Tag Archive for: bone marrow transplant

Empowered AML Patient: Ask the AML Expert

Empowered AML Patient: Ask the AML Expert from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

For acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients, how can they get the best care no matter location? Watch as expert Dr. Catherine Lai and AML patient Sasha Tanori discuss advancements in AML detection and treatments, the use of remote monitoring, questions to ask if you suspect you have AML, how AML can vary by age, and clinical trials access for optimal care.

See More from Best AML Care No Matter Where You Live

Related Resources:

What Treatments Are on the Horizon for Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients?

What Treatments Are on the Horizon for Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients?

What Role Does a Multidisciplinary Team Play in AML Care?

What Role Does a Multidisciplinary Team Play in AML Care? 

How an AML Survivor’s Resilience Saved Her Life 


Transcript:

Sasha Tanori:

I want to start off by saying, thank you so much for joining me, Dr. Lai, I greatly appreciate it.

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Thank you for having me.

Sasha Tanori:

Dr. Lai, early on before my diagnosis, AML, many of my doctors I saw dismissed my symptoms and attributed them to me being plus-sized. Can you share with us how detecting AML has evolved over the last several years?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yes, and I’m sorry to hear that, but what I would say about the diagnosis is that how we diagnose patients with AML, unfortunately, hasn’t changed significantly in the sense that we still have to rely on our standard techniques with the bone marrow biopsy. But what I would say is that the technology for how we risk-stratify patients and subsequently treat patients has improved because we have a better understanding of the molecular characteristics of AML now, and so it has helped us in terms of being able to identify more targeted treatments, where patients are more likely to respond and help us with both our short-term and our long-term plan.

Sasha Tanori:

Right, got it. My next question is, can you speak on how monitoring and treating AML has changed during the pandemic?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yeah, so unfortunately, as you experience it, you spent your induction in the hospital for several weeks, and when you’re able to be in the hospital with support, either from friends or from family, it makes the experience much, much easier and with COVID, especially at the height of the pandemic, we weren’t allowed our hospital. And I know several of my colleagues as well, the hospitals weren’t allowing any visitors and that put a lot of stress on the patient, on family members, on the staff, the nurses, the physicians, really the whole care team. Just because we were needing to spend extra time to make sure that everybody was updated, so either if we couldn’t do it on FaceTime, having to make sure other phone calls later, which is just…it is what it is. And we made the best of the situation. Currently, we are allowing to have a limited visitor policy, which is helpful. I think the other thing that has really changed is what we consider when we’re starting treatment, if patients obviously need induction chemotherapy and need to be in the hospital, we don’t change the recommendation based on that, but if there are patients who…

Dr. Catherine Lai:

There are options whether or not the patient is done inpatient versus outpatient, I think that that’s a huge consideration in terms of quality of life and how we manage those patients.

Sasha Tanori:

Can you speak to the advances and treatment options for high-risk AML patients?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yes, so fortunately, we have made a lot of progress in the AML space, that is one thing that is really exciting, I would say. Since 2017, there have been nine FDA approvals for AML, and prior to 2017, and we have been using the same chemotherapy for the last 40 years. Now, that’s not for lack of trying. There are many leukemia physicians who have been working at this for the duration of their careers, but AML just is very heterogeneous, and it’s very smart. It’s smarter than we are, and it’s constantly changing, and so that has made it challenging in terms of being able to treat it. So, there are newer treatment options, both modifications to traditional chemotherapy as well as other targeted therapies that have improved the landscape for AML and high-risk AML in particular. That’s awesome.

Sasha Tanori:

Dr. Lai, I think another factor that played a role in my diagnosis is somewhat being delayed is my age, I was 24 at the time, what are some questions others who suspect they have AML should ask to rule out the diagnosis?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

So, Sasha, that’s a really good question. And what I would say is that, as you are aware, the median age of AML diagnosis is 68, so not to say that we don’t have young patients…I have plenty of young patients, but it doesn’t come to…it’s not a common thing to think about in younger patients right off the bat, the other thing that contributes to that is also AML compared to other cancers is an uncommon cancer. There are only 25,000 cases of newly diagnosed in the United States per year because it’s not as common in younger patients and because it’s not that common…doctors often want to rule out other simple things rather than just going straight to a cancer diagnosis though, unfortunately, that can lead to some delays, what I would say in young patients who are healthy is that they shouldn’t have low blood counts that can’t be explained for other reasons. So, I think having prompt attention in terms of if their blood counts are abnormal, to really understanding why they’re abnormal, and those are things that can be easily work up, and if all those things are rolled out, then you’re talking about doing a bone marrow biopsy I don’t like to do procedures for unnecessary reasons, but it’s one of those things that you can also…

I mean, I think if you have a physician who is the astute and is thinking about that, that you can…you can get to a diagnosis pretty quickly, I mean AML is a diagnosis in the name acute. It comes on acutely, so that means days to week, so I suspect you are probably feeling very well and over a very short prior of time felt very unwell, and you’re very in tune to your body, and that is very important because patients are smarter than we give them credit for, and so being persistent and knowing that something is wrong goes a long way. Again, I’m sorry that you had to deal with that, and I’m glad that they finally made the right diagnosis, but I think just awareness and education. While it is an uncommon disease, I think having a larger burden and strain that happen on younger patients because you haven’t been working for the majority of your life, and it takes a huge toll on what your potential is, both as a person, but economically and all sorts of things. So it’s a huge problem

Sasha Tanori:

Does prognosis of AML vary by age?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

So, yes and no. So let me answer that in two steps, so it does in the sense that older patients are more likely to have more comorbidities, so more medical problems, and so therefore have a higher likelihood of having complications, and also as patients get older, they acquire more mutations and more abnormality, so those molecular abnormalities, and so therefore, older patients then are become more challenging to treat as well. What I would say though, is that we typically risk-stratify based on molecular factors, so the different mutation than somebody has and the age and the comorbidities don’t necessarily play into that role of stratification, so for example, whether or not you’re receiving a transplant or not…age is a factor, if you’re kind of in that little risk category, the intermediate risk category, the other thing I would say is that for young patients, they are able to tolerate because many don’t have medical problems, so they are able to tolerate treatment better, so when I’m talking about numbers and likelihood of response and overall survival, those…all those mediums assume that somebody is in their mid-60s, and so I adjust the numbers because for younger patients that those numbers are likely higher…

Because they’re less likely to have complications.

Sasha Tanori:

Right. I had many medical professionals that participated early on in my care. Can you speak on the role of the multidisciplinary care team that plays in AML care?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yeah, this is…this is an excellent question. I would say that treating leukemia is a team sport, everybody has their role, and it’s not just one person, and this is part of why I love treating leukemia patients, is that we’re able to engage multiple players, everybody is good at their particular thing, and so one analogy is that…we’re kind of like a baseball team, is that you want everybody to be able to do their own…have their own position. What a standard for our center is that we have the leukemia physician, there’s a specific leukemia nurse, we engage our social worker very early on, and also our cancer nutritionists and physical therapist and occupational therapist so we all work together at different parts of the treatment journey to make sure the patient is getting everything that they need and the whole person is being taken care of.

Sasha Tanori:

Right. AML patients, just like anyone else, want to live and live a very long time. Are AML patients at risk for secondary cancers, and are there any studies that speak on this?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yeah, so I would say everything has its risk and benefits at the time of diagnosis, you need the chemotherapy in order to get into remission, and then if you need the transplant, whether or not you’re getting radiation and then further some chemotherapy before the transplant, so that’s not without risks, so especially in a young patient, for example, in your particular case, you’re at risk for secondary treatment-related MDS and other bone marrow-related disorders that could occur, most patients who are in their 60s who, if they live long enough would be at risk, but most of those patients will die of something else before you have that opportunity. As a young patient, the other thing to be aware of, especially with, given that you’ve had transplant, is that the increased risk of cardiovascular effects, as well as making sure in patients who have had your whole-body radiation, other effects in terms of their thyroid, lung function, and then screening earlier for other cancers. So in terms of looking at studies, we know that these risks are slightly increased and that monitoring starts a lot sooner, especially in young patients. So I think just being aware of what you need to do.

Dr. Catherine Lai:

We also have a survivorship clinic, which I think is really important to help understand, you know what your risks are, because once your leukemia is in remission, we don’t want you to develop other medical problems, so it’s important just for patients to be educated so that they know how to take care of their body at each stage of their…again, of their journey.

