Patient Profile: Jeff’s Diagnosis of Parotid Cancer

On April 27, 2020, I received an email plea for help from Debra after she had read my book. Deb’s husband, Jeff, was struggling with a very malignant form of parotid cancer called Acinic Cell Carcinoma that, despite surgery and radiation, had spread to his chest and spine. Worse yet, there were no clear treatment choices available. Over the next 11 months, Deb & I have maintained an almost constant contact via emails and telephone chats. It has been my honor & privilege to get to know Deb. I am most impressed by her innate intelligence, rock solid determination and steadfast perseverance. Jeff is alive today primarily due to Debra’s tireless efforts to find a solution. 

On my request, Deb has penned this story of Jeff’s illness. I sincerely hope that it will inspire other patients and caregivers to become more empowered. Remember, Knowledge is Your Superpower.  Sajjad Iqbal, M.D.


 My husband, Jeff, was diagnosed with high-grade acinic cell cancer of the parotid gland in February of 2018 at the age of 65. He was a very young, healthy 65, who rarely saw a doctor and needed no regular medications. For 37 years he was a teacher and coach at a small school in Iowa. We have now been married for 47 years, have three children and three grandchildren. Jeff retired early from teaching when he was 61, but continued coaching for several more years. He also did small construction jobs with our son. We spent a lot of time traveling by car throughout the United States. It was a shock to both of us to hear that Jeff had this disease since he seemed to be so healthy. 

Several years before Jeff was diagnosed, he mentioned a small lump behind his ear. During a brief physical he had, he asked his doctor about it and was told to keep an eye on it and, if it got bigger, to see a doctor. In January of 2018, he noticed it was getting bigger so he saw the doctor. He was told he needed to get a biopsy but it was probably just a blocked salivary gland. As soon as I heard that, I figured it was cancer as Jeff’s mother had been diagnosed with salivary gland cancer many years before. Hers was a slow growing adenoid cystic cancer that was treated with surgery only. He had his biopsy done at a local hospital and when they said it was cancer, we had them make him an appointment at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota which is only a couple of hours from our home. 

He had further testing done at Mayo which also showed a lesion at the top of his spine. In March of 2018, he had two separate surgeries to remove the tumors. Cancer was also found in 9 of 21 lymph nodes. He came through the surgeries with no problems. Soon after, he received six weeks of radiation on both of those spots. This was much tougher on him than the surgeries. His neck was badly burned, nausea, no appetite, etc. He made it through and slowly got back to feeling normal. At that time, we were told that chemo wouldn’t help him so he never received any. Three months later, a scan showed a nodule on his chest wall. They did a biopsy and found it to be the same type of cancer. He had a cyroablation on that spot.

Two months later, we found out that the cyroablation had not worked, the spot was bigger and there were several spots on bone. He had Foundation One testing done on his tumor and it showed very few mutations. There was only one mutation, RET, that had a possible treatment at that time. There was a clinical trial at Mayo for a targeted drug for that mutation and they were able to get him in. He started on that in February of 2019. He experienced no side effects and the chest wall tumor stayed about the same the entire time he was on the trial. Unfortunately, though, it was not stopping the bone mets. He had radiation three days in a row on a couple of them when they started causing him pain. Because it was not stopping the bone mets, he discontinued the trial. His oncologist told us that he didn’t know of any clinical trials at that time that would help him. The only thing he had to offer was chemo and possibly Keytruda but he was doubtful they would help very much. Needless to say, this left us feeling lost as to what to do next. 

The Mayo oncologist had told us that, in his opinion, clinical trials were the best way to go as you could get the newest treatments and you would be closely monitored. That is what I decided to look for first. Luckily, since Jeff was first diagnosed, I had been doing research on his cancer and possible treatments. There wasn’t a lot as it is a rare cancer. I have no medical background but was determined to figure things out as much as I could and find something that might be able to help. I found three clinical trials that I thought might work for Jeff. These trials did not exist when Jeff was first diagnosed. I sent them to his Mayo oncologist who had told me that he would be willing to look over a clinical trial if I found one. He agreed that the one I was most interested in looked like a good possibility and one of the trial locations was Iowa City which is about 3 hours from us. This is a trial that focuses on the genetic makeup of the cancer instead of the type of cancer. One of the mutations that Jeff has is FANCA and this trial was the first one I found where FANCA was one of the mutations they were looking for. Also, Jeff’s mother, who also had salivary gland cancer, is a carrier of the FANCA gene. There is no known relationship between the FANCA gene and salivary gland cancer but I feel there must be a connection. It is a rare cancer and to have a mother and son have it must be extremely rare. Our children have been tested for this gene and we discovered that our son is also a carrier. 

