Diana’s Story: How Connecting with Another Head and Neck Cancer Patient Saved My Life

Diana’s Story: How Connecting with Another Head and Neck Cancer Patient Saved My Life from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

After Diana’s cancer diagnosis, she was told that she had only months to live. But, after meeting fellow head and neck cancer patient Sajjad Iqbal online, Diana’s path changed dramatically and she is now cancer-free. Hear their inspiring story about the power of connecting with other patients.


Transcript:

Sajjad:                        

My name is Sajjad Iqbal. I am a physician and also a cancer patient. I have the honor of serving on the board of Patient Empowerment Network.

Diana:                         

I’m Diana Craig from Auckland, New Zealand.

Sajjad:                        

I was diagnosed with a gland cancer, which is a salivary gland, on the left side of the face. The actual histology was a salivary duct carcinoma. It was diagnosed in February of 2002.

Diana:                         

In January of 2018. I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma HPV 16 on my tonsil and soft palate.

Sajjad:                        

I do a lot of counseling for the cancer patients and mentoring and advocating and all that. And as a part of that, I have joined a head and neck cancer support group, which is based in New Zealand. It’s on Facebook. And there are some great people there who advise together cancer patients. Diana posted a cry for help back in May of this year, May of 2019, where she was just given the news that her cancer had recurred in her lungs and near her trachea. And her oncologist gave her a very grim prognosis and he thought that the medication had a very small chance of success.  

And he told Diana she had a few months to two years to live. Diana was devastated. She posted on that Facebook group, and I reached out to her to introduce myself, to tell her how I have managed my own cancer, and I told her that I could try to help her if she would be willing to share the information with me.

Diana:                         

Initially, I hadn’t heard of him before.

And I felt I needed to do some research, and I was told by everybody what a good guy he is, and to absolutely go down that road. So, I happily gave my information and certainly after the first conversation or interaction with him, I knew I was in good hands. Very much so. It was, to me, I used to call him my angel, my guardian angel, because I really felt safe and informed and encouraged. And his mantrais hope and determination and that is such a valid mantra when you go through cancer.

And it’s something that I said to myself oftentimes because it was so poignant, and it’s everything that you have to be and do to empower yourself and to be proactive, to find the best possible outcome for yourself.

Sajjad:                        

You know, as you know, I have written a book about my amazing cancer journey. The book is called Swimming Upstream. And a lot of other people have found it very inspirational. So, my story was not a whole lot different from Diana in this respect: that I was given a very grim prognosis back in 2002.

I was told that I had less than 30% chance of surviving for two years and I was also told that there was no five-year survivors with this cancer. And I made it my goal to beat the odds. And I used to say that in that case, I’ll be among the 30% and if no one has survived five years, well, I’ll be the first one. So, the hope and determination that Diana just mentioned, that’s my motto. Hope and determination. And I tried to instill that in Diana.

Diana: 

It certainly empowered me or put me in the right direction as to, I mean, I like to be moving, I like to be able to fight the fight if I know where to fight to. And also, know what questions to ask. I mean, when you’re in that situation, you are told how it is. And you don’t know what you don’t know. And unless you’ve been informed by somebody else or do the research yourself, and even then, that’s pretty dubious, because you stumble across information that you don’t want to know, and a lot of it’s scare tactics. But with his knowledge, with his background, with his first-hand experience of going through what we have gone through, gave me the confidence to do everything that he said.

Sajjad:                        

And I always recommend to my friends, other patients, that going to your oncologist about the cancer treatment is so much different than going to a doctor for your blood pressure or your bronchitis or so on.

This is an area where we need to be fully prepared. We need to go in and have a dialogue with our doctors who are treating our cancer and this is a matter of life and death. Literally, life and death. So, there is no room for just sitting there passively and just listening to everything and agreeing to everything. We must ask a lot of questions to our doctor. They should be, not only willing to answer our questions, but they should be welcoming our questions. So, if a doctor does not welcome your questions, does not give you plenty of time, does not explain everything that he or she wants to do, then that’s not the right doctor for you. And you’ve got to move on, and quickly.

Diana:                         

Where would I be without meeting Sajjad? I would have no hair at this point. I would be in the middle of chemo and probably K-truda. I don’t believe that I would have such a radical improvement so quickly. Because mine had gone after three infusions, which is nine weeks. So, I floundered the first time because I felt like I needed the help and I couldn’t get any. And the last time, I felt so much more in control, and anybody would think I’m a control freak. And let me tell you, I’m not. At all.

And also, being on my own, as well, I didn’t have a partner there to talk to. It was heaven-sent. And I said to him, “If I come out okay, I’m going to come and see you.” And here I am. Coming to see you. Because it meant so much to me. It really meant so much to me. It really did.

Sajjad:

Yes, it did.

The medical science is moving at an astonishing pace to find new medicine, new modalities, to treat cancer. We cannot be  – the patient must not get bogged down in the statistics of, oh you have this percent chance of survival, or this percent chance of death. Because those numbers don’t mean anything anymore. They’re old numbers. And to fight the cancer, we need our immune system to be involved in the fight.

If we get depressed, if we lose all the hope, the immune system shuts itself down, and that helps the cancer. So, number one thing is to always have hope. Always remain optimistic. And number two is determination. You determine that you are going to fight this and you are going to survive. And then, having those two tools at your disposal, become the empowered patient. Learn as much as you can about your cancer. Talk to other people, go to the support groups. And, again, let me plug Patient Empowerment Network. Go to our website, learn about the cancer. Then go to your doctor and question them and find out how you can improve your treatment. And that’s the way you fight cancer.

Confused About Immunotherapy and Its Side Effects? You Aren’t Alone

“You don’t look like you have cancer.”

More than one patient undergoing immunotherapy to treat cancer has reported hearing statements like that. Immunotherapy is one of the recent advances in cancer treatment that belie the stereotypes about the effects of cancer treatment. 