Sasha Tanori:

Alrighty, after getting a bone marrow transplant three years later, I’m still dealing with graft-versus-host disease or GVHD, but there are other obstacles that I’m also facing. Does GVHD ever truly go away or is it something that I’m going to have to learn to live with?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yeah, I wish I had a magic answer for you. Our data is that it gives us guidance for each patient, but then also each patient as an individual and how they respond to different medications, and the nuances of that is…it can be different. So what I would say is that there are patients who you have chronic GVHD for years and it can eventually go away, and in some patients, they deal with it for a lifetime, you’re young enough, and I’m hopeful enough that at some point it will improve and get better. So I would be cautiously optimistic that things will improve.

Sasha Tanori:

I’m…I’m trying my best.

Dr. Catherine Lai:

It’s hard.

Sasha Tanori:

Yes, it’s very hard. Yeah, my care team suggested a clinical trial for a new drug focusing on improving my lung function, fortunately, my lungs improved on their own. Dr. Lai, not every AML patient is offered clinical trial as a care option, what advice you have for AML patients who are seeking clinical trial and what’s the best way to locate one?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yeah, so this is an area, a huge area of unmet need, I would say in general, across all oncology trials, and I think less than 10  percent of the patient population is on trials, there’s a lot of stigmas around clinical trials and are you getting… Are you getting a drug that we don’t know what’s gonna work, am I being…am I being tested? In oncology, I would say for the most part, we try to make trials where you’re being measured to the standard, so you’re getting the standard plus, or we’re trying not to…just in terms of doing what’s best for the patient, in general, I don’t offer trials to patients where I don’t think that there’s scientifically a rationale for those drugs, but to answer your question, the best place to look is on clinicaltrials.gov. That’s cumbersome. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, I can give you a lot of unnecessary information. There are a lot of other resources out there, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is a great resource. I know that they have online or people that you can talk to in terms of helping you direct specific clinical trials, I know depending on where you live in the country, there are other local New Chapters, oncology chapters that we have that can help patients find…

And have access to clinical trials, and then I think the biggest thing is just if a patient is with the community oncologist, having enough education to say, can I have a referral to an academic institution where they can ask those questions and get that information, and local community oncologists are fantastic, but they see everything, they see breast cancer, they see one cancer where the academic centers were specialized where all I see is leukemia and MDS kind of acute leukemias. So it’s just a different set of knowledge.

Sasha Tanori:

Okay, my next question is, I’ve had one telemedicine visit via my online portal, is the role of the telemedicine in AML care becoming more important?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yes, so what I would say…so this is my personal opinion, but in my opinion, that medicine compared to other industries tends to be a little bit farther behind, we’re not as quick to adapt the newest technology where COVID has helped, I think is at least in my practices, help utilize telehealth in the sense that there was a period of time where I was seeing fewer patients and then it really picked up because especially for patients who have a local oncologist but want a second opinion, the telehealth really offers that they don’t have to travel two hours to come see me to get that opinion. So what I would say is that it cannot replace the physical exam, it can’t replace a face-to-face discussion when you’re really talking about new diagnosis and therapy, because I really do think that that should be in person, but where… I have found that it’s been really helpful is if I’ve had an initial visit with the patient, and they either have a local oncologist, so I’m just checking in with them periodically, or if it’s to review results, say they’ve had a bone marrow biopsy and it’s…

They’re further along in their treatment, or if they’re just reviewing imaging results or something where I don’t necessarily need to see them have a physical exam and I’ve seen them recently, and so I do everything else that’s going on, but can I check in to review a specific part of information. I think that telehealth would have a role, and I hope it continues to have a role.

Sasha Tanori:

Yeah, yeah definitely, I agree. It’s really helpful in that sort of way, so you don’t have to actually leave the comfort of her home for something that’s not really super serious. You know?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Exactly, yeah, I think what happens is patients do tend to…what I’ve noticed patients do is under-report, so it’s for… Not for infrequent visits, so for patients who are followed on a regular basis, it does allow there to be some ease of burden in terms of how we treat our patients.

Sasha Tanori:

Right. So a silent side effect that people facing cancer don’t always talk about is mental health. Are there any treatments or coping methods that you recommend for patients and care partners?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yeah, so I would say to get social work involved early on, I think there’s also…it’s silent, ’cause there’s a lot of stigma around it, is that is something that we should be talking about or not talking about or…I can handle it, that sort of thing, so I introduce our social worker very early to know that she is a resource for the patients, no matter how big or how small, just to try to get them used to that idea. What I would also say is just talking with as many people as possible as I’m sure you realize that the network and the community is small and everybody is willing to help each other out, so once you put yourself out there, you’ll realize that there are other resources out there, and you’re not alone in this journey, and what your cancer team offers you is different than what other patients who have gone through exactly what you’ve gone through can offer, and so I know that there are other resources out there in terms of societies that connect other patients who have the same diagnosis, so I would say it’s really just about education and talking and knowing that it’s okay to talk about your diagnosis and no matter what format that is, or if it’s a little bit now and a little bit later, and also just normalizing it, in the sense of the feelings you have are valid and normal, and if you don’t have those feelings is actually when I get worried about patients because you’re supposed to have certain reactions, you were a young patient and you were diagnosed with cancer.

That’s not a trivial thing. And we’re just…we’re all here to help you and help the patients go through everything…

Sasha Tanori:

So for my last question is the future bright in AML treatment and can you speak about any exciting studies that you are working on, that AML patients and their families should stay tuned for?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yes, so I am excited. I am excited to say that I think in my lifetime, I will be a part of AML change and we have already seen it. I have mentors who are in their 60s, who have used the same therapies, they use them for the entirety of their career. And so as I mentioned, we only have your 9 FDA approvals. I think there are more coming… I think what I would like to mention is I think the use of immunotherapy, bone marrow transplant is the original immunotherapy, but as you know, there are many risks and benefits and complications, and so how we manipulate the immune system or how we use drugs to help manipulate the immune system, I think it’s a work in progress. It has been more successful in other cancers, not as successful in AML yet, but I think we will get there. The other thing would be, is how… We look at minimal residual disease. So, as you know, but for everybody else, we consider a complete remission is less than anything less than 5 percent blast or 5 percent leukemia cells but we know that anything greater than zero is bad, and you have more than zero, the disease will come back at some point.

So looking to how we monitor, going back to those molecular technologies and how we’re monitoring for residual disease so that we can detect disease faster, so I think really the concept of detection and prevention will come into a huge role because also if we can detect the disease relapse sooner, we’re treating less disease and then there’s less side effects and less toxicity, and then I think the last thing would be health outcomes of a lot of what we’ve been talking about just in terms of the whole picture and how we can better treat these patients I also think there’s a huge role for looking at each individual person and their age and their medical problems, and they’re a physiologic age as opposed to their chronological age and how we can best treat the patient so they can have the best outcome.

Sasha Tanori:

All right, well, thank you so much, Dr. Lai, for taking the time to speak with me and for all you’ve done for the AML community and our patient’s families, everyone.

Dr. Catherine Lai:
Thank you, thank you so much for having me. I’ve really appreciated you putting yourself out there… Thank you.

What Treatments Are on the Horizon for Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients?

What Treatments Are on the Horizon for Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What can acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients expect in the future of AML studies? Watch as expert Dr. Catherine Lai shares insight about the state of FDA approvals. what is in pipeline for AML treatment, and disease monitoring technologies for improved patient care.

See More from Best AML Care No Matter Where You Live

Related Resources:

Acute Myeloid Leukemia, Recommended Coping Methods and Mental Health

Acute Myeloid Leukemia, Recommended Coping Methods and Mental Health

What Questions Should I Ask If I Suspect Acute Myeloid Leukemia?

What Questions Should I Ask If I Suspect Acute Myeloid Leukemia? 

Are Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients at Risk for Secondary Cancers?

Are Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients at Risk for Secondary Cancers? 


Transcript:

Sasha Tanori:

Is the future bright in AML treatment, and can you speak about any exciting studies that you are working on, that AML patients and their families should stay tuned for?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yes, so I am excited. I am excited to say that I think in my lifetime, I will be a part of AML change and we have already seen it. I have mentors who are in their 60s, who have used the same therapies, they use them for the entirety of their career. And so, as I mentioned, we only have your nine FDA approvals. I think there are more coming…I think what I would like to mention is I think the use of immunotherapy, bone marrow transplant is the original immunotherapy, but as you know, there are many risks and benefits and complications. And so how we manipulate the immune system or how we use drugs to help manipulate the immune system, I think it’s a work in progress. It has been more successful in other cancers, not as successful in AML yet, but I think we will get there. The other thing would be, is how…we look at minimal residual disease. So, as you know, but for everybody else, we consider a complete remission is less than anything less than 5 percent blast or 5 percent leukemia cells but we know that anything greater than zero is bad, and you have more than zero, the disease will come back at some point.