It was in February of 2020 when we went to Iowa City to try to get Jeff into the trial. We found out that they had changed the requirements for the trial and now you had to have had chemo in order to be accepted. The doctor started Jeff on the oral chemo drug, Xeloda, and told us that if anything grew, he would stop the chemo and try to get him in the trial. Jeff was also having some rib and back pain and that was treated with five days of radiation therapy. Following those treatments, he had some heartburn issues for a couple of weeks after which it slowly resolved.

At first, the chemo wasn’t too bad. Soon though, there were many nasty side effects; peeling palms and bottoms of feet, nausea, no appetite, etc. He did not feel up to doing much and spent a lot of time sitting or lying down. He was on this about five months and decided to stop due to the side effects. He was having some back pain during his chemo and was prescribed a narcotic pain reliever. It helped the pain some, but caused constipation, so he had to take more medication for that. He told the doctors he did not like taking the narcotic drug and wanted to find another alternative. They tried one drug and the first night he took it he ended up fainting and having make a trip to the hospital. Needless to say, we stopped that drug right away! They said he was having nerve pain from his spine but were not able to find the exact source. He ended up having a vertebroplasty on his spine as they thought it might help his pain.

Unfortunately, it didn’t help the pain and he also started having a weird feeling of a tight band around his abdomen. We made a trip back to the Mayo Clinic to see a pain specialist there. He thought Jeff might be helped with a nerve block on either side of his spine. He had this done and, not only did it not help, it made the band feeling we were trying to get rid of feel even tighter! This was very disheartening as we really thought it would help. Iowa City had started him on Gabapentin for his nerve pain and had been slowly increasing the dosage. He was also started on a low dose of Lexapro and, between those two drugs, he started to feel less pain in his back. The “band” feeling is still there, but not as bad as it once was. He was finally able to get into the clinical trial in August of 2020. The drug he is on now is a parp inhibitor that targets the FANCA pathway. He has been on this drug for about seven months now with almost no side effects. The targeted tumor has shrunk quite a bit and the bone mets have stayed the same. Unfortunately, on his last scans, there was a new spot on his liver. He was allowed to stay in the trial as it is working on his targeted tumor and he is scheduled soon for microwave ablation on his liver. 

When one treatment stops working, I always look for a new clinical trial first.

It is hard, however, as so many of the trials are for certain types of cancer. Even though you discover (from the mutations) that a certain drug may help your cancer, you can only be in that trial if you have a certain type of cancer. I hope in the future there are many more trials based on the genetic makeup of the cancer rather than the type of cancer. The other problem is that the majority of trials are held at larger hospitals that are just too far away to go back and forth as often as needed. It would be great if there were a way to have some of the treatments done at a larger hospital in your own state. Also, if you have a rare cancer, it is much harder to find clinical trials. 

I have a library background and have always relied on books and articles to find information about various topics. Now that the internet is available that has been my most important tool at this time. Also, websites like PEN, providing patient’s stories, healthy recipes and classes are very helpful. These types of sites have really helped me feel not so alone and have given me much more hope than I have ever received from any oncologist. It is also over the internet that I connected with Dr. Sajjad Iqbal after reading his book “Swimming Upstream.” He has been very generous with his time and willing to give suggestions and advice as he has a cancer similar to Jeff’s. It has been a great comfort to me to be able to e-mail him to get his opinion on something or ask a question. He has also helped me feel more hopeful than anyone else I have talked to – not only by his words but by his courageous example. 

When Jeff was first diagnosed, he was still coaching track. The entire track team wanted to have a benefit for him and sold t-shirts and wristbands, and had a meal and dodge ball tournament to raise money for him. Jeff is a very popular guy in this rural school district and I know it meant a lot that his team did this for him. We have support from our family and friends and feel that we have people we can call if we need something. The pandemic has kept us from getting together with people as often as we would like but we are looking forward to that in the future. 

We know that there is a good chance that Jeff’s cancer may never be cured. If that is true, I would like the next best thing – for him to live as long as possible, as well as possible with the cancer. We have had three very good years living with it and working around his medical appointments. I will do everything I can to help him have more of those years. 

Jeff has handled this whole situation very well from the beginning. He is a pretty laid-back person who takes things as they come and isn’t much of a worrier. He has kind of set an example for me just by taking things as they come. I feel his job is to fight the cancer and my job is to help him fight the cancer. Our lives are pretty much the same as they were before he was diagnosed – only with a lot more doctor appointments! 

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.


Related Programs:

 

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Digitally Empowered™


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.