The side effects of immunotherapy are different from those associated with chemotherapy and radiation. However, that does not mean immunotherapy does not have side effects. Patients and care partners need to be aware of these potential side effects and to be vigilant in addressing them with their oncologists because they can signal more serious complications if left untreated.

What is Immunotherapy?

Despite the increase of immunotherapy treatment options in recent years and considerble media attention paid to advancements in this field, there remains confusion about immunotherapy and its side effects. Many cancer patients are unaware of whether immunotherapy treatments are available for their specific diagnosis. Others don’t know that genetic profiling of their tumors is usually required to determine if immunotherapy is an option and not all treatment centers routinely conduct genetic profiles of tumors. A  survey by The Cancer Support Community found that the majority of patients who received immunotherapy knew little to nothing about it prior to treatment and were unfamiliar with what to expect.

Immunotherapy works by manipulating the patient’s immune system to attack cancer cells. It is perceived as gentler and more natural than chemotherapy and radiation, without the same destructive effect on the body’s healthy tissues.  This, combined with a lack of prior understanding of immunotherapy, can lead patients and care partners ill-prepared for possible side effects.

Furthermore, immunotherapy is a category of therapies, not a single type of treatment. There are a variety of immunotherapy drugs, most of which are administered via infusion.  Side effects will vary by drug, the cancer and its location, treatment dose, and the patient’s overall health.

The following are the most common types of immunotherapy.

  • Checkpoint inhibitors use drugs to block proteins in the patient’s immune system that would otherwise restrain the immune system, often referred to as taking the “brakes” off the immune system.
  • CAR-T therapy modifies the patient’s T-cells in a lab to enhance their ability to bind to cancer cells and attack and kill them.
  • Oncolytic virus therapy uses genetically modified viruses to kill cancer cells.
  • Another therapy uses cytokines (small proteins that carry messages between cells) to stimulate the immune cells to attack cancer.

Immunotherapy can be part of combination therapy. It might be combined with chemotherapy. It might be used to shrink a tumor that is then surgically removed.  Or multiple immunotherapy drugs might be used simultaneously.

What Are The Side Effects?

With immunotherapies, side effects typically occur when the immune system gets too revved up from the treatment. The most common side effects for immunotherapy treatments are fatigue, headache, and fever with flu-like symptoms. Some people also experience general inflammation often in the form of a rash. Many melanoma patients report blotchy skin discoloration, called vitiligo, during treatment. These milder side effects can usually be managed with over-the-counter remedies and adjustments to daily activities.

For checkpoint inhibitors, the fastest growing segment of immunotherapy treatments, mild side effects occur in 30% – 50% of patients. Serious side effects typically occur in less than 5% of patients. (See “Understanding Immunotherapy Side Effects” from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.)

Less common side effects are blisters, joint pain, thyroid inflammation, and colitis (inflamed colon resulting in diarrhea with cramping). Some patients who receive CAR T-cell therapy develop a condition known as cytokine release syndrome, which causes fever, elevated heart rate, low blood pressure, and rash. 

In rare cases, immunotherapy has resulted in lung inflammation, hepatitis, inflammation of the pituitary, and detrimental effects on the nervous and endocrine systems. In most cases, the conditions clear up when treatment ends.  However, there have been outcomes in which immunotherapy caused diabetes or tuberculosis.

“Overall there are fewer side effects [with immunotherapy],” explained Dr. Justin Gainor, a lung and esophageal cancer specialist at Mass General during an Immunotherapy Patient Summit hosted by the Cancer Research Institute. “But the immune system can affect anything from the top of the head down to the toes. Any organ has the potential to be affected.”

As the application of immunotherapy has expanded, so has our understanding of the potential side effects. Like most medical treatments, how one person responds to immunotherapy can be different from another even when the cancer diagnosis and drug therapy are the same.

The essential thing patients and care partners need to know about side effects is they should always be reported to their oncologist or nurse oncologist.

Why Patients Should Talk to Their Provider About Immunotherapy Side Effects

Because immunotherapy has created newer therapy options, there isn’t the volume of experiences as with older treatments. The infinite number of variables that patients provide once a treatment moves beyond clinical trials and into the general patient population generate more diverse outcomes.  And, as most therapies are less than 10 years old, there hasn’t been an opportunity to study the long-term effect of these therapies. This is why oncologists advise patients and their caregivers to be extra vigilant in noting any changes experienced during and after treatment.

Many side effects are easy to treat but medical providers want patients to be forthcoming in discussing any and all side effects. This is in part to improve understanding of side effects, but also because a mild cough or a case of diarrhea might be harbingers of a more systemic issue that will grow worse if left untreated.

Patients should not be hesitant to discuss side effects because they fear they will be taken off immunotherapy.  Sometimes a pause in treatment might be necessary, but the earlier the oncologist is made aware of a side effect, the less likely that will be necessary.

In addition, patients undergoing immunotherapy should always take the name(s) of their immunotherapy drugs and the name of their oncologist when seeing medical professionals outside of their cancer treatment team. This is especially important when visiting the ER.  Because immunotherapy drugs are newer and highly targeted to certain cancers, many medical professionals remain unfamiliar with drug interactions and treating related side effects.

Immunotherapy On The Rise

Immunotherapy treatments have resulted in reports of remission in cases that would’ve been deemed hopeless just five or 10 years ago.  The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved various immunotherapy treatments for melanoma, lung cancer, head and neck cancer, bladder cancer, cervical cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, lymphoma, breast cancer, and most recently bladder cancer.  (Here is a list of  immunotherapies by cancer type from the Cancer Research Institute.)

“It’s revolutionized how we treat our patients,” says Dr. Gainor of Mass General about immunotherapy’s impact on lung and esophageal cancer.

Advances in immunotherapy research and trials continue to generate optimism and excitement. A clinical study in Houston is looking at using immunotherapy to prevent a recurrence. Researchers in Britain recently announced a discovery that might lead to advances in immunotherapy treatments to a much broader array of cancers.