So looking to how we monitor, going back to those molecular technologies and how we’re monitoring for residual disease so that we can detect disease faster, so I think really the concept of detection and prevention will come into a huge role because also if we can detect the disease relapse sooner, we’re treating less disease and then there’s less side effects and less toxicity, and then I think the last thing would be health outcomes of a lot of what we’ve been talking about just in terms of the whole picture and how we can better treat these patients I also think there’s a huge role for looking at each individual person and their age and their medical problems, and they’re a physiologic age as opposed to their chronological age and how we can best treat the patient so they can have the best outcome.

Does GVHD Ever Resolve in Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients?

Does GVHD Ever Resolve in Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

With acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients, graft-versus-host disease can manifest after bone marrow transplant. Watch as expert Dr. Catherine Lai explains how GVHD can vary by patient and what younger AML patients might expect for GVHD improvement over time.

See More from Best AML Care No Matter Where You Live

Related Resources:

What Role Does Telemedicine Play in Acute Myeloid Leukemia Care?

What Role Does Telemedicine Play in Acute Myeloid Leukemia Care? 

Has AML Monitoring and Treatment Changed During COVID-19?

Has AML Monitoring and Treatment Changed During COVID-19? 

What Treatments Are on the Horizon for Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients?

What Treatments Are on the Horizon for Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients?


Transcript:

Sasha Tanori:

After getting a bone marrow transplant three years later, I’m still dealing with graft-versus-host disease or GVHD, but there are other obstacles that I’m also facing. Does GVHD ever truly go away or is it something that I’m going to have to learn to live with?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

Yeah, I wish I had a magic answer for you. Our data is that it gives us guidance for each patient, but then also each patient as an individual and how they respond to different medications, and the nuances of that is…it can be different. So what I would say is that there are patients who you have chronic GVHD for years, and it can eventually go away. And in some patients, they deal with it for a lifetime, you’re young enough, and I’m hopeful enough that at some point it will improve and get better. So I would be cautiously optimistic that things will improve.

How Is AML Treatment Effectiveness Monitored?

How Is AML Treatment Effectiveness Monitored? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment effectiveness be monitored over time? Expert Dr. Ellen Ritchie explains when testing is typically done following AML treatment, which methods are used for monitoring, and when retesting may be appropriate.

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here.

See More From INSIST! AML


Related Resources:

Key AML Testing for Better Care: Understanding Prognosis and Treatment Choices

Transcript:

Katherine:

Once a patient has begun treatment, how do you monitor whether it’s working?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, one of the more frustrating things about being an AML patient, is you don’t know right off the bat whether or not that you have gone into remission. So, what happens is you receive the chemotherapy, and the day you start chemotherapy is really day one. And somewhere around day 14, you’re at your lowest point. So, your blood counts are low, and you often feel really terrible, and you really wonder, is this working? But unfortunately, I can’t really tell you. Some institutions do bone marrow biopsies if you have intensive chemotherapy on day 14, or if you’re getting venetoclax (Venclexta) therapy somewhere around day 21 to look and see whether they still see leukemia cells, but the utility of that is different per institution.

The real test of whether chemotherapy x, is at the end of about 28-35 days, are your blood counts coming up, and are you making normal blood cells. Are you making platelets, which are the part of the blood that clots the blood? Or are you making neutrophils, which are the important cells needed to help you fight infection. So, the real proof of a remission, is are your platelets over 100,000? Is your neutrophil count over 1,000? And when we look in the bone marrow around that time, do we see normal cells developing and no leukemia?

Katherine:

How often should testing take place? And should patients be retested over time?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, the bone marrow biopsy is done frequently once you have a diagnosis of acute leukemia. So certainly, it’s done upon diagnosis of the disease.

And as I mentioned earlier in certain institutions, about halfway through your chemotherapy cycle, they’ll do a bone marrow biopsy to see whether or not they see any residual leukemia cells. That’s not done everywhere, and it’s done differently depending upon institutions sometimes. At the end of the chemotherapy treatment, if you recover your blood counts, we do a bone marrow biopsy to confirm a remission. If by day 35, we haven’t seen that your blood counts are recovering, we may do a bone marrow biopsy to see whether or not we see leukemia cells in there, or early recovery. So, you’re definitely going to have bone marrows at those time points. If you’ve gone into remission, it depends on what we’d do next as to when you would have another bone marrow biopsy. So, if you’re going to bone marrow transplant you may have one more biopsy, just prior to going into transplant, and another biopsy at the end of the first month after transplant.

If you’re going to have what we call ongoing therapy, roughly every three or four months, we may do a bone marrow biopsy to determine whether or not the remission is holding. If during ongoing therapy, we see that there is blood count abnormalities that we weren’t expecting, that might be a reason that we would do a bone marrow biopsy. And that’s unpredictable as to when that would be.

Multiple Myeloma: Danielle’s Clinical Trial Profile

Multiple Myeloma: Danielle’s Clinical Trial Profile from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Multiple myeloma patient Danielle was a very active person – and even went on vacation – right before receiving her diagnosis. Her myeloma journey unfolded with her myeloma symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and participation in a life-altering clinical trial. “I decided to do the study trial because I also wanted to help individuals. If it wasn’t going to help me, then my data that they collect from the study trial will definitely help the scientists, researchers, the doctors. It would help them try to find a cure.” 

See More from Patient-to-Patient Diverse Myeloma Clinical Trial Profiles

Transcript:

Danielle:

Hello, everyone. My name is Danielle.

My myeloma story began in 2011. I was experiencing pain in my hip and my back area, and it was the pain that would come and go.  I was also very lethargic in 2011 and couldn’t understand why I was so extremely tired, so I thought the pain in my hip and back area was due to sciatic nerve, and I just didn’t do anything about it, ignored the pain. My husband and I went on our first trip without our sons in October of 2011, and two days before the trip, I developed this really bad nasty pain in my hip and leg area, which actually altered my walk, but I had no idea what the heck was going on, and so I was so frustrated that I… As soon as we got home, I went to see an orthopedic doctor because at that time I was working out like five times a week, so I thought maybe I pulled something, a pinched nerve or something. So I went to see him, he took X-rays, I believe it was an MRI, couldn’t be sure, but when I went back to get my test results, he sat me down and said, “Mrs. Spann, there’s a mass here in your fibula, and I’m going to recommend you to an orthopedic oncologist.” So, that was the very beginning of my diagnosis, initial diagnosis. Of course, I was in denial because I’m like, I knew what an oncologist was, but he must not be talking to the right person, but I went ahead and I met with the orthopedic oncologist. He ran a bunch of tests and mentioned to me that I had myeloma, which is concentrated in one area, which was my fibula, and then he recommended that I have my fibula removed on my right leg. Two days before surgery was scheduled, I received a phone call from his office, saying, “Mrs. Stann, you have lytic lesions all throughout your skeletal structure, and we’re recommending that you go see a bone marrow transplant oncologist.” So now it’s becoming real. The diagnosis is what it was, and I just wanted to know how I could basically fight this. I’m the type of person where you tell me one thing and let’s try to find a solution, so I met with the bone marrow transplant specialist, the oncologist, and then we formulated a plan, and that plan was for me to go on my first study trial. And so that was my introduction into my having multiple myeloma.

I made the decision to participate in a trial, because I trusted my doctor. He had the expertise to understand where my myeloma was, the counts, how aggressive it was, and he recommended that I go on the study trial. He also told me that if the study trial was not going to work for me, or if it wasn’t helping me, that he was going to take me off the study trial. So, I was on the study trial from like January to March…to the end of March, and he sat me down and said that it was not working, my numbers weren’t really moving, and that he was taking me off the study trial. And he took me off the study trial, there were some other treatments that were involved, and then I had two stem cell transplants. After the transplant in 2012, I went ahead and started another treatment regimen, and I was on that for several years, which worked well. My numbers were coming down, but then unfortunately they started going back up, so he mentioned that I should go on another study trial.  I weighed the odds, and I knew that he would not lead me down the wrong path. So, I went ahead and I participated in the study trial that I’m still on today, and I’ve been on it for about three, four years.

