuss your treatment options and goals WITH your healthcare team.

Louis:

Exactly–Dr. Jones made me feel that I had a voice in my treatment decision. We discussed things like potential side effects, what the course of treatment looks like and how it may affect my lifestyle.

When meeting with your healthcare team, insist that all of your questions are answered. Remember, this is YOUR life and it’s important that you feel comfortable and included when making care decisions. 

Dr. Jones:

And, if you don’t feel your voice is being heard, it may be time to consider a second—or third—opinion from a doctor who specializes in the type of cancer you have. 

So how can you use this information to access personalized treatment?

First, remember, no two cancers are the same. What might be right for someone else’s cancer may not work for you.

Next! Be sure to ask if biomarker testing is appropriate for your diagnosis. Then, discuss all test results with your provider before making a treatment decision. And ask whether testing will need to be repeated over time to identify additional biomarkers.

Your treatment choice should be a shared decision with your healthcare team. Discuss what your options and treatment goals are with your doctor.

And, last, but not least, it’s important to inquire about whether a targeted therapy, or a clinical trial, might be appropriate for you. Clinical trials may provide access to promising new treatments.

Louis:

All great points, Dr. Jones! We hope you can put this information to work for you. Visit powerfulpatients.org to learn more tips for advocating for yourself.

Dr. Jones:

Thanks for joining us today. 


This program is supported by Blueprint Medicines, and through generous donations from people like you.

Patient Profile: Liz Sarris

Patient Profile

Liz Sarris

Liz Sarris knows the world of healthcare pretty well. Not only has she had a 40-year career as a nurse, but she’s also had a host of chronic illnesses, which means lots and lots of doctor appointments. As if that weren’t enough, Liz has also been diagnosed with cancer three times – with three different and unrelated cancers! “I’m being watched closely from many angles,” she says. “But the great news is I live to tell the story.”

Her cancer story began in 1988. Her primary care doctor found some unexplained blood in her urine and, unable to dismiss it, referred Liz to a urologist. A scope of her bladder revealed a tumor that was about the size of a pea. Fortunately, it was non-invasive, had not invaded the bladder lining, and was removed. No treatment was required, but she did have to be monitored regularly. For the first two years she was checked every three months, then every six months for the next several years. After that she graduated to annual checkups that continue to this day.

Fast forward to 2014 when she was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). This time, Liz was seeing an endocrinologist for a thyroid issue when the doctor noticed some abnormalities in her blood work. Further testing led to her CLL diagnosis, which, so far, hasn’t required any medications or treatments other than quarterly check ins. “It is a watchful waiting situation,” she explains.

Then in 2017 things took a turn. Liz’s gastroenterologist, who she sees regularly for two chronic gastrointestinal issues, said that there was a spot on her scans that needed to be checked out. It was a spot they had been watching, but now it was starting to change. The spot turned out to be a neuroendocrine tumor of her pancreas. It was a slow growing tumor and not aggressive, but it was malignant and had to be removed, and there was a chance that it was a lot worse than the doctor thought it was. It meant major surgery that was not at all routine, and because her tumor was in the middle of her pancreas, it was possible that she might lose part of her pancreas and her spleen. Liz wanted the best possible outcome from the surgery, which meant keeping as much of her pancreas as possible, so she started to search for a surgeon. “I wanted to see the right people who were specific to this type of cancer and who do neuroendocrine tumors every day,” she says. “If he’s going to poke around my pancreas, I want to know he’s doing 10, 12, 15 of these surgeries a month.”