While there is excitement around the field of immunotherapy and it has resulted in unprecedented success in treating some previously hard-to-treat cancers, it remains an option for a minority of cancer diagnoses.  It works best on solid tumors with more mutations, often referred to as having a high-mutational load or microsatellite instability (MSI) high. And it is not universally successful for every patient.

With hundreds of clinical trials involving immunotherapy alone or in combination with other therapies, it is certain more treatment options are on the horizon. As more therapies are developed and more patients with a greater variety of conditions undergo immunotherapy, we will also increase our understanding of potential side effects.

Side effects should not dissuade patients and care partners from considering immunotherapy if it is available or from advocating for genetic tests to deteimine if it is an option. Many patients undergoing immunotherapy have previously undergone chemotherapy and report that the side effects are fewer and milder by comparison.  The important thing is that patients and their partners know what to expect and communicate with their treatment team.

If the next 10 years in immunotherapy research and development are anything link eth elast 10, we can expect more exciting advancements in the battle against cancer. For more perspective on what’s ahead for immunotherapy see the Cancer Research Institute’s article: Cancer Immunotherapy in 2020 and Beyond.

Head & Neck Cancer Treatment Overview

This resource was originally published by the Mayo Clinic here.


Overview

Head and neck cancers are a broad category of cancers that occur in the head and neck region.

Head and neck cancer treatment depends on the type, location and size of your cancer. Treatment for head and neck cancers often involves surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Treatments may be combined.

After treatment, recovery from head and neck cancers may involve working with rehabilitation specialists and other experts to cope with side effects, such as hearing loss, difficulty eating, dental problems, thyroid issues, difficulty breathing or difficulty speaking.

Types

  1. Esthesioneuroblastoma
  2. Floor of the mouth cancer
  3. Lip cancer
  4. Mouth cancer
  5. Nasal and paranasal tumors
  6. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma
  7. Pituitary tumors
  8. Salivary gland tumors
  9. Skin cancer
  10. Soft palate cancer
  11. Throat cancer
  12. Thyroid cancer
  13. Tongue cancer
  14. Tonsil cancer

Clinical trials

Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this disease.

ONS Podcast: Radiation Side Effects With Head and Neck Cancers

This podcast was originally published by The Oncology Nursing Society here.


ONS member and 2019 Congress Presenter John Hillson, RN, BSN, BA, OCN®, clinical nurse at Duke Radiation Oncology in Durham, NC, joins Chris Pirschel, ONS staff writer, to discuss managing radiation side effects for patients with head and neck cancers, helping patients navigate the complexities of radiation therapy, and supporting patients throughout the cancer journey.

Check out these resources from today’s episode:

Does Cannabis Oil Have a Role in Cancer Treatment?

Does Cannabis Oil Have a Role in Cancer Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is it just a trend or could cannabis oil truly have a role in cancer care and treatment? Dr. Sangmin Lee share his perspective.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? AML Series


Related Resources

AML Research and Internet Claims Program Resource Guide

Assessing Credible AML Resources and Identifying Research Scams

Understanding and Managing AML Treatment Side Effects

Transcript:

Patricia:

The use of cannabis oil is becoming prevalent. Does this have a role in cancer care and treatment?

Dr. Lee:

Absolutely. So, we use it for a lot of side effect management. So, cannabis can be helpful, in terms of appetite and nausea, for example. So, we often use it in conjunction to manage some of the side effects that patients can have throughout their treatment.

You should consult with your medical team, and of course, I should say that laws differ state by state, so it doesn’t apply to every state. But when it’s available, it can be a valuable addition.

Patricia:

Sure. Discuss that with your physician.

Are Clinical Trial Participants Monitored More Closely?

Are Clinical Trial Participants Monitored More Closely? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Sangmin Lee discusses the monitoring of clinical trial participants and the measures taken for patient safety.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? AML Series


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Advice for Newly Diagnosed AML Patients

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Transcript:

Patricia:

How about this next one? I am monitored more closely in a clinical trial.

Dr. Lee:

In some cases, it’s true. Clinical trials do have certain monitoring visits, in terms of doctor’s visits, laboratory tests, and physical exams.

The purpose of that is to make sure that it is safe. So, the purpose of monitoring closely, in a lot of cases, is for the patient’s safety. We are testing drugs in a lot of clinical trials, for which the complete safety profile, as well as efficacy profile, is not known. So, the purpose of closer monitoring is to make sure whatever we’re doing is safe, and if there are any unexpected side effects, then it allows us to address the side effects, as well. So, it’s mainly for patients’ safety.

Will Clinical Trials Cost You? The Facts.

Will Clinical Trials Cost You? The Facts. from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Sangmin Lee reviews the financial impact associated with clinical trials, including a discussion of what expenses are covered for participants.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? AML Series


Related Resources

Confronting Fears About Clinical Trials

AML Research and Internet Claims Program Resource Guide

Second Opinions in AML: The Importance of Moving Swiftly

Transcript:

Patricia:

All right, how about this one: I may have unexpected costs if I join a clinical trial.

Dr. Lee:

So, typically, that’s actually, usually not true, because how it works is that the clinical trial drugs, and that there may be extra procedures or visits associated with clinical trials.

And what usually happens is that the sponsor of the clinical trial provides the cost of the drug, intervention, and anything extra that are required for the clinical trial. So, in the end, the cost of participating in a clinical trial should not be any more than receiving standard care treatment.

In some rare cases, there may be stipends associated with the clinical trial, especially with travel. So, if you participate in a clinical trial, and you live far away, then you should ask to see if there is any stipends available, especially for travel.

Is It Safe? Breaking Down the Clinical Trial Process

Is It Safe? Breaking Down the Clinical Trial Process from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

The idea of a clinical trial can be intimidating and confusing for many patients. Dr. Sangmin Lee explains the phases of clinical trials, including the safety protocols in place to protect patients.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? AML Series


Related Resources

AML Treatment Options: What’s Available?