I decided to do the study trial because I also wanted to help individuals. If it wasn’t going to help me, then my data that they collect from the study trial will definitely help the scientists, researchers, the doctors. It would help them try to find a cure. And so that’s what I wanted to help in some form or fashion, and when I first was diagnosed going to the Winship Cancer Center twice a week, there was a quote that was posted in the cancer center, and that quote was by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the quote read, “Life’s most important and persistent question is, ‘What have we done to help others?’” And I would go into the center and I’m like, “Yeah, what have I done to help others?” And me participating in the study trial, I felt like I’m helping others indirectly, and it wasn’t always just about myself, it was, “Okay, yes, the study trial gives the data, and it’s helping me, but it’s also helping that next person as well.”

So, I always look at my life as before diagnosis and after, and my after does not look like my before, I can’t do the same things, I can’t do the same things that I used to do. And one of those things is going to the mall and being in there like 10 hours, that’s so remedial, but it just goes to show like I cannot exert myself the same type of energy that I could before diagnosis. And again, that’s my new normal.  I stay positive with everything in life, things happen, but you just have to do what you can to make it better, no matter what it is.

I am happy and proud and so grateful and thankful to mention that as of January 2021, my myeloma is 0% detectable, which means there’s no presence of multiple myeloma in my blood, in my urine, nor in my bone marrow. And so I’m still on a study trial, and I have two different chemo meds that I have to take, and I just act accordingly if I know that one of the chemo meds that I have to take twice a week gives me an upset stomach. I just accordingly in finding different ways to push through it. It is what it is, and my motto when I was having my bone marrow transplants was, “This too shall pass.” And so no matter what I’m going through in life, no matter how down I get. This moment will pass. And so tomorrow, you’ll look back on today and say, “You know what, I did it, I made it.” And you’ll do that for the next day, until you realize that you’re just constantly defeating that previous day, and you’re moving forward.

So, I’ve heard the terminology of a clinical trial, never really paid attention to it because I never had to…I had an idea what the clinical trial was. But once it really came home to me, I realized that, in my words, the clinical trial is collecting the data necessary, they’re going to give you the trial medication, because they’re looking to get this, this medicine approved to put on the market. These medications would not get approved by the FDA, acetaminophen (Tylenol) at one point had to go have a study trial and then get approved by the FDA and then can be distributed to the masses. And so it’s the same with these other drugs. We need individuals to participate positively, knowing that if this is not helping me right now, it will help someone in five years, in two years, in 20 years. The advice that I would give is to trust your doctor, your doctor would not recommend a study trial if he felt that there was a medication that’s already on the market that would help you better. If the study trial you’re on is keeping you with your family, and at the same time is…the scientist, the researchers they’re gathering all this data, it could come to be an actual medication in three, five, seven years. And so just think of it as something that you’re helping society…and your fellow…and your fellow man.  

What Actions Should Cancer Patients in Treatment Take With COVID-19 Vaccination?

What Actions Should Cancer Patients in Treatment Take With COVID-19 Vaccination? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What actions should cancer patients in active treatment take in terms of COVID-vaccination and other measures? Expert Dr. Shaji Kumar shares information about cancer patients undergoing various types of treatment and advice about precautions for cancer patients after full COVID-19 vaccination.

See More From the Best Care No Matter Where You Live Program


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Transcript:

Jeff Bushnell:

What would you tell the patients who are in active treatment and who planned to get the vaccine just continue as normal after they get it, with all the appropriate precautions?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

I think there’s one other important aspect which is, what is the right timing to get vaccinated, the vaccine, and that is a question that often comes up. So patients who are not getting active treatment, there is obviously no concern whenever the name comes up, go ahead and get the vaccine. And the second is what if someone is actually getting active treatment for their cancer, is there any role in terms of trying to find the vaccination, with respect to the doses of the medications and for most of the treatment we are using for cancer, there are no clear guidelines in terms of the when they can get the vaccine, that having several guidelines that have been put out by different organizations. The bottom line is, if there is an ability to space out or give some time between the vaccine and the dose of the medication, do that, don’t modify your treatments, just so that you can get the cross at a particular time. The only place where we would recommend specific guidelines within the context of somebody who may have had a bone marrow transplant or had some other kind of cellular therapies, in those contexts, we often recommend that you wait for a couple of months after the stem cell transplant, before we get the vaccines. But for all the other treatments that we are getting right now, we want to just within the schedule of the treatment that’s already on going, try and get the vaccine in between two doses.

Mary Leer:

For those who have been vaccinated and are living with cancer, you spoke to that in great depth, but I’m also wondering about people that are perhaps in post-treatment and let’s look at social distancing measures or other restrictions, are those different for patients versus the general population?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

No, I think the proportions are the same, I think the social distancing and the masking should continue to be observed the same way, and I think the only other word of caution I think may be particularly relevant for the cancer patients would be, again, trying to avoid again those kind of being outdoors and larger groups of people, even if when you maintain the social distancing, try and not do that. The outdoors are probably a little better than smaller indoor gatherings, and it’s mostly the common sense proportions, and I think the cancer patients are probably more tuned to this because they have been following some of those things even before the COVID came on and post-vaccination, I would recommend that these steps don’t change at all, partly because we gain for a given person, we don’t know how robust the immune response that those patients have after the vaccination and the lack of good testing to say that, okay, now you’re fully vaccinated, your response is great, you don’t need to worry about getting infected.

Fact or Fiction? Myeloma Treatment & Side Effects

Fact or Fiction? Myeloma Treatment & Side Effects from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When it comes to online myeloma information, how do you separate fact from fiction? Dr. Irene Ghobrial shares facts about current myeloma treatments, common side effects and emerging research. Download the Program Resource Guide, here

Dr. Irene Ghobrial is Director of the Clinical Investigator Research Program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ghobrial specializes in multiple myeloma (MM) and Waldenström macroglobulinemia (WM), focusing on the precursor conditions of monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) and smoldering myeloma. More about this expert here.

See More From Fact of Fiction? Myeloma

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Discussing Treatment with Your Doctor: Key Questions to Ask

Transcript:

Patricia:

Welcome to Fact or Fiction: Multiple Myeloma Treatment and Side Effects. Today, we’ll review common misconceptions about myeloma. I’m Patricia Murphy, your host for today’s program. Joining me is Dr. Irene Ghobrial. Dr. Ghobrial, why don’t you introduce yourself?

Dr. Ghobrial:

My name is Irene Ghobrial. I’m a professor of medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School.

Patricia:

Great, thanks so much. Before we get started, just a reminder: This program is not a substitute for medical advice, so please consult your care team before making any treatment decisions. Okay, Dr. Ghobrial, let’s get started.

Let’s talk about some of the things, first, that we hear from patients. You tell me whether or not this is fact or fiction. Here’s one: “There are a number of treatment options for myeloma.”

Dr. Ghobrial:

Fact. It’s amazing because I trained in the old days – and, this shows you how old I am – when we only had bad chemotherapy: Vincristine, Adriamycin, and dex. None of you would even know about it.

Then, we had had high-dose dexamethasone, and that was it, and then we had stem cell transplant, and that’s all we had until suddenly, we had thalidomide, lenalidomide, bortezomib, carfilzomib, ixazomib, and you think about it, we are now in an era where we have 15-20 new drugs, we have another 15-20 coming up, we have an amazing time to completely cure myeloma in the future, and that’s just an exciting time to see that happening in the last 15 years of our lifetime, when patients were living three years, when we had – I remember five percent complete remission rate.

Now, we expect that all of our patients should get into a deep remission into potentially MRD-negative disease, and that’s just the beauty of how myeloma has changed completely.

Patricia:

Well, you’ve already busted our second myth, I guess, that there is no cure for myeloma.

Dr. Ghobrial:

That’s correct. There is no cure for myeloma, but there is a long remission, and the question is if someone lives for 20, 25, 30 years without evidence of myeloma and they die from something else, it’s a step forward. I would love to see us say to a patient, “You are cured,” but until then, we’re getting longer and longer remissions.

Patricia:

How about this one? “Only blood relatives can be donors for bone marrow or stem cell transplant.”

Dr. Ghobrial:

That’s not correct at all. If we think about it, what is stem cell transplant? There are two types. There’s something called autologous stem cell transplant, meaning it’s from myself, so that means that I’m taking my own stem cells, and the whole idea of that autologous transplant is basically high-dose chemotherapy.