Barriers to Clinical Trial Participation

 

What are some of the barriers to clinical trial participation? What is a virtual clinical trial? Should my doctor be speaking to me about my clinical trial options? Dana Dornsife, founder of Lazarex Cancer Foundation, speaks to the key barriers in trials and how COVID-19 has really opened the door for a lot of opportunity to engage with patients around clinical trials.

Barriers to Clinical Trial Participation

Barriers to Clinical Trial Participation from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

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COVID and Clinical Trials

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Tomorrow’s Medicine Today

 

From PEN-Powered Activity Guide V, beloved medical oncologist Dr. Bora Lim of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center walks us through what a clinical trial is, the phase of how drugs get approved, and how the pandemic crisis has amplified the criticality of clinical trials.

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Clinical Trials as an Empowerment Tool

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Head and Neck Cancers

This was originally posted by the National Cancer Institute here.


What are cancers of the head and neck?

Cancers that are known collectively as head and neck cancers usually begin in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck (for example, inside the mouth, the nose, and the throat). These squamous cell cancers are often referred to as squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck. Head and neck cancers can also begin in the salivary glands, but salivary gland cancers are relatively uncommon. Salivary glands contain many different types of cells that can become cancerous, so there are many different types of salivary gland cancer.

Cancers of the head and neck are further categorized by the area of the head or neck in which they begin. These areas are described below and labeled in the image of head and neck cancer regions.

Oral cavity: Includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate (bony top of the mouth), and the small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth.

Pharynx: The pharynx (throat) is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. It has three parts: the nasopharynx (the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose); the oropharynx (the middle part of the pharynx, including the soft palate [the back of the mouth], the base of the tongue, and the tonsils); the hypopharynx (the lower part of the pharynx).

Larynx: The larynx, also called the voicebox, is a short passageway formed by cartilage just below the pharynx in the neck. The larynx contains the vocal cords. It also has a small piece of tissue, called the epiglottis, which moves to cover the larynx to prevent food from entering the air passages.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose. The nasal cavity is the hollow space inside the nose.

Salivary glands: The major salivary glands are in the floor of the mouth and near the jawbone. The salivary glands produce saliva.

Head and neck cancer regions. Illustrates location of paranasal sinuses, nasal cavity, oral cavity, tongue, salivary glands, larynx, and pharynx (including the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx).

Credit: Terese Winslow

Cancers of the brain, the eye, the esophagus, and the thyroid gland, as well as those of the scalp, skin, muscles, and bones of the head and neck, are not usually classified as head and neck cancers.

Sometimes, cancerous squamous cells can be found in the lymph nodes of the upper neck when there is no evidence of cancer in other parts of the head and neck (1). When this happens, the cancer is called metastatic squamous neck cancer with unknown (occult) primary. More information about this cancer type can be found in Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary (PDQ®).

What causes cancers of the head and neck?

Alcohol and tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco, sometimes called “chewing tobacco” or “snuff”) are the two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, especially cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx (25). At least 75% of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use (6). People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone (68). Tobacco and alcohol use are not risk factors for salivary gland cancers.

Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV type 16, is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers, particularly oropharyngeal cancers that involve the tonsils or the base of the tongue (911). In the United States, the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV infection is increasing, while the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers related to other causes is falling (9). More information is available at the HPV and Cancer page.

Other risk factors for cancers of the head and neck include the following:

Paan (betel quid). Immigrants from Southeast Asia who use paan (betel quid) in the mouth should be aware that this habit has been strongly associated with an increased risk of oral cancer (1213).

Preserved or salted foods. Consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer (1415).

Oral health. Poor oral hygiene and missing teeth may be weak risk factors for cancers of the oral cavity (1617). Use of mouthwash that has a high alcohol content is a possible, but not proven, risk factor for cancers of the oral cavity (1617).

Occupational exposure. Occupational exposure to wood dust is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer (1415). Certain industrial exposures, including exposures to asbestos and synthetic fibers, have been associated with cancer of the larynx, but the increase in risk remains controversial (18). People working in certain jobs in the construction, metal, textile, ceramic, logging, and food industries may have an increased risk of cancer of the larynx (19). Industrial exposure to wood or nickel dust or formaldehyde is a risk factor for cancers of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity (2022).

Radiation exposure. Radiation to the head and neck, for noncancerous conditions or cancer, is a risk factor for cancer of the salivary glands (162324).

Epstein-Barr virus infection. Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer (25) and cancer of the salivary glands (2627).

Ancestry. Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese ancestry, is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer (1415).

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancers?