Confronting Fears About Clinical Trials

AML Research and Internet Claims Program Resource Guide


Transcript:

Patricia:

What is the process for getting medicine to patients during clinical trials?

Dr. Lee:

So, clinical trials are basically what’s needed to prove that drugs work. So, a lot of times, we test drugs in a test tube in AML cell lines, and they show great promise. But just because a drug works in a test tube setting, doesn’t actually mean that it will work in humans, because human bodies are much more complicated. So, we need to test promising drugs in humans to make sure they are safe and effective.

And that’s what the purpose of clinical trials are. Once they demonstrate safety and efficacy, then a drug then gets to be approved, and is available commercially. So, that’s the purpose of clinical trials.

To be involved in clinical trials, what it involves is, basically, you have to meet a sort of criteria, called eligibility, because different clinical trials have different criteria for selection. So, we have to look into that. And then, once you fit an eligibility or selection criteria, then you typically undergo certain diagnostic tests to enroll on a clinical study. And then, you get whatever drug or intervention that is designed to test in that setting.

So, there are numerous steps to actually enroll in a clinical study.

Patricia:

And like you mentioned, there’s a long way between rat studies and human trials. What are the phases of clinical trials?

Dr. Lee:

So, there are three phases for clinical trials, commonly. There’s phase one, and phase two, and phase three. Phase one is the earliest part of the clinical trial process. So, goal of a phase one study is to make sure a drug is safe in a human. So, phase one studies are usually the first time that you are testing the drug in humans, and the main purpose is to demonstrate that it’s safe. So, typically, in a phase one study, typically, you test a drug at a lower dose or dose levels to demonstrate safety. What it means is that you’re enrolling a few patients at a time.

Once a drug is proven to be safe, then you move on to phase two, which is basically testing the drug in more patients. And the purpose of phase two is to get a preliminary assessment of how effective a treatment would be.

So, typically, a phase two study involves many more patients in that setting. And then, if a phase two study shows that a drug is very promising, then the drug may move on to phase three, where, basically, in phrase three, you are comparing one intervention or a drug compared to the standard of care. And, typically, in a phase three setting, a computer decides randomly which intervention you get, whether it’s an intervention or new drug versus standard of care. And standard of care may include either placebo or chemotherapy intervention, that is standard of care. So, it’s not always placebo in phase three.

Patient Profile: Kirk Beck

Patient Profile

Kirk Beck

Prostate and Head and Neck Cancer

What is significant to Kirk Beck is not that he’s had cancer. He delivers his story with minimal detail about his diagnosis, his treatment, and the subsequent life-threatening complications he endured as casually as he might tell you what he had for breakfast. It’s not until his wife Kelly joins the conversation that the full impact of Kirk’s medical history becomes clear.

“He wouldn’t have lived to be 50,” says Kelly of the first time Kirk was diagnosed with cancer. They weren’t married then, but it’s not lost on Kelly that their marriage never would have happened if he hadn’t survived. “It was caught very early and he was lucky,” she says. What’s lucky is that Kirk’s prostate cancer was detected at all. It was the mid-90s and he was 44, much too young to have a prostate screening in those days, but Kirk had a friend with the disease so during a routine physical he insisted, despite his doctor’s protest, that he get tested.

That test ultimately resulted in his diagnosis and a radical prostatectomy. Through the help of his brother, a physician, he sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital where the surgery was done using the “nerve-sparing” technique — which helped prevent side effects such as urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction. The surgery was a success, the cancer hadn’t metastasized, and Kirk didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation. “I got operated on and came home,” he says and in the 20 plus years since he’s had no recurrence or side effects.

He did, however, get another cancer diagnosis. This time he had tonsil cancer in October 2005. Within days his tonsil became extremely swollen. He had surgery the next month, followed by chemotherapy and radiation which was accompanied by a drug designed to protect his salivary glands from the radiation. This time there were complications. By New Year’s Eve he was back in the hospital and then again, after his second round of chemo, at the end of January 2006. He had what he calls episodes of extreme pain. “It was excruciating. Unbearable,” he says.

What he had was a blood clot, portal vein thrombosis, which is a rare condition to which he had a very rare reaction, and his small intestine had begun to die. He was unable to digest food and was vomiting a lot. His body had created what is known as collateral veins which were enough to keep him alive, but not enough to prevent damage to his small intestine. The hospital told Kelly that there was nothing more they could do. He was too high risk for surgery, they said. She was advised to contact hospice care.

“If I had listened to them, he would be dead. I just knew deep down this wasn’t supposed to be happening this way,” says Kelly, who instead of calling hospice called Kirk’s brother, the doctor, and got Kirk back to Johns Hopkins where they were able to save his life.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Kirk required intensive and careful treatment of his clot, continued radiation for his cancer treatment, and surgery to remove the damaged area of his small intestine. The process was scary and daunting and full of unpleasant details, but that is not what Kirk chooses to focus on. “If you look at it properly, it’s a gift. Not a penalty. Not a punishment. It’s an opportunity to reconsider your perspective on life,” says Kirk.

“It was a great experience. It might be strange to say, but its what I believe. It’s not something I want to go through again, but it was priceless. It changed my entire life and made me a lot more appreciative.” That is what is significant to Kirk. Not having cancer twice. Not having a life-threatening blood clot, but the living that he has done and the opportunity that these experiences have given him to help others. “I’ve been able to share my story and offer help to others that I couldn’t have offered without the experience. People knew I was speaking the truth. There’s no fiction in it. I try to give people a real and truthful perspective and that is invaluable.”

Kelly has a similar take away. She says the experience afforded her a new perspective, but also made her a strong advocate for patient empowerment. “Don’t always accept what they say. Be an advocate,” she says. “If you have a bad feeling and you are not getting answers, go elsewhere. There are so many places you can go for information. Take advantage of every opportunity. Having a good, strong advocate will save your life.”