So let’s take your own cells before we give you that high-dose melphalan, give the chemo, and then give them back to you, so that you’re not with low blood counts for two weeks, four weeks, you’re only with low blood counts for a couple of weeks. So, that’s autologous transplant; that means I’m giving my own stem cells to myself.

Allogeneic stem cell transplant, which we rarely do now in myeloma, is from another person, and that could be from a relative, but also can be from unrelated donors if they are matching us, but that’s very few cases.

Patricia:

Let’s get an overview of available myeloma treatments.

Dr. Ghobrial:

Oh, boy. Okay, how long do we have here? It depends. The moment I see a patient – and again, maybe we can start with smoldering myeloma because that’s an area I’m really excited about.

If you have asymptomatic disease, it does not mean you have to watch and wait until you fall apart, until you have bone lesions, until you have anemia. We want to see those patients early because we have a lot of clinical trials, and potentially, the cure may actually be in an earlier precursor session when we treat you earlier before you have the disease.

But, the standard of care is when you have symptoms – anemia, hypercalcemia, lytic lesions, and renal failure, or other things like 60% plasma cells – we say you have active multiple myeloma, and in that case, we start saying, “Well, are you a transplant candidate or not?” In the old days, it used to be by age, but now, we say age is just a number, so it really depends on if you have good organ function, are you in an active good state, do you have good lungs, good heart, are you willing to take the transplant, because now, there’s a big discussion whether we should transplant patients or not.

And then, at the end of the day, we’re starting to actually blur that, saying that most of our treatments are almost identical, whether you are old or young, whether you’re a transplant candidate or not. It depends on frailty. Can you tolerate this treatment or not? Maybe a few years ago, we used to say a three-drug regimen is the best way to go.

Now, most of us are starting to say four-drug regimen up front is the way to go, which is an antibody – currently, it’s daratumumab – a proteasome inhibitor – it could be bortezomib or carfilzomib – an immunomodulator – likely, this is lenalidomide – and then, dexamethasone. That’s sort of the option that we have right now, at least in the U.S.

If you go to Europe, you’ll find us using different drugs, like thalidomide or other things, but most of us are thinking of a four-drug regimen to think of our up-front myeloma treatment to get you the best remission, eventually MRD-negative disease, and then we talk about transplant or no transplant, and then, of course, we talk about maintenance.

We want to keep everyone on maintenance therapy; the question is how long, which maintenance, do we use one drug or not? So, there is a lot to be discussed in treatment of myeloma, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s truly an art and science together. It’s not just “Here’s a combination because you have this treatment.” We really personalize therapy for you.

We look at your cytogenetics, your FISH. We say you have high-risk cytogenetics or not, you’re young or not, you have good organ function or not.

There are so many things that we put in consideration when we come up with a treatment plan for a patient.

Patricia:

We’ve been talking a little bit about what patients believe when they come in, some of the things they’re thinking about. What else do you hear from patients that you either have to correct or affirm when they come into your office?

Dr. Ghobrial:

A lot of things. I think the first thing is, of course, they say myeloma is fatal, and they’re so scared, and absolutely, I understand that, but the median survival has become so much better, so much longer. There is a lot of hope, enthusiasm, and excitement right now with the treatments we have. The second thing is most of our treatments are not your typical chemotherapy, so unlike breast cancer or other cancers where you lose your hair, you’re throwing up, you cannot work, you have to take time off, most of our drugs now, people are working full-time, they’re active, you don’t lose your hair, so probably, no one has to know unless you tell them.

And, I think that’s something important for a patient to think about. It’s their own personal life, and not having to interrupt that. I think that’s very unique. So, these are a couple things that, as they come in, that anxiety of “Oh my God, I have cancer,” and then, taking a deep breath and saying, “Now, how do I handle this situation?”

Patricia:

Sure. What about clinical trials? What common misconceptions do you hear from patients enrolling in trials?

Dr. Ghobrial:

There’s a lot of misconceptions, and it’s unfortunate. I would say I would absolutely go on a trial if I can. I’m a believer in clinical trials because they’re the way forward to bring in new therapies and new options. I think a lot of people think that we’re experimenting on them when we’re doing clinical trials, meaning that it’s first in human, meaning it’s the first time we try this drug, and I would say that most of our clinical trials are not first in human.

They’re not the very first time we’ve tried them. Likely, those are drugs we’ve tried, we know the side effects, we know the toxicity, but it’s the first time we’ve put it in a different combination or it’s the first time we’ve put it in a specific subset of patients to look at response or at overall survival.

Most of the trials – so, before you decide “Oh, it’s a trial,” just think – is this a phase 1, a phase 2, or a phase 3? Phase 1 are usually that first time that we try in a population. Phase 2 are usually we know already what happens, we know the toxicity, we’re bringing it to look at the response rate in general or the survival, and then, phase 3s are the bigger studies, going to the FDA for approval.

The second thing is you want to think about is there a placebo arm in it. Most of my patients really worry about “Oh my God, you’re gonna give me the placebo,” and I’m like, “No, we don’t have a placebo arm in this trial. You’re taking the drug that we tell you about.” So again, depending on the trial – read it carefully – there may be a placebo arm, but in most of them, it’s not a placebo arm.

So, I would personally go ask the doctor every time, “So, you’re talking about standard of care. What else do you have? Do you have clinical trial options or not? What’s new?” Almost every single new drug that we’re gonna get approved in the next 5-10 years from now is what we have today in clinical trials. It would be cool to try and get access to those earlier.

Patricia:

So, there’s a significant amount of vetting that goes on before clinical trials are actually in process on humans.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Oh, absolutely.

Patricia:                      

What are the common myeloma misconceptions about treatment side effects?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

I think the biggest thing is the loss of hair, the nausea, and fatigue, and to the point that I cannot travel, I cannot see my family, I’m gonna be so immunosuppressed. And again, that’s a huge misconception. Yes, there is toxicity for every drug. Even if you take aspirin, you have toxicity from it.

But, every drug has risks and benefits, and currently, the combinations we have are just impressive that they are well tolerated in general. I’m not saying there is no side effect – there is, for every different class of agents, there are, and you will go through those side effects with your doctor in detail – but in general, yes, you’re slightly immunosuppressed, you have to take care of it, and I said it yesterday to one of my patients – if someone is looking very sick in front of you, don’t go and hug them.

Christmas is around the corner, and we want to make sure people celebrate and enjoy life and enjoy the holidays with their family members.

Patricia:                      

Dr. Ghobrial, let’s talk about some of the things that patients are concerned about when they come in about treatment side effects, and maybe some of those things aren’t true. You tell me. Treatment side effects are unavoidable – we already talked a little bit about that. How about this one? “Myeloma patients should visit the dentist more frequently.”

Dr. Ghobrial:              

So, there is something about the bisphosphonates that we give patients, and they can cause – in a very rare number of patients – something called osteonecrosis of the jaw.

In the old days, when we didn’t know about that side effect, people would go get a root canal, come back, and have a big problem of osteonecrosis of the jaw with severe pain, and it doesn’t recover.

So, we’ve learned our lesson. We know very well that we hold Zometa or zoledronic acid if they’re getting any procedures. We make sure they don’t get surgical procedures – it doesn’t mean don’t get dental cleaning, please do the usual things for dental health, but don’t go into surgical procedures when you’re getting zoledronic acid – and we’re very careful with that.

We talk to our patients. Most dentists know about it, so I think this is something that in the old days, it was a problem. Now, we know how to medicate that.

Patricia:                      

Sure. How about this one? “Treatment causes increased risk for blood clots.”

Dr. Ghobrial:              

So, a couple of the drugs that we have – especially immunomodulators – can increase your risk for DVTs, blood clots, or pulmonary embolism, PE. So, the first thing we say is, “Let’s assess your baseline risk.

Are you someone who is at risk of clotting anyways?” Remember, myeloma also increases your risk of clotting, so you’re double. So, if you are at a high risk of clotting, then we would give the full anticoagulation. If you are not, then we would say aspirin is good enough to control that inflammation and endothelial damage that happens early on with therapy, and that can take care of it.

Patricia:                      

How about this one? “Side effects can be managed by diet and lifestyle.”

Dr. Ghobrial:              

So, I am a big believer that exercise and good, healthy living helps you in general. It makes your mood better, it makes you feel stronger, it gives you that energy because of the fatigue from the side effects, it helps with the dexamethasone because dex is a steroid, so you’re gonna be hungry, you’re gonna be eating more, and the on-and-off makes you fatigued and tired.