The symptoms of head and neck cancers may include a lump or a sore that does not heal, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty in swallowing, and a change or hoarseness in the voice. These symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious conditions. It is important to check with a doctor or dentist about any of these symptoms. Symptoms that may affect specific areas of the head and neck include the following:

Oral cavity. A white or red patch on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth; a swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable; and unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.

Pharynx. Trouble breathing or speaking; pain when swallowing; pain in the neck or the throat that does not go away; frequent headaches, pain, or ringing in the ears; or trouble hearing.

Larynx. Pain when swallowing or ear pain.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity. Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear; chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics; bleeding through the nose; frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes; pain in the upper teeth; or problems with dentures.

Salivary glands. Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone, numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face, or pain in the face, the chin, or the neck that does not go away.

How common are head and neck cancers?

Head and neck cancers account for approximately 4% of all cancers in the United States (28). These cancers are more than twice as common among men as they are among women (29). Head and neck cancers are also diagnosed more often among people over age 50 than they are among younger people.

Researchers estimated that more than 65,000 men and women in this country would be diagnosed with head and neck cancers in 2017 (29).

How can I reduce my risk of developing head and neck cancers?

People who are at risk of head and neck cancers―particularly those who use tobacco―should talk with their doctor about ways that they may be able to reduce their risk. They should also discuss with their doctor how often to have checkups. In addition, ongoing clinical trials are testing the effectiveness of various medications in preventing head and neck cancers in people who have a high risk of developing these diseases. Descriptions of these clinical trials can be accessed by searching NCI’s list of cancer clinical trials. NCI’s list of cancer clinical trials includes all NCI-supported clinical trials that are taking place across the United States and Canada, including the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD.  For information about other ways to search the list, see Help Finding NCI-Supported Clinical Trials.

Information specialists from NCI’s Cancer Information Service (CIS) can also help people find clinical trials for the prevention of head and neck cancers. The CIS can be reached at 1–800–4–CANCER (1–800–422–6237) or by chatting with a cancer information specialist online through LiveHelp.

Avoiding oral HPV infection may reduce the risk of HPV-associated head and neck cancers. However, it is not yet known whether the Food and Drug Administration-approved HPV vaccines Gardasil®, Gardasil 9®, and Cervarix® prevent HPV infection of the oral cavity, and none of these vaccines has yet been approved for the prevention of oropharyngeal cancer. More information about these vaccines is in the NCI fact sheet Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines.

How are head and neck cancers diagnosed?

To find the cause of the signs or symptoms of a problem in the head and neck area, a doctor evaluates a person’s medical history, performs a physical examination, and orders diagnostic tests. The exams and tests may vary depending on the symptoms. Examination of a sample of tissue under a microscope is always necessary to confirm a diagnosis of cancer.

If the diagnosis is cancer, the doctor will want to learn the stage (or extent) of disease. Staging is a careful attempt to find out whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to which parts of the body. Staging may involve an examination under anesthesia (in an operating room), x-rays and other imaging procedures, and laboratory tests. Knowing the stage of the disease helps the doctor plan treatment.

How are head and neck cancers treated?

The treatment plan for an individual patient depends on a number of factors, including the exact location of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and the person’s age and general health. Treatment for head and neck cancer can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of treatments.

People who are diagnosed with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer may be treated differently than people with oropharyngeal cancers that are HPV-negative. Recent research has shown that patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal tumors have a better prognosis and may do just as well on less intense treatment. An ongoing clinical trial is investigating this question.

More information about treatment for specific types of head and neck cancers is in the following PDQ® cancer treatment summaries, which are available in patient and health professional versions, as well as in Spanish (the links below go to the patient versions in English):

The patient and the doctor should consider treatment options carefully. They should discuss each type of treatment and how it might change the way the patient looks, talks, eats, or breathes.

What are the side effects of treatment?

Surgery for head and neck cancers often changes the patient’s ability to chew, swallow, or talk. The patient may look different after surgery, and the face and neck may be swollen. The swelling usually goes away within a few weeks. However, if lymph nodes are removed, the flow of lymph in the area where they were removed may be slower and lymph could collect in the tissues, causing additional swelling; this swelling may last for a long time.

After a laryngectomy (surgery to remove the larynx) or other surgery in the neck, parts of the neck and throat may feel numb because nerves have been cut. If lymph nodes in the neck were removed, the shoulder and neck may become weak and stiff.

Patients who receive radiation to the head and neck may experience redness, irritation, and sores in the mouth; a dry mouth or thickened saliva; difficulty in swallowing; changes in taste; or nausea. Other problems that may occur during treatment are loss of taste, which may decrease appetite and affect nutrition, and earaches (caused by the hardening of ear wax). Patients may also notice some swelling or drooping of the skin under the chin and changes in the texture of the skin. The jaw may feel stiff, and patients may not be able to open their mouth as wide as before treatment.