In addition to his two bouts with cancer, Kirk has had a number of pretty considerable medical issues over the course of his 67 years, but he’s never let any of it slow him down. “Everyone has their own journey and also their own destination,” says Kirk who believes that a positive attitude is crucial to recovery. “You just can’t allow yourself to be destroyed by these situations.”

Clinical Trial Mythbusters: Do Patients Have A Voice While Participating in a Clinical Trial?

For survivors Roberta Alberle and T.J. Sharpe and so many others, cancer was an unwelcome intruder that suddenly demanded their attention. Both became proactive and engaged, vocal patients, doing research about their treatment options and gaining access to clinical trials that made a HUGE difference.

Watch to learn:

  •       Do patients still have a voice during the clinical trial process?
  •       What is a clinical trial navigator?
  •       How can patients help their healthcare team be more effective in locating trials for them?
  •       More about clinical trial resources

Clinical Trials Mythbusters: Do Patients Have A Voice While Participating in a Clinical Trial? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 

Clinical Trial Mythbusters: Are Clinical Trials a Gamble for Me or My Loved One?

Is a clinical trial right for me or is it a gamble with my health? How will my loved one be affected? Do the risks outweigh the benefits? Watch as a panel of experts, including an oncologist, trial coordinator, and patient advocate as they debunk some of the myths around clinical trials. Listen to hear the patient voice and perspective for getting the best care-making decisions about clinical trials.

Watch to learn:

  • What are common clinical trial myths?
  • Why should patients participate?
  • How can patients navigate the system?
  • How can I or my care partner work with my medical team?

Clinical Trial Mythbusters: Are Clinical Trials a Gamble for Me or My Loved One? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 

Clinical Trial Mythbusters: Are Clinical Trials a Last Resort Treatment Option?

Are clinical trials only for patients who run out of treatment options? Watch as our expert panel answer questions as they debunk common myths around clinical trial participation. Tune in to hear the patient perspective and expert advice for making decisions about clinical trials.

Watch the video and learn:

  • What is a trial and when should I consider one?
  • What are common clinical trial myths?
  • If my cancer center does not offer a trial, what should I do?
  • How can I stay informed?
  • Is there financial assistance to be in a trial?

Clinical Trial MythBusters: Are Clinical Trials a Last Resort Treatment Option? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.


Transcript:

Andrew Schorr:

Hello and welcome to this Clinical Trials MythBusters program.  I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power joining you all the way from Barcelona, Spain.  We’re here for a conference.  You’re about to meet folks from across the U.S. and wherever you’re joining us.  Thank you so much for joining us.

Thanks to our wonderful partner, the Patient Empowerment Network, and also the Coalition for Clinical Trial Awareness and the Alliance for Patient Access.  And thank you to our sponsors, they all start with A, Astellas, Amgen and AbbVie.  They help make this program possible.

We have a lot to talk about in helping debunk the myths about clinical trials and hopefully raising awareness and understanding for you and your family, so you can consider a clinical trial and see whether it’s right for you.  And I can tell you, in so many areas of cancer now there’s exciting research going on. But if you want to get the possibility of tomorrow’s medicine today, and it happened for me with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, being in a Phase II trial way back in 2000, 10 years before the drug combination I received was approved.  I know it was life-saving for me.

And I want you to meet our first guest.  It was life-saving for him, and that is Pat Gavin.  Pat joins all the way from Marne, Michigan, which is outside Grand Rapids.  Pat, thank you so much for joining us on this program.

Pat Gavin:

Thanks for having me, Andrew.  Glad to be here.

Andrew Schorr:

Now, Pat, I want to go over a little background about you.  I believe that you’ve been treated for three cancers, right?  Pharyngeal head and neck cancer, in 2007, right?

Pat Gavin:

Right.

Andrew Schorr:

And also you were treated for melanoma 2008, and then in 2014 prostate cancer.  Now, you were in a Phase II trial for that pharyngeal head and neck cancer.  Do you believe it made a big difference for you?

Pat Gavin:

Well, that trial is absolutely the reason I’m here today.  My oncologist described it as we had the experience of witnessing a miracle.

Andrew Schorr:

Let’s meet one of our medical specialists who is joining us, who has been on our Patient Power programs before and our lung cancer programs, and that’s Dr. Charu Aggarwal.  She joins us from Penn Medicine, the Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia.  She’s a lung cancer specialist and also a head and neck cancer specialist, very active in trials.  Dr. Aggarwal, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Aggarwal:

Thank you, Andrew.  Thank you for having me here.  I’m delighted to be part of this program.

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Aggarwal, you have a lot of research going.  It takes patients wanting to participate for us to ever have approved medicines, right?

Dr. Aggarwal:

Absolutely.  And I think that’s key in clinical trial participation, to get drugs to patients early.

Andrew Schorr:

All right.  And certainly in the area of lung cancer and many other cancers now there’s a lot happening, and smart researchers like Dr. Aggarwal are trying to prove some things that really seem like they would make a lot of sense, but we patients have to participate, be their partner.  I’ve seen that.

Dr. Aggarwal, lung cancer is a good example, but you’re an oncologist, and you see many different areas that are changing fast.  What would you say to patients about the opportunity, like I said, did it give me tomorrow’s medicine today?  Or, Pat, who feels he’s alive because of that.  You must see that a lot.  Doesn’t always work out, but it’s happening more and more, isn’t it?

Dr. Aggarwal:

It is definitely happening more and more.  Clinical trials are really accelerating our ability to get patients, like you said, tomorrow’s medicine today.  In the last five years, we’ve had upwards of eight to 10 drugs approved for lung cancer alone, and it would not have been possible without patients’ participation on clinical trials.

As we understand the biology of diseases better and as more medicines are available to us, the only way to access them and the only way to get FDA approval is through clinical trials.  And we’ve certainly seen that for lung cancer, but we’ve also seen that for head and neck cancer, and immunotherapy is now possible because of clinical trial participation.