So, absolutely, diet and good healthy living – I’m not saying you have to go into extreme starvation and things like that. We say in general, be good, healthy living; exercise if you can.

Patricia:                      

What do you hear from your patients about side effects and treatments that they may think is true?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

I think neuropathy is very important, and we underestimate the neuropathy, so if you have numbness or tingling, tell your doctor.

That comes from Velcade; it comes from thalidomide when we used to use thalidomide, but it can happen in many patients who have an underlying amyloidosis and we did not diagnose it yet, or it can just happen as you go on from myeloma, rarely. So, tell your doctor about this.

I think the fatigue is very important to know about it because people suddenly change their life, and they want to know about that. I think the rashes that can happen with many of the drugs are very important to know about so that you’re not surprised when you get the rash. We know, for example, Revlimid can cause itching of the scalp, and that’s something that if we don’t tell the patients and they start going like this, then there is a problem.

So, it’s small things, but we want to let them know. We usually tell the patients everything, to a point of just going through all the side effects. It’s better to be aware of it, and then, if you get or not, at least you were aware.

Patricia:                      

Sure. How does one distinguish treatment side effects from comorbidities like fatigue?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

I think that’s important, and again, talking to your doctor is very important. Keeping a diary on the side is very important because you may have had some of those problems, and that could be from myeloma before you even started the drugs, and making sure that we know what’s from myeloma, what’s from your thyroid issue, what’s from your lung problems if you have asthma or COPD, what’s your diabetes if you have that or your other medications, from what are you doing with those medications.

I think that’s why when you start therapy, we tell you, “Try not to take too many other medications that we don’t know about, herbal medicines and other things, because then we don’t know what are the side effects and what’s causing what.”

Patricia:                      

Sure. You mentioned neuropathy. Let’s talk a little bit about what that is.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

So, neuropathy can come in different ways, but the most common one is numbness and tingling that you have in your tips of toes and tips of your fingers, and that can happen from medications, as we said, or from the underlying myeloma or amyloidosis. It can be painful, and we’re careful that if you have this, tell your doctor because if it get worse and worse, it’s very hard for us to reverse neuropathy, so just always tell us because we can stop the drug, we can decrease the dose rather than having you go through it.

31:59

Patricia:                      

What about this one? “An MGUS diagnosis will lead to myeloma.”

Dr. Ghobrial:     

Great question. So, let’s talk about MGUS in general. In the general population, once you’re over the age of 50, there’s a three percent change of having MGUS incidentally found, and that’s known from the big studies from Dr. Robert Kyle. Any of us walking around probably may have MGUS, and we don’t know.

We started recently a big study called the PROMISE study where we actually screen for the first time to look for myeloma – or, for MGUS – and the reason for that is we said, “You go screening for mammography with breast cancer, you go screening with a colonoscopy for colon cancer; we don’t screen for myeloma, which is an easy blood cancer with a blood test. Let’s screen for it.” So, that’s available online – promisestudy.org.

The other thing that we said is if you have MGUS, your chance of progression is only one percent per year. That’s very important to know. So, that means that in 10 years, you have a 10% chance of progression to myeloma. In 20 years, you have a 20% chance. So, if you’re 70 or 80, you may have something else that happens before you even develop myeloma or before you are at risk of myeloma.

However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have the chance. You have a very small chance; it’s a precursor to myeloma, but it’s one of the biggest precursors to myeloma, so we always tell you, “Please go see your doctor, please do follow up with us because the one thing that’s important is we catch it early before it happens.” So, it does not always go to myeloma, but if we live for another 100 years, it may actually progress to myeloma because of the 1% chance per year.

Patricia:                      

How about this one? “MGUS and smoldering myeloma are the same.”

Dr. Ghobrial:              

That’s not true. That’s a very important question. So, in general, MGUS is diagnosed as having less than 10% plasma cells and a small monoclonal protein, less than 3 grams, and you don’t have any organ damage.

Smoldering myeloma – and, the name says it; it’s almost myeloma, it has a higher chance of progressing to myeloma – in general, it’s about 10% per year, and usually, the bone marrow has more than 10% plasma cells. Now, you start telling me as a patient, “Well, if my bone marrow is nine percent, I’m MGUS, and if it’s 11%, I’m smoldering myeloma, that doesn’t make sense.” So, it’s correct. In general, those demarcations or numbers are more for us as physicians to talk to each other about what we’re calling rather than the patient themselves. The patient is a continuum.

So, you may move from MGUS to smoldering at a certain point, and it’s not really that extra percentage of bone marrow that moves you into the 10% risk. In general, again, smoldering myeloma, you have a higher chance of going to myeloma. So, I saw a patient recently who’s 30 who has smoldering myeloma. The chances of progressing to myeloma is 10% per year. In five years, you have a 50% chance.

You want to make sure that patient is followed up carefully, and you want to offer, potentially, clinical trials because we want to prevent progression. The hope in the future is you don’t want until you have lytic lesions, fractures in your bones, kidney failure, and then we treat. The hope is we treat you earlier and we can make a huge difference in that early intersection for myeloma.

Patricia:                      

It sounds like staying engaged with your care team is critical.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Absolutely, and I would say myeloma is a specialty field. Come and see a myeloma expert, wherever it is, even for a one-time consult, because it’s really complicated and it’s not a common disease, so it’s not something easy for everyone to know what to do with MGUS, what to do with smoldering, what to do with overt myeloma. I relax for the first time. All of these things are important, and just like you go and see the best specialist in anything, I would say care about your myeloma in a very specific way, ask your doctor questions, go online and look it up, and always ask an expert if you want to have a second opinion.

Patricia:                      

Sure. How about this one? “Myeloma is hereditary.”

Dr. Ghobrial:              

It’s a very good question. So, it’s not hereditary specifically. However, there is a 2x increased risk in family members, and that goes back to that PROMISE study.

We are screening people who have first-degree relatives with myeloma. So, what does it mean? Why do I have a higher risk if I have a family member with myeloma? I recently saw a patient who – the patient had myeloma, the mother had myeloma, and the grandmother had myeloma, and you’re thinking, “Okay, there is something we’re inheriting.”

So, we don’t know. There are some susceptibility genes that we could potentially be inheriting, germ line, and we’ve done something called “germ line,” which means you have it from Mom and Dad, that can increase your risk. It could be other factors come in and we’re still trying to understand all of these factors. What are the genes that can increase your risk? Is there an immune factor that can increase your risk, and can we identify those early in the family members?

Patricia:                      

What about preventing progression from smoldering? Is there anything patients can do?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

I would say enroll on the PCROWD. Study PCROWD is empowering patients themselves to go online. You can look it up – PCrowd with Dana-Farber – so, precursor crowdsourcing.

This is a study where anyone who has MGUS or smoldering myeloma can tell us about their data – so, their clinical information – tell us about their samples – so, give us their samples whenever they’re going to get their peripheral blood or their bone marrow – and by doing that, we can look at 1,000-3,000 people, put it all together, and hopefully give you very soon the answer of what causes progression, what are the specific markers genomically and immune that can predict progression, and can we target them?

Can we develop therapy for you specifically as a smoldering patient and not use the same drugs as myeloma, but target it for one specific patient for one specific operation?

Patricia:                      

When patients come into your office, they’re learning a lot of new things. Are there terms that are confusing to patients that you need to define for them?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Absolutely. I think a lot of those terms are very hard. The words “complete remission” – was that a cure or not? It’s not.

We decrease all of your M spike, we decrease your plasma cells to zero, but it doesn’t mean that we’ve cured you. I think progression is very important. We use certain numbers. A 25% increase in your M spike or a 0.5-gram increase – even monoclonal protein is important to understand, that that’s the antibody that your plasma cells are secreting.

So, absolutely, there are so many words that could be very daunting for any patient to go through all of this. I think having an advocate with you – don’t go on your own because there’s so much information you’re getting that first time. I personally think if patients are recording us or taking notes, that’s perfectly fine because you go back and think about it, and you want to make sure that the information is clear.

So, it’s a lot of information to take in, especially if you’re not in the medical field, and I would encourage patients to ask questions, take notes, think about it a lot.

Patricia:                      

Tell me what an M spike is.

Dr. Ghobrial:    

So, an M spike – a monoclonal spike – is the protein – the antibodies. So, plasma cells are actually antibody-secreting cells, so they secrete the antibody, it goes in the blood, and when you have a lot of it from the same type of cell, they’re monoclonal, so they’re all the same IgG kappa – IgG kappa because they came all from that same kind of plasma cells.