Patients should report any side effects to their doctor or nurse, and discuss how to deal with them.

Where can I find more information about clinical trials for patients with head and neck cancers?

Clinical trials are research studies conducted with people who volunteer to take part. Participation in clinical trials is an option for many patients with head and neck cancer. Ongoing clinical trials are testing the effectiveness of treatments for head and neck cancers. Descriptions of these clinical trials can be accessed by searching NCI’s list of cancer clinical trials, which includes all NCI-supported clinical trials that are taking place across the United States and Canada, including the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD. For information about other ways to search the list, see Help Finding NCI-Supported Clinical Trials.Alternatively, call NCI’s Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) for information about clinical trials for individuals with head and neck cancer, or chat with a cancer information specialist online through LiveHelp.

People interested in taking part in a clinical trial should talk with their doctor. Information about clinical trials is available in the NCI publication Taking Part in Cancer Treatment Research Studies. This resource describes how research studies are carried out and explains their possible benefits and risks.

What rehabilitation or support options are available for patients with head and neck cancers?

The goal of treatment for head and neck cancers is to control the disease, but doctors are also concerned about preserving the function of the affected areas as much as they can and helping the patient return to normal activities as soon as possible after treatment. Rehabilitation is a very important part of this process. The goals of rehabilitation depend on the extent of the disease and the treatment that a patient has received.

Depending on the location of the cancer and the type of treatment, rehabilitation may include physical therapy, dietary counseling, speech therapy, and/or learning how to care for a stoma. A stoma is an opening into the windpipe through which a patient breathes after a laryngectomy, which is surgery to remove the larynx. The National Library of Medicine has more information about laryngectomy in MedlinePlus.

Sometimes, especially with cancer of the oral cavity, a patient may need reconstructive and plastic surgery to rebuild bones or tissues. However, reconstructive surgery may not always be possible because of damage to the remaining tissue from the original surgery or from radiation therapy. If reconstructive surgery is not possible, a prosthodontist may be able to make a prosthesis (an artificial dental and/or facial part) to restore satisfactory swallowing, speech, and appearance. Patients will receive special training on how to use the device.

Patients who have trouble speaking after treatment may need speech therapy. Often, a speech-language pathologist will visit the patient in the hospital to plan therapy and teach speech exercises or alternative methods of speaking. Speech therapy usually continues after the patient returns home.

Eating may be difficult after treatment for head and neck cancer. Some patients receive nutrients directly into a vein after surgery or need a feeding tube until they can eat on their own. A feeding tube is a flexible plastic tube that is passed into the stomach through the nose or an incision in the abdomen. A nurse or speech-language pathologist can help patients learn how to swallow again after surgery. The NCI booklet Eating Hints: Before, During, and After Cancer Treatment contains many useful suggestions and recipes.

Is follow-up care necessary? What does it involve?

Regular follow-up care is very important after treatment for head and neck cancer to make sure that the cancer has not returned, or that a second primary (new) cancer has not developed. Depending on the type of cancer, medical checkups could include exams of the stoma, if one has been created, and of the mouth, neck, and throat. Regular dental exams may also be necessary.

From time to time, the doctor may perform a complete physical exam, blood tests, x-rays, and computed tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. The doctor may monitor thyroid and pituitary gland function, especially if the head or neck was treated with radiation. Also, the doctor is likely to counsel patients to stop smoking. Research has shown that continued smoking by a patient with head and neck cancer may reduce the effectiveness of treatment and increase the chance of a second primary cancer.

Additional information can be found at NCI’s Follow-Up Medical Care page.

How can people who have had head and neck cancers reduce their risk of developing a second primary (new) cancer?

People who have been treated for head and neck cancers have an increased chance of developing a new cancer, usually in the head, neck, esophagus, or lungs (30–32). The chance of a second primary cancer varies depending on the site of the original cancer, but it is higher for people who use tobacco and drink alcohol (30).

Especially because patients who smoke have a higher risk of a second primary cancer, doctors encourage patients who use tobacco to quit. Information about tobacco cessation is available from NCI’s Cancer Information Service at 1–800–4–CANCER (1–800–422–6237) and in the NCI fact sheet Where To Get Help When You Decide To Quit Smoking. The federal government’s main resource to help people quit using tobacco is BeTobaccoFree.gov.The government also sponsors Smokefree Women, a website to help women quit using tobacco, and Smokefree Teen, which is designed to help teens understand the decisions they make and how those decisions fit into their lives. The toll-free number 1–800–QUIT–NOW (1–800–784–8669) also serves as a single point of access to state-based telephone quitlines.