Andrew Schorr:

Right.  And I’m living with two cancers, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, where there are many new drugs now, and now we’re looking at trials with combinations of new drugs.  And then I have another condition, scarring in the bone marrow, myelofibrosis, and I was very grateful that a new drug had been approved for that. And I’ve taken that drug now four-and-a-half years, a genetic inhibitor, and I’ve met patient number one, who is in that trial, and I give him a big hug.

Now, Pat, what do you think are some of the myths?  You know, you meet people all the time.  What do you think are some of the things that people just think are true but really aren’t?  Maybe you could tick some off.

Pat Gavin:

Well, one of the big myths out there is that there’s going to be a placebo arm, and there are not placebo arms to treatment trials, unless the standard of care would be a wait and watch, which is relatively rare.  So you’re always going to get either standard of care or a combination that includes standard of care and the test drugs or the—test drugs.  You’re never going to be left out there with just taking a sugar pill.

Andrew Schorr:

Right.  So let me go over that with Dr. Aggarwal.  People I think are—have heard about trials for other illnesses, but we’re talking about cancer now.  Your patients don’t get just a little white pill with nothing in it, right?  They either get quality care, standard of care, or they get something new.  Is that correct?

Dr. Aggarwal:

That’s correct.  So the era of placebo?controlled trials is almost over, and I say almost because in the metastatic setting or in the stage IV setting or incurable setting we almost always never use placebo anymore.  We are either randomizing patients to standard of care or meeting standard therapy, the chemotherapy, be it a pill, be it targeted therapy or immunotherapy, and we compare patients to that approach and introduce the experimental approach on the other hand.

Now, if there are patients that have standard of care as observation, then, of course, that observation arm does become our randomized arm.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  And may I ask what Pat was taking, or like I know in leukemia we have people who are in watch and wait.  So we have some people who are in watch and wait, okay.  So I get that.

Pat, what’s another myth, do you think?  So one was where you get a placebo, so we heard no.  So what’s another myth, do you think?

Pat Gavin:

I think there’s always a feeling that I’m going to be just a guinea pig, and that’s the one thing I think I hear most often from people is I don’t want to be a guinea pig.  I want to make sure that I’m getting a treatment and not being exposed to things that are unsafe.  Of course, there’s always a certain amount of risk with any trial that we participate in, but the chances of some of the things happening that you might see on the comedy TV shows just aren’t going to be there.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Dr. Aggarwal, let’s go over that.  So, first of all, you’re at a major university center, University of Pennsylvania and Abramson Cancer Center.  What sort of panels in decision?making of smart minds are there going to whether you’re even going to go ahead with a certain trial?  I think you call it an investigational review board.  Tell us a little about the process of deciding whether you’re going to have a trial at your institution at all.

Dr. Aggarwal:

Yes.  So there’s a very thorough review of clinical trials, and these are vetted through several committees both in terms of ethical review as well as scientific review.  And, you know, when my patients say to me I don’t want to be a guinea pig, I really try and figure out what is it about the trial that they don’t want to do?  Is it the fact that they don’t want to get the investigational drug, or is it the number of tests that are involved in association with receiving that drug?

And I think, you know, most of the time, 80 to 90 percent of the time, I’m able to answer patients’ questions and concerns regarding their guinea pig concern, and most of the times actually it’s related to the fact that they don’t want to undergo extra tests or procedures that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

As soon as they hear that this is actually a drug where it may benefit them and they’re not just going to get a sugar pill, most patients are actually interested in clinical trial participation, because they’re here to really help themselves and to get something that can help their cancer.

Andrew Schorr:

So, Pat, another concern—well, I guess one limitation of people being in trials is people don’t even know about them, you know, not only don’t understand what a trial is but have not even been told that it’s an option, and that’s a problem in the U.S. today, isn’t it?

Pat Gavin:

Absolutely.  I even think it was a problem for me.  I didn’t know that a trial was going to be available in my home town.  If it wouldn’t have been for my oncologist recommending it to me, I probably wouldn’t have joined.  Fortunately, today I think patients are getting more knowledgeable about trials that are out there, and they’re hearing more and have the interest in joining a trial, and they’ll recommend it to their oncologists and tell them that they are interested.  But not knowing about them is a big problem.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay, Pat.  So for our viewers today, what question or questions would you urge cancer patients or family members to ask today so that they have the awareness of trials that might be right for them?

Pat Gavin:

Well, the first thing I would do is I would offer to my oncologist that I’m interested in being in a trial.  And I would ask what type of trials are available for people with my cancer, and what would you recommend as far as the trials that you see out there that you think is right for what I’m facing today?

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  All right.  Well, now joining us I think is Mary Ellen Hand, who has been at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago for many years and also works with lung cancer patients but has been in oncology for many years.  Mary Ellen, first of all, thank you so much for being with us.

Mary Ellen Hand:

You’re welcome.  Sorry for the technical difficulty.

Andrew Schorr:

It’s okay.  Thank you for being with us, Mary Ellen.  So from your point of view, what’s a myth that comes up a lot for people?  We’ve been talking a little bit with our other guests about whether with you get a placebo, no, whether you’re a guinea pig, no.  Are there other myths that you can think of that you really want to talk about now?

Mary Ellen Hand:

I think that people sometimes come to this thinking I don’t want to do something because I don’t—as you’re saying, a guinea pig or be in uncharted territory as opposed to having an opportunity to have a therapy that may be more impactful in their disease and help control their cancer better.

And, secondly, I will have people who have an out?of?network insurance or something that doesn’t allow them the flexibility to maybe even come to our institution or somewhere else for their therapy, and they think cancer trials are free care, anything you get if you’re on a trial is free.  And what is true is that ordinary customary charges for things like blood tests and scans and doctor appointments and the medicines that are approved are billed to your insurance, and what the company might provide that’s being tested would be the thing that’s provided free to you.  And so I think that that’s a misconception that many people have.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Now, can a major medical center like yours help a patient discover the financial issues related to them, maybe even work with their insurance company to see are there options for them related to being in a trial?