And, when we run a specific gel, called serum protein electrophoresis, all of those antibodies will run in one area, and they will do a spike instead of going into a bigger area, where we call it polyclonal. So, that tiny little spike, which is a very high level of all of them coming together, we can measure it, and we can say, “Your monoclonal spike is 3 grams per deciliter.” If you don’t have all of them the same type of protein, they will just go around in one big area – big lump, basically, on that electrophoresis, and they will not come out as a spike. So, that’s monoclonal spike. 40:44

Patricia:                      

And, what are some reliable source of information for myeloma? The world wide web is vast.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Yeah, and it’s unfortunate. So, there is so much information, and you can get lost, and you can also get misinformation. I think some of the big foundations are very important So, I would say the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, the International Myeloma Foundation, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and of course, if you go to clinicaltrials.gov, you will find that information, and you’ll find a lot of the clinical trials. But again, ask your doctor. Ask the experts.

Patricia:

There are a lot of online forums – again, we talked about how vast the internet is. How can a patient identify misinformation online? What are some clues?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

That’s a hard one. I would say again, print it and take it to your doctor. Tell him, “Does that make sense? I’ve read this.” This is where you really need to do your research and go to the sites that you have confidence in so that you’re not lost in the middle of so much misinformation.

Patricia:                      

Do you have patients come in and say things to you that you just have to say, “Whoa, that’s just not accurate”?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Yeah, but again, this is part of the discussion. I personally think every question is a good question. Even if it sounds completely ridiculous, ask it. That’s why we’re here. We’re here to tell you, “This is right, this is wrong, this one I don’t know, I’m not so sure,” and that’s okay. It’s part of the discussion.

Patricia:                      

Before we finish up, let’s get your take on the future of myeloma. What are you seeing on the horizon?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Oh, a lot, and I hope I live long enough to see all of the amazing things. I truly think that we will cure myeloma. I think we should treat patients early. That’s an absolute change.

I think immunotherapy is coming in, CAR-T, bispecific antibodies. We will harness our immune system to kill myeloma, and I think there’s so much to be done there. I think precision medicine is very important. The first study is from MMRF [Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation] coming out now, genotyping, asking the questions “Which mutations do you have?”, and then putting them into different buckets so you can understand which disease should be treated with which drug.

We always say we know there is different subtypes of myeloma, then we treat you the same way, so let’s stop doing that, let’s do precision medicine, let’s individualize treatment specifically for you. So, I think that’s another big thing. So, in the future, there will be so many options. The hope is truly we’ll cure myeloma, we diagnose it early, we screen for it, we diagnose it early, and we prevent it from even causing one lytic lesion for a patient. 41:52

Patricia:                      

Dr. Ghobrial, let’s end by talking about why you’re so hopeful about the future of myeloma.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Well, again, I trained – and, I said that 15 years ago – at Mayo Clinic, where we only had few drugs, when the survival of myeloma was three to five years, when we saw patients having severe fractures and severe pain, and now, we look at it, and it’s only 15 years in our lifetime, and we look at it that myeloma is a completely different disease.

We can diagnose it early – in fact, we’re thinking of screening them early – we can make a huge difference in all of the comorbidities, but the most important thing is we have so many amazing drugs that we’re using together to get an amazing, complete remission, MRD-negative disease, and then, in the next 5-10 years, I think we will change, again, immunotherapy with CAR-T. We will have precision medicine and immunotherapy to completely change how we treat myeloma. So, I am extremely hopeful and extremely excited for our patients.

Patricia:                      

So, how do you talk to your patients about this hope? I would imagine that when they come in, they’re pretty terrified about what’s going on.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Absolutely. Again, the first thing is you want to say, “Yes, you have a cancer,” and that shocks you. That is a big thing. It makes a big difference in a patient. “I have cancer now” is an important part that you have to acknowledge.

And then, you go to the next step, and now, let’s talk about treatment. Let’s talk about survival. Let’s not say, “I will not see my kids grow up.” These are not things – again, we cannot predict. We’re not gonna play God, and we can never predict if someone will respond or not, but we know from the data that we have so far that we have amazing remissions and long-term survivors. I have many of my patients that I transplanted 15 years ago still alive, doing well. Again, I cannot say that myeloma is cured, but we have a good remission rate currently.

Patricia:                      

Dr. Ghobrial, thank you so much for taking the time today.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Absolutely. Thank you.

Patricia:                      

And, thanks to our partners. To learn more about myeloma and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Patricia Murphy.

Could an MPN Clinical Trial Be Your Best Treatment Option?

Could an MPN Clinical Trial Be Your Best Treatment Option? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Lindsey Lyle discusses the role of clinical trials as an MPN treatment option and how research is advancing the field.

Lindsey Lyle is a physician assistant at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, specializing in hematological malignancies with a subspecialty in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). More about this expert here.

See More From the The Path to MPN Empowerment

Related Programs:

Diagnosed With an MPN? Why You Should Consider a Second Opinion.

Improving Life with MPNs: The Latest Research and How to Get Involved

An Expert Summary of Current MPN Treatment Options


Transcript:

Lindsey:

When considering treatment, remembering that clinical trials are an option – and often, a very good choice – is something that I really try to communicate to my patients. Generally, there’s a stigma around clinical trials as patients feeling like a lab rat or some sort of a study subject, and there is a perception that they’re not receiving as good of care as they would if they were not on a clinical trial. However, in my patients, I really try to dismiss this thinking because at this point in time, we do have really fairly good options for treatments with MPNs.

However, we do not have a cure for MPNs outside of a transplant, and our treatments are not perfect, and so, enrolling in a clinical trial really should be considered by patients and their providers as a very viable option.

It’s generally introducing perhaps a new way of approaching the disease treatment. Oftentimes, clinical trials are using a combination of agents, which is not necessarily available outside of the clinical trial.

And so, with clinical trials, we’re always trying to make something better. We’re trying to learn something, we’re trying to, No. 1, help the patient – so, my No. 1 goal in enrolling one of my patients in a clinical trial is to, first of all, help them, help control their disease, help them to feel better, and to live a long and good life. No. 2, we learn as we go along. Clinical trials are critical for drug development and for the future of treatment in patients with MPNs.

So, not only are our patients helping themselves, but hopefully, they are helping the future MPN patients who may come along and need a treatment. So, I always like to keep this really in the conversation when discussing treatments, and it may be up front, and it also may be after a treatment has stopped working that we consider a clinical trial.

So, there are also a lot of things that kind of go into clinical trial management and different requirements, so if a patient lives very far away, it may be challenging for them to come back to the academic center on a regular basis for routine clinical trial monitoring that’s required by the study, but if they live close by, I generally do recommend this. They are also associated with clinical research coordinators or clinical trial nurses.

And, these patients are monitored really very closely, and it’s kind of nice to have that extra person in it with you in the clinical trial, just another point person to discuss, perhaps, how you’re feeling or different questions or concerns as the clinical trial proceeds. So, when talking about treatments, in my opinion, especially in MPNs, clinical trials really should be one of the options that is first discussed when thinking about starting treatment, and especially if a treatment has stopped working.

So, there are very many exciting possibilities in MPN research right now. We have a lot of combination therapies, which I think I am most excited about, because we have a decent backbone of therapy at this point, but building on that and trying to maybe enhance the way that the backbone therapy works, and also to perhaps change the microenvironment of the bone marrow – basically, trying to reverse fibrosis.

So, there is currently a drug in clinical trial that is looking at this, and we are proceeding with this trial, and really hoping for the best, but I think that to combination therapies where we can put two things together that we think work really well together to help produce good outcomes – I think I’m most excited about that at this point.

Fact or Fiction? AML Causes & Symptoms


Dr. Daniel Pollyea, an AML specialist, dispels common myths around the causes and symptoms of AML and shares advice so that you can identify credible resources for information. Download the Program Guide here.

Dr. Daniel A. Pollyea is Clinical Director of Leukemia Services in the Division of Medical Oncology, Hematologic Malignancies and Blood and Marrow Transplant at University of Colorado Cancer Center. 

See More From the Fact or Fiction? AML Series

Related Resources

 

How is an AML Treatment Approach Determined?

 

Addressing Common Myths About AML Treatment

 

Fact or Fiction? AML Research and Internet Claims


Transcript:

Ross:

I’m Ross Reynolds. Today we’re gonna be debunking some common misconceptions about the causes and symptoms of AML.