Selected References

  1. Mendenhall WM, Mancuso AA, Amdur RJ, et al. Squamous cell carcinoma metastatic to the neck from an unknown head and neck primary site. American Journal of Otolaryngology 2001; 22(4):281–287.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  2. Gandini S, Botteri E, Iodice S, et al. Tobacco smoking and cancer: a meta-analysis. International Journal of Cancer 2008; 122(1):155–164.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  3. Hashibe M, Boffetta P, Zaridze D, et al. Evidence for an important role of alcohol- and aldehyde-metabolizing genes in cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention 2006; 15(4):696–703.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  4. Hashibe M, Brennan P, Benhamou S, et al. Alcohol drinking in never users of tobacco, cigarette smoking in never drinkers, and the risk of head and neck cancer: pooled analysis in the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology Consortium. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2007; 99(10):777–789.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  5. Boffetta P, Hecht S, Gray N, Gupta P, Straif K. Smokeless tobacco and cancer. The Lancet Oncology 2008; 9(7):667–675.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  6. Blot WJ, McLaughlin JK, Winn DM, et al. Smoking and drinking in relation to oral and pharyngeal cancer. Cancer Research 1988; 48(11):3282–3287.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  7. Tuyns AJ, Estève J, Raymond L, et al. Cancer of the larynx/hypopharynx, tobacco and alcohol: IARC international case-control study in Turin and Varese (Italy), Zaragoza and Navarra (Spain), Geneva (Switzerland) and Calvados (France). International Journal of Cancer 1988; 41(4):483–491.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  8. Hashibe M, Brennan P, Chuang SC, et al. Interaction between tobacco and alcohol use and the risk of head and neck cancer: pooled analysis in the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology Consortium. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention 2009; 18(2):541–550.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  9. Chaturvedi AK, Engels EA, Pfeiffer RM, et al. Human papillomavirus and rising oropharyngeal cancer incidence in the United States. Journal of Clinical Oncology 2011; 29(32):4294–4301.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  10. Adelstein DJ, Ridge JA, Gillison ML, et al. Head and neck squamous cell cancer and the human papillomavirus: summary of a National Cancer Institute State of the Science Meeting, November 9–10, 2008, Washington, D.C. Head and Neck 2009; 31(11):1393–1422.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  11. Gillison ML, D’Souza G, Westra W, et al. Distinct risk factors profiles for human papillomavirus type 16-positive and human papillomavirus type-16 negative head and neck cancers. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2008; 100(6):407–420.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  12. Ho PS, Ko YC, Yang YH, Shieh TY, Tsai CC. The incidence of oropharyngeal cancer in Taiwan: an endemic betel quid chewing area. Journal of Oral Pathology and Medicine 2002; 31(4):213–219.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  13. Goldenberg D, Lee J, Koch WM, et al. Habitual risk factors for head and neck cancer. Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery 2004; 131(6):986–993.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  14. Yu MC, Yuan JM. Nasopharyngeal Cancer. In: Schottenfeld D, Fraumeni JF Jr., editors. Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  15. Yu MC, Yuan JM. Epidemiology of nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Seminars in Cancer Biology 2002; 12(6):421–429.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  16. Mayne ST, Morse DE, Winn DM. Cancers of the Oral Cavity and Pharynx. In: Schottenfeld D, Fraumeni JF Jr., editors. Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  17. Guha N, Boffetta P, Wünsch Filho V, et al. Oral health and risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck and esophagus: results of two multicentric case-control studies. American Journal of Epidemiology 2007; 166(10):1159–1173.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  18. Olshan AF. Cancer of the Larynx. In: Schottenfeld D, Fraumeni JF Jr., editors. Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  19. Boffetta P, Richiardi L, Berrino F, et al. Occupation and larynx and hypopharynx cancer: an international case-control study in France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. Cancer Causes and Control 2003; 14(3):203–212.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  20. Littman AJ, Vaughan TL. Cancers of the Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinuses. In: Schottenfeld D, Fraumeni JF Jr., editors. Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  21. Luce D, Leclerc A, Bégin D, et al. Sinonasal cancer and occupational exposures: a pooled analysis of 12 case-control studies. Cancer Causes and Control 2002; 13(2):147–157.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  22. Luce D, Gérin M, Leclerc A, et al. Sinonasal cancer and occupational exposure to formaldehyde and other substances. International Journal of Cancer 1993; 53(2):224–231.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  23. Preston-Martin S, Thomas DC, White SC, Cohen D. Prior exposure to medical and dental x-rays related to tumors of the parotid gland. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 1988; 80(12):943–949.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  24. Horn-Ross PL, Ljung BM, Morrow M. Environmental factors and the risk of salivary gland cancer. Epidemiology 1997; 8(4):414–429.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  25. Chien YC, Chen JY, Liu MY, et al. Serologic markers of Epstein-Barr virus infection and nasopharyngeal carcinoma in Taiwanese men. New England Journal of Medicine 2001; 345(26):1877–1882.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  26. Hamilton-Dutoit SJ, Therkildsen MH, Neilsen NH, et al. Undifferentiated carcinoma of the salivary gland in Greenlandic Eskimos: demonstration of Epstein-Barr virus DNA by in situ nucleic acid hybridization. Human Pathology 1991; 22(8):811–815.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  27. Chan JK, Yip TT, Tsang WY, et al. Specific association of Epstein-Barr virus with lymphoepithelial carcinoma among tumors and tumorlike lesions of the salivary gland. Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine 1994; 118(10):994–997.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  28. Siegel RL, Miller KD, Jemal A. Cancer Statistics, 2017. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 2017; 67(1):7-30.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  29. American Cancer Society (2017). Cancer Facts and Figures 2017Exit Disclaimer. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  30. Do KA, Johnson MM, Doherty DA, et al. Second primary tumors in patients with upper aerodigestive tract cancers: joint effects of smoking and alcohol (United States). Cancer Causes and Control 2003; 14(2):131–138.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  31. Argiris A, Brockstein BE, Haraf DJ, et al. Competing causes of death and second primary tumors in patients with locoregionally advanced head and neck cancer treated with chemoradiotherapy. Clinical Cancer Research 2004; 10(6)1956–1962.