Mary Ellen Hand:

I think over the last couple years in particular things have become much more complicated for people.  You know, some people sign up for Medicaid or Medicare replacement policies in the different states.  There’s Medicaid with places—Medicaid policies that don’t allow people flexibility.  But certainly that’s our job is to help people find out where they could go and if they’re eligible for a trial to help them get to that trial, and some of that is people who have—fit a particular niche.

And some people need to be well enough to travel, you know, if they need to—if the trial is out of our ZIP code.  Here in Chicago we’re very collegial in head and neck cancer and lung cancer and, you know, multiple other cancers.  You know, if the trial exists five miles from here, we’ll facilitate the patients getting on that trial there.

I think that medical records, one of the many—one of the most common medical records systems is available at many institutions across the country, so people can have access to the reports for another hospital.  Otherwise, there are coordinators and people who can make sure that all of that gets to the research nurse and gets in the hands of the person who is going to take care of that.

And then at our hospital, and I’m sure across the country, we make sure that they get the imaging so that they have something to compare it to, and then that’s uploaded into your chart, you know, at the other facility so that everybody has the right information to take care of the patients.

 

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Dr. Aggarwal…

Dr. Aggarwal:

I would just add…

Andrew Schorr:

Go ahead, please.

Dr. Aggarwal:

I would just add that this is a very common concern about the financial responsibility for clinical trials.  And here at Penn we are actually trying to make this process very, very transparent so that when I discuss a clinical trial with a patient actually our consent forms reflect what will be the standard of care costs and what will be sponsored by the clinical trial.

And, in fact, we do facilitate meetings with a financial counselor so that if a patient has concerns about what will be covered versus what will not be covered will be discussed at length with a financial counselor.  And that actually has gone a long way in allaying some of the concerns that patients have when going on clinical trials.  So, you know, it goes hand in hand with what Mary Ellen was saying, that I think once patients hear from the oncologist that there’s another level of—from a finance person I think that really goes a long way.

And I would urge patients to actually discuss and ask the facility where they’ll be treated if there is such a person who can discuss with them, because most academic cancer centers do have this facility.

Andrew Schorr:

So many people are treated, you know, by a local oncology clinic, but often they can work in partnership with an institution like yours, Chicago, Philadelphia, others around the country.  How does that work?  How can that work where they can be in your trial but maybe some testing or some other things, or do they have to commute to your institution maybe from a distance all the time?  Let’s start with you, Dr. Aggarwal.  Can there be more partnership, or are more trials available now in the community as well?

Dr. Aggarwal:

So a lot of partnerships exist between community physicians as well as academic physicians, so I see patients for my community oncology colleagues all the time, and the goal really is to make access easier, you know, the access to clinical trials and drugs easier.  So while the administration of the drug and the monitoring of the drug may happen at the academic center, there are many tests and imaging procedures that can occur in the community.

And the goal is also to make this easier for patients.  So if a patient is 25 miles away, I try not to drag the patients here just for a clinical exam or just for a scan.  You know, so I would facilitate them getting scans closer to home with their outpatient oncologist and then ask them to perhaps bring a CD with them for review.  They can get their blood work done closer to home.

So there are lots of things and lots of procedures where we work synergistically with their community physician hand in hand to try and facilitate all of these procedures so that they don’t have to keep traveling all the time.  So we certainly do that.

Andrew Schorr:

In Chicago, too, Mary Ellen?

Mary Ellen Hand:

Certainly.  You know, there are some things that the study requires.  If an infusion needs to be done onsite, that’s what happens.  You know, we have patients who travel across the country that might have a genomic mutation.  They may be looking for second or third generations of drugs, and so those people may travel.  So they have their local oncologist, meaning near, whether that’s someone in the community or someone in the academic center.

I think that’s another thing, is that patients are concerned that their doctor, whom they’ve forged this relationship with and the nurse, they think they will be upset if they go somewhere else.  And then instead of knowing that it’s a great opportunity for us to advance the body of knowledge but it’s also—we’re always encouraging and hopeful that people can get onto a clinical trial.

And so I think it makes them feel really good that people have these connections.  I think they like to know they’ve talked, they like to know that everybody’s on the same page and this many more layers of care take care of that.

Andrew Schorr:

Pat, let’s pick up on that.  So…

Mary Ellen Hand:

Their problem, their knowledge, all of us together, so.

Andrew Schorr:

Right.  Well, Pat, let’s talk about that.  So people have a doctor, maybe the one who diagnosed them, and they have a close relationship with them, and they’re afraid of losing them.  What do you say to people?  Mary Ellen spoke about that but from your perspective.

Pat Gavin:

Well, I think it depends somewhat on the trial and where they’re going to be available.  I received all of my care through the clinical trial locally at the Lacks Cancer Center here in Grand Rapids.  It was a trial like many others that are in the national clinical trials network, and the NCI-sponsored trials are generally available at the NCORP sites, and there are a lot of those around the country.  I was fortunate to have one of the original ones here in Grand Rapids by the Cancer Research Consortium, and those trials are available in academic centers, they’re available in community cancer centers like I had.  So it depends on the trial.

Now, some of the pharma trials may be a little more isolated and localized to specific hospitals for some of their early?phase trials.  Talk to your oncologist again.

Andrew Schorr:

We are getting questions.  And so I mentioned I have chronic lymphocytic leukemia.  This came in from George, who also has CLL.  He said, I’ve had no treatment, but it’s likely that it will be needed very soon, and it seems that Medicare patients are treated somewhat unfairly when it comes to available financial assistance for oral chemo, oral drugs that are now in trials often, Mary Ellen.