First, Liz narrowed her search geographically. She lives in an area that is relatively close to several high-quality medical facilities, and she knew that she didn’t want to be too far away from her family and support system after such a big surgery. Then she started asking questions and doing research. “Because I had engaged myself with good local physicians, I reached out to them for referrals,” she says. She asked her doctors who they would send their wives to and who they themselves would go to. Then she started calling surgeons and made appointments to interview three of them. When she had it narrowed to the surgeon she felt best about, she visited him a second time. “I don’t know if it’s the nurse in me or just who I am,” says Liz about her research process. She says that the doctor she chose made her feel confident, and his approach was more hopeful because he was willing to perform the surgery using a rare technique that meant he would remove the tumor from the center and then reconnect the two sides of her pancreas. Her doctor was upfront with her about all the possible risks and made sure she knew that his plan could change if the surgery revealed a different situation than they were expecting. “Do whatever you have to do to give me the best chance at a healthy life,” she told him and added that she hired him to do the job he would do for his mother, his sister, or his daughter and that she didn’t want to see him again in five years.

Her eight-hour surgery was a success. The tumor was removed, and her pancreas was put back together in what Liz describes as a “creative way.” After her surgery she didn’t require any treatment other than regular monitoring, and so far, all her scans have been good. She credits her successful outcomes in part to having a supportive family, good insurance, and good doctors, but she didn’t have good doctors by accident. She’s very proactive in her own healthcare. “I had the recipe for a good situation, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have to do the research,” she says.

Her background as a nurse helped her know what questions to ask, but she wants others to know they can ask the same questions and can be just as informed. “You can navigate your care more than you think you can,” she says. “You really have to utilize your resources.” Liz says resources like the Patient Empowerment Network, where patients have access to free online tools such as a checklist of questions to ask the doctor, are great for cancer patients. “There needs to be more empowering,” she says. “Much of what I’ve done my entire career is try to empower patients.” She says that being empowered means being educated, identifying your expectations, and asking questions. “We are willing to ask questions of our auto mechanics about our car’s maintenance and repair, but not of our doctors about our own bodies,” she says.

These days Liz is adjusting her expectations for her own life. In March, Covid-19 interrupted the career she’s been so passionate about when her oncologist told her it wasn’t safe for her to continue to work during the pandemic. “This is not how I anticipated retiring,” she says. With her unique perspective as experienced patient and medical professional, she has a lot of knowledge to share, so now Liz is exploring how she can continue to help other patients learn more about how to navigate the healthcare system and take charge of their own care plans. She’s empowered to empower others.


Read more patient stories here.

Digital Advocacy and Health Equity for CLL Patients

Telemedicine or telehealth – remote access to healthcare – has become widely used after the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, especially by cancer patients. But the rise in telemedicine has also brought challenges to the vulnerable populations of Americans over age 65 and to low-income Americans who have struggles getting online. Among patients who are over age 65, only 55 percent to 60 percent of them have broadband access from home or own a smartphone. These patients also have challenges with completing information online, with only 60 percent who have the ability to send an email, to complete a form, and to locate a website. Among low-income patients, only 53 percent are digitally literate, and they also have lower rates of Internet use, broadband access, and smartphone ownership compared to other patient groups.

As an avenue toward reducing inequities, the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) and Diverse Health Hub (DHH) have partnered to help foster change toward achieving equitable healthcare for all. In order to provide practical usage of telemedicine tools, PEN created the TelemEDucation Empowerment Resource Center for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients and their loved ones. Another resource, the digital sherpa™ program, helps cancer patients and their families become more tech-savvy by learning to use technology to their advantage during their cancer journey and beyond.

Here’s a summary view of the knowledge gained about telemedicine to help provide optimal care to CLL patients: 

How to Optimize a Telemedicine Visit

Just like in-person care visits, telemedicine visits are scheduled with a time limit in mind. Some things to remember about telemedicine visits:

  • If a video conferencing tool is needed for your visit, install the tool on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone ahead of time so that you aren’t rushed when your appointment time arrives.
  • Just like in-person doctor visits, your doctor or care provider may run a few minutes late.
  • Try your best to remain flexible and to be patient.
  • Try to write down your questions before your appointment to keep on track about things you want to learn during your visit.
  • Remain focused on the main purpose of your visit as much as possible. Polite small talk is fine but keep it to a minimum so that you can get the most out of your visit. 