    [PubMed Abstract]

  32. Chuang SC, Scelo G, Tonita JM, et al. Risk of second primary cancer among patients with head and neck cancers: a pooled analysis of 13 cancer registries. International Journal of Cancer 2008; 123(10):2390–2396.

    [PubMed Abstract]

An Introduction to Head & Neck Cancer

This was originally published by Cancer.net on 8/20/18 here.


Dr. Ezra Cohen explains how head and neck cancer is categorized, current treatment options, and the latest research developments in this introductory patient education video.


Transcript:

Cancer.Net®: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

Head and Neck Cancer: An Introduction

What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Ezra E. W. Cohen, MD, FRCP, Member, American Society of Clinical Oncology:

When we think about head and neck cancer, we are really talking about diseases or cancers that occur essentially above the clavicles, but not including the brain. Brain cancers are really a different entity. So these are cancers that start in the mouth or the throat. Often we see patients with cancers that originated in the thyroid gland or the salivary glands.

Essentially, that part of the body that is responsible for speech and swallowing, communication. And most of those cancers start on the surface, what we call the mucosa of those areas, the lining of the mouth or the throat or the tongue.

Types of Head and Neck Cancer

Dr. Cohen:

The primary types of head and neck cancer we really put into, I think, three major categories and they are based on their origin in terms of the tissue. So the main type, and I would say this accounts for 90 percent of the cancers that we see, we call squamous cell carcinomas. Those are cancers that start in the lining of what we call the upper air digestive track, so the mouth, the throat, the upper esophagus, the voice box or larynx, the upper trachea.  Those are all lined by a mucosal surface that when there is a cancer from it, we call those squamous cell carcinomas.

Then the second most common are thyroid cancers, they come from the thyroid gland. Those fall into a couple of categories, either medullary thyroid cancer or what in broad terms what we call differentiated thyroid cancer. And then the third category that we see most often are cancers that start from the salivary glands or salivary gland cancer.

Potential for Cure

Dr. Cohen:

When we think about a head and neck cancer diagnosis and when a patient gets a diagnosis of head and neck cancer, one of the things that they need to begin to think about are what their potential for cure is and potential for organ preservation.

Let me expand on both of those. In terms of this disease, the majority of patients that we see present with what we call local regional disease. And what we mean by that is that they have a tumor that often has spread to lymph nodes, but has not spread widely. So no metastases to other organs like the lungs or the bones or the liver and what we are really talking about is disease that is confined to the area of the head and neck.

And that’s important because those patients we would consider for curative intent therapy. We are going to try to cure that disease. And that becomes obviously incredibly important to both the patient and the physician. And the first thing that we think about when we see a patient with head and neck cancer is, is this a patient that can be cured of their disease.

If they are, that obviously takes us down a road of what we can do to cure that patient. And if they are not, that takes us down a completely different therapeutic avenue. Then we begin to think about well, as you can imagine, because the organs of the head and neck are so critical to day to day interaction, to really what defines us as human beings – our ability to talk to each other, our ability to have a meal, to eat normally, our facial expressions.  So much of what we do as people, as humans happens above the clavicles.