And so he says, are we likely to run into problems with clinical trials if you’re on Medicare?  So, Mary Ellen, any guidance about that, Medicare patients and trials?

Mary Ellen Hand:

No.  I think that we’re an aging America, so I think that we want to be sure that patients who are on Medicare have access to clinical trials.  So I think what he’s speaking particularly to is the co?pay of some of these medications is so very high, and co?pay assistance programs are not always built to support and help them in this.  But I think that if he’s going to be eligible for a clinical trial, he should, you know, number one see if he’s eligible. And then hopefully the place that he’s at will be able to help navigate that for him so that he can be—you know, be eligible to participate in that trial.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  One other question, Dr. Aggarwal.  This one comes from Stacey.  Stacey also has leukemia, and we’ve had oral drugs being developed a lot now for various leukemias, this is CLL.  And so there’s a clinical trial underway combining two of these oral agents, ibrutinib (Imbruvica) and venetoclax (Venclexta), is underway at MD Anderson in Houston, and the same trial is supposed to begin at Northwestern in Chicago near where Mary Ellen is, and that’s in May.

And she says since there’s a four? to five?month period before the introduction of venetoclax following ibrutinib, what would be the chance that I could join the trial at Northwestern in May, or would this be something I would have to direct to the doctor leading the trial?  She’s wondering about since the drugs get combined but sort of one after the other, can you sort of start, and how does that work?

Dr. Aggarwal:

So I would say that each clinical trial is different in terms of how they’re designed and what eligibility criteria are outlined.  I would really encourage participation—or I would encourage her to speak with this—speak about this trial with a physician or contact the PI of the clinical trial at MD Anderson…

Andrew Schorr:

Principal investigator.

Dr. Aggarwal:

…principal investigator to try to get some clarification of that.  There are some trials that prohibit previous therapies or previous ibrutinib, for example, prior to enrolling in a combination clinical trial, and there are some trials that allow prior participation.  In some instances, they may see progression on ibrutinib prior to combination therapy that is ibrutinib and venetoclax.  So I think it’s a matter of finding what the check boxes on the trial are, and talking to the principal investigator would be the best way to go about it.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Here’s a question for Pat.  So, Pat, one of the things I wonder about is there are people who are on modern therapy now like for instance some of these drugs we mentioned, people are doing well on ibrutinib or people are doing well on venetoclax, or people are doing well on some of the lung cancer drugs.  Now, none of us know how long they’ll last, so they say, well, why should I even think about trials if it’s not broken now?  What would you say to them?

Pat Gavin:

We have to as patients look at clinical trials as a form of treatment, and it should be something that should be considered right from the beginning.  I hear people saying that, well, I’m going to go with what I’ve got so far, and if that doesn’t work and nothing else is an option, then I’ll use it as a last resort.  Now, in some cases a clinical trial may be a last resort, but in other cases, like you mention, there may be things about early treatment that would disallow you from participating in a clinical trial later on, so it’s best to be talking about clinical trials as an option right from the beginning.

Andrew Schorr:

Well, you know, this is a series we’re doing, and so we’ve covered some ground today, and I just want to recap a couple of things.  We talked about the phases of trials.  We talked about financial issues, and there are counselors to help you related to that.  Pat and I told the story of each of us thinking we wouldn’t be alive if we hadn’t been in a trial.  We talked about genomics.  So we’ve covered a lot in our first one, and we have another program coming up late in June.  Dr. Aggarwal, was this a good start?

Dr. Aggarwal:

This was an excellent start.  I think we definitely look forward to more patient participation on further trials, further programs like this.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  And, Mary Ellen, do you think we made a good start today, and hopefully people will now consider trials?

Mary Ellen Hand:

I think that it’s always just good to have more education, so whatever venue we can give that to people, whether it’s talking one on one with their physician or nurse or whether it’s online, to give people permission that they can get more information.

I think the other important thing to know is the criteria we talked about is you can’t—if you are truly getting a second opinion, you should get it before you start something, because you don’t want to have started a treatment that you get one dose of something that blocks you from access to a clinical trial.  Or you don’t want to have your genomic testing done yet, and yet you’ve started chemotherapy.  So sometimes it’s just educating people that, you know, if they’re not very sick, there’s time to get more information.

Andrew Schorr:

Good, good point.  Pat, what’s a final comment from you?  What do we want to leave people with, hopefully have more people think about trials, get access to them and have greater participation?

Pat Gavin:

Well, every time I talk I say I’m alive today by the grace of God and the fact that I participated in a cancer clinical trial.  They make a difference.  They’re the reason why you and I are alive today.  They need our support.  If clinical research is going to advance, we have to have patients in clinical trials.

Andrew Schorr:

Right.  So if we want progress and cures for the cancers that we’re living with, we’ve got to work with folks like Mary Ellen, Dr. Aggarwal and the other folks involved in research around the world, really.

Well, I’m over here in Europe, today in Barcelona.  This is a worldwide broadcast we’re doing.  Pat Gavin, I want to thank you so much for joining us from near Grand Rapids and wish you good health, Pat.  Thank you for being with us.

Pat Gavin:

Thanks.

Andrew Schorr:

And, Mary Ellen Hand, thanks for joining us again on our programs and in Chicago and 34 years of devotion to us, Mary Ellen, you keep going.  Thank you for being with us.

Mary Ellen Hand:

You’re welcome.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Dr. Charu Aggarwal from Penn Medicine, the Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia, thank you for being with us again on one of our programs.  And thanks for the research that you’re moving forward with and your devotion to patients with cancer.  We hope that—well, we know it makes a big difference, and we look forward to you having great discoveries in partnership with patients moving forward.

Dr. Aggarwal:

Thank you for having me.

Andrew Schorr:

Great program.  Our next program will be coming up on June 21st, and we’re going to discuss are clinical trials a gamble?  So how do you decide as a patient, you and your family?  We’ll talk about that in June.  Thank you so much for being with us.