CLL Patients Who Benefit the Most From Telemedicine

Not every CLL patient will be a good fit for telemedicine visit. Things to keep as top of mind for telemedicine visits:

  • CLL patients who are on active surveillance from their care providers are a natural fit for telemedicine. They can get periodic blood tests from a local laboratory, and the results can be sent electronically for their CLL specialist to evaluate.
  • Patients with high-risk genetic features or rapidly progressing CLL are not the ideal patient for care via telemedicine.

In the time of the coronavirus pandemic, remote monitoring has become part of standard healthcare terms. Some things for CLL patients to know:

  • Though it may be a new healthcare method for many patients, monitoring has actually been used for decades in the care of CLL patients and others with suppressed immune systems.
  • Remote monitoring is used to reduce the risk of infection to those with reduced immune system function, such as those with cancer and CLL.
  • Remote monitoring is a completely safe medical practice for CLL care when a patient’s blood work is monitored on a regular basis. Always ask your doctor if you’re unsure if you’re a candidate for remote monitoring or if you have questions about the frequency of your blood tests.

How Telemedicine Can Improve CLL Care

Now that even more CLL patients have become accustomed to using telemedicine care tools, CLL experts are looking to the future. Looking ahead:

  • Telemedicine can help CLL patients who live in very remote areas to gain access to clinical trials that weren’t accessible to them in the past.
  • CLL therapies will continue to improve for patients as a higher percentage of CLL patients participate in clinical trials.
  • The improvements in remote monitoring will bring more tools for CLL patients to do routine things like sending their heart rate and other things to their care provider in real time. 

Telemedicine Glossary

Here are some helpful telemedicine terms to know:

  • HIPAA – HIPAA, or the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, is a healthcare compliance law providing data security and privacy for the safeguarding of patient medical information. In telemedicine, provider-patient communication must take place through HIPAA-compliant secure platforms.
  • Patient portal – a secure Internet sign-on that allows patients to contact their provider, review medical tests and records, access health education materials, and seek appointments. Most provider networks develop a patient portal before they move to full video appointments.
  • Remote monitoring – type of ambulatory healthcare where patients use mobile medical devices to perform a routine test and send the test data to a healthcare professional in real-time.
  • VPN – a VPN, or virtual private network, is a secure and private way to connect to the Internet over public wireless connections. VPNs are particularly important for those living the digital nomad lifestyle and connecting in foreign countries where networks may be more vulnerable to communication transmission interference.

Now that telemedicine tools are gaining both in usage and numbers, CLL patients can feel hopeful about improved care and treatment toward the future. As a step in that direction, take advantage of the resources below and continue to visit the TelemEDucation Empowerment Resource Center for informative content about CLL and telemedicine.


Resources for Telemedicine and CLL

Dr. John Pagel’s Top Tips for Preparing for Your CLL Telemedicine Visit

Telemedicine Challenges and Opportunities for CLL Patients

Will Telemedicine Mitigate Financial Toxicity for CLL Patients?

What Subset of CLL Patients Should Utilize Telemedicine?

Will Telemedicine Be Part of Routine Management for CLL?

How Will Telemedicine Impact Time-Limited Therapy in CLL?

What CLL Population Will Benefit Most From Telemedicine?

Remote Monitoring

TelemEDicine ToolBox Visit Checklist

TelemEDicine ToolBox Glossary

 

Will Telemedicine Give More CLL Patients Access to Clinical Trials?

Will Telemedicine Activate More Remote Monitoring for CLL?

Will Telemedicine Improve My Quality of Life with CLL?

Will Telemedicine Be a Long-Term Survivorship Tool for CLL Patients?

What CLL Symptoms Can Be Monitored via Telemedicine?

Is Remote Monitoring for CLL Patients on CAR T Therapy the Future?

digital sherpa™ program

Extended Quick Guide to Medicare

This guide was originally published by our partner, Triage Cancer, here.

2021-Health-Insurance-Medicare-Quick-Guide

Quick Guide to Health Insurance Options

This guide was originally published by our partner, Triage Cancer, here.

2021-Health-Insurance-Options-Quick-Guide