And so functional preservation becomes so important in patients with head and neck cancer, especially ones that we are going to try to cure. So the next question that we ask is how can we cure this patient and return them to normal function. And that is exactly the questions that patients should be asking their physicians. Do I have, can I be cured of this and if I can be cured of this, how can I maintain my normal activity once I am done with therapy?

And then we need to think about what are the other medical professionals that are going to be important in this person’s care. So because many patients have, will get radiation to the mouth or the oral cavity is going to be included in the radiation field, dentists and dental professionals become incredibly important to the ongoing care.

You can imagine that as we, as patients go through therapy they are going to have trouble swallowing. So nutrition and speech and swallow therapists become incredibly important.

Treatment Options

Dr. Cohen:

Going back to the idea that many of our patients will present with local regional disease, the main treatment option really focuses on curing these patients. And when we talk about curative intent therapy, we are really talking about three major modalities – surgery, radiation therapy and medical oncology or chemotherapy.

And what we’ve done really for the last couple of decades is learned how to integrate those three modalities to produce the best outcomes possible. For some patients it is going to be surgery upfront, possibly followed by radiation or chemotherapy and radiation. For other patients, we want to, and for many patients, we want to think about a non-surgical approach in an attempt to preserve function and preserve the organ.

And then lastly, I do believe it’s very important to ask about clinical trials. Because not only is this the way that we move the field forward, but honestly, clinical trials offer novel therapies to patients, new approaches to patients that very often prove to be the next standard of care, especially now with the excitement around immunotherapy. So I think it is very important to ask what clinical trials are available to me for the disease that I have.

Beyond that, I think the important things to ask are what should my caregivers be thinking about, what support team do I need to have in place. And it is good to think about that proactively and get that in place. How much help will I need as I go through this treatment and who is going to be available to supply that help.

Latest Research Developments

Dr. Cohen:

When we think about where the research is going and the most recent research advances in head and neck cancer, I really like to group them into two categories. The first is what we are learning about the cancer and our better understanding of really the biology of this disease. And the second falls into what are the new therapies, what treatments are coming online or about to come online that we can take advantage of to improve outcomes for patients.

But we are learning that clearly there are two distinct types of squamous cell carcinoma, the head and neck. One is related to a virus called human papilloma virus or HPV, the same virus that causes cervical cancer and some other cancers. And we are understanding that HPV related head and neck cancer behaves a lot differently than non-HPV related head and neck cancer.

And what I mean by that is the patients tend to be younger, they are often non-smokers and non-drinkers. And that is a real, that is a very important thing to point out. Because we are learning as practioners is that patients don’t need to smoke to be at risk for head and neck cancer. And in a non-smoker, we need to be still concerned if somebody begins to complain of symptoms around the head and neck area, pain, a lump in the neck. We need to be very concerned and begin to think about is this possibly a viral related cancer, even in a non-smoker and patients, of course, should be aware of that as well.

So HPV positive head and neck cancer behaves differently. And then HPV negative cancer, which is often related to tobacco exposure, occurs in patients who are a little bit older. It has a different presentation in terms of where it occurs, it often occurs in the voice box or the oral cavity. And again, it is often associated with, especially cigarette smoking.

We have also begun to understand that there are mutations and alterations that we can target specifically. So for instance, there are patients who have mutations in certain pathways or in certain genes that now we have drugs that specifically target those genes.

We have also begun to understand that immunotherapy is going to play an incredibly important role in this disease for both HPV positive and non-HPV related head and neck cancer. And that we are seeing some incredibly exciting data with the first wave of immunotherapy drugs in this disease. In fact, now we have randomized data of an immunotherapy drug versus standard of care in patients that are current in metastatic disease that are showing a dramatic improvement for immunotherapy.

And truly, this is just the first step, the first drug that has shown this type of efficacy. We are going to see many, many more in the next few months and an explosion, really, in the next few years for immunotherapy in head and neck cancer.

Where to Get More Information

Dr. Cohen:

For head and neck cancer, there’s some especially relevant websites that would be worth looking into. Cancer.Net is a site designed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology specifically for patients to address patient questions, patient needs, caregiver questions and needs. And it’s really geared towards the patient. So Cancer.Net would be certainly one of those.


[Closing and Credits]

Cancer.Net®: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

ASCO’s patient education programs are supported by Conquer Cancer Foundation of the American Society of Clinical OncologyConquerCancerFoundation.org 

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 considerable 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.

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


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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.

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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


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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


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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.


See more from the Clinical Trial Mythbusters series here.