And joining me is Dr. Daniel Pollyea. Dr. Pollyea, could you introduce yourself?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. Hi. Good morning, everyone. I’m Dan Pollyea. I’m an Associate Professor of Medicine here at the University of Colorado, where I am the Clinical Director of Leukemia Service.

 

Ross:

I wanna emphasize to you that this program is not a substitute for medical advice, so be sure to consult your healthcare team when it comes to solid information about it. But you will get some background that I think you’re gonna find useful. And you might have some questions as we go along.

 Dr. Pollyea, let’s start out with the basics. What are the causes of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, Acute Myeloid Leukemia, it’s a disease, a cancer of the bone marrow.

And it’s the result of an accumulation of mutation and chromosomal abnormalities that affect the DNA of a precursor cell in the bone marrow, otherwise known as a stem cell.

And those abnormalities accumulate until that cell can no longer properly mature, and it also can’t properly die. And so, a cell like that just makes copy after copy after copy of a cell until it crowds out the whole bone marrow with these sorta useless, immature cells.

And the end result of that is the failure of the bone marrow, which causes all of the problems associated with this disease. So, biologically, that’s sort of what happens to make this disease occur.

 

Ross:

What are some of the myths that you hear from patients that come in and they say, “Oh, this must’ve caused my AML,” but you have to tell them that’s not so?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Right. So, I mean, this is one of the most frustrating issues for patients and their families after diagnosis. I mean, it’s a rare disease, only about 30,000 cases a year in the United States. And so, trying to associate a rare disease with external or environmental factors is difficult to impossible. So, although there are a variety of exposures that probably contribute to this disease, we have very little understanding of what those exposures typically are or how that all works.

So, there’s a few things that we know pretty well; large doses of radiation, either associated with like industrial accidents like the Chernobyl disaster, or some of the radiation therapies that patients receive for other types of cancer. Other types of chemotherapy that are used to cure other cancers can contribute to this disease in later years.

We know that there are certain precursor conditions that can evolve to AML, so a person with myelodysplastic syndrome, for instance, has a fairly high chance of someday evolving to develop Acute Myeloid Leukemia. But beyond these sort of a few associations, there isn’t a whole lot that’s known or proven.

 

Ross:

Now there is radiation associated with X-rays, and some people think that X-rays can cause AML. Is that true?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah.

So, I mean, I think a priori no because millions of people get X-rays every day, and only 30,000 people a year get AML. So, clearly it’s not a simple association between getting an X-ray and developing AML. But I think that there is an unknown interaction between environmental exposures and a person’s individual genetic makeup that makes a person more or less susceptible to developing something like AML with respect to exposure to the environment or X-rays and things.

So, while you cannot say that getting an X-ray will lead to AML, certainly there are some people who are more sensitive to the damage that’s done by something like an X-ray. And so, the best course of action is to be cautious and judicious about your exposure to these things, but not to not get these things when they are medically necessary.

So, that’s the challenging balance.

 

Ross:

Here’s something else we’ve heard, that weed killers can be a risk factor for AML. Is that true?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

I mean, I think there’s a lot coming out now about weed killers and their association with other types of cancers. Again, I go back to the limitation we have in that in only 30,000 people a year in the United States get AML. Millions of people are exposed to weed killers.

We’re statistically never going to be able to make a clear association. I think that there are certainly some risks for some people. Whether you’re that person who’s more susceptible to developing leukemia or any other cancer because of exposure to a weed killer is impossible to know.

So, like all of these things, I think the advice we have is you have to live your life. You have to do your best to sort of avoid things that you can avoid that you think would be… Or that may cause problems. But not to let those things prevent you from living a normal life.

I know that’s not a satisfying answer, but at the moment that’s the best answer we have.

 

Ross:

Is formaldehyde exposure another risk factor for AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. We think that it is, and kind of along the lines of benzene. But, again, we think that those studies that have shown those types of association show it in very high amounts, amounts that most people in this country would not be exposed to. But I do think, or we do think that there is something to that, to formaldehyde somehow contributing to this.

 

Ross:

What’s the difference between a risk factor for AML and a cause of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, I think risk factors by definition are things that may contribute to AML. And a risk factor for AML by that definition could be walking down the street and having some exposure to radiation from the sun. A cause of AML is something that is a much more solid sort of well-understood factor.

Like I said before, having myelodysplastic syndrome, there is a high chance that that can evolve to Acute Myeloid Leukemia. And if that happens then the MDS, the myelodysplastic syndrome, could be considered or would be considered the cause of your AML. So, very, very different in terms of the amount of evidence that goes into making those determinations

 

Ross:

Is there a genetic component to this? Can this run in a family?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, this is a disease of the genome.

So, I mean, in a lot of respects it is a genetic disease. But the question is very different when you ask is this an inherited genetic disease? Is this disease due to a gene that I inherited from a parent or could pass along to a child?

For many, many years, the answer from the medical community was, “No.” This was not considered to be a disease that clustered in families or that could be inherited. We now know that that’s not necessarily the case. There are some very rare cases where this does seem to travel in families or cluster in families. And we’re now beginning to understand who those people are and what those genes are.

But the vast majority of people with this disease did not inherit a gene to contribute to it and cannot pass this along to a child. This is a random, spontaneous event that occurred within one person’s own body and is not traveling within family. So, we’re learning more and more about this, but really, the vast majority of this is not an inherited genetic condition.

 

Ross:

You’ve mentioned gene mutations. What mutates a gene? What causes that to happen that could lead down the line to AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great question. Most of the time we do not know the answer to that. These gene mutations occur spontaneously, randomly, and we don’t understand why they happen when they do happen.

And I know that’s, again, not a satisfying answer. It’s very frustrating, particularly patients come in, and, “I’ve lived a healthy lifestyle. I’ve done everything right. I exercise. I eat right. How could this have happened?”

These are things that for the most part are out of the control of a person. These aren’t impacted by your diet or your activity levels, what you eat or don’t eat, what you do or don’t do. That’s a real frustration. In the end, in almost all cases we don’t know or understand why these gene mutations or these, I call them mistakes in the body, occur when they occur. We don’t understand them.

And, Dr. Pollyea, someone asked if benzene can be a risk factor for AML.

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, benzene is one of the sort of rare environmental exposure associations that we do have clear associations with AML.

But the level of benzene that a person would need to be exposed to is really something that hasn’t been seen in this country in a very long time.

We’d be talking about like an industrial accident type exposure in almost all cases, so being exposed to a cleaning solution or some other fairly minor exposure to benzene, we don’t think is enough, in most cases, to prompt this disease. But benzene in very high doses, like an industrial accident, yes, that is something that we understand can certainly contribute or cause AML.

 

Ross:                          

Autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, can they increase the risk of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Oh, boy. That is a really interesting one. So, there are papers in the literature that do support those associations. And I know in my own practice I certainly see that trend. So, I do think that there is something there. There is a proven association between autoimmune conditions and myelodysplastic syndrome, which I said before can be a clear precursor condition to AML. So, certainly, that is an association that is a possibility.

It can be a little difficult to tease out whether it’s those diseases that are associated with ultimately developing AML, or the treatments that people get for some of those autoimmune diseases. Those treatments can modulate the immune system in certain ways that may, in fact, contribute or drive the disease. So, that’s a difficult thing to tease out.

But in general terms, yes, I think there are some associations. Now not by a long shot everyone with an autoimmune disease gets AML. It’s a teeny, tiny fraction. But I think there is an association there.

 

Ross:

How easy is it to diagnose AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Well, I mean, I think there’s very clear diagnostic criteria for AML. But I guess that doesn’t really answer the question. And we certainly have patients who come to us after many months of frustration without a clear diagnosis.

So, those scenarios can play out. Many times AML’s a very dramatic presentation, so people get very, very sick very, very quickly with extraordinarily high white blood cell counts and suppression of all the other blood counts that come from the bone marrow like red blood cells and platelets.

In those cases it’s pretty clear that there is a type of acute leukemia going on. There can be some difficulty distinguishing Acute Myeloid from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia; those are sort of like cousins, but very different and treated differently. So, it kinda runs the gamut. I mean, it can be pretty clear, but it’s sometimes missed, so yeah.

 

Ross:

This is a great lead-in to my next question, which is about the symptoms of AML. What should be the warning signs that this might be something you need to get looked at?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Right. So, at presentation, the main symptoms are reflective of the fact that the bone marrow, the organ that makes all the cells of the blood, has failed.

So, that can cause severe anemia. Signs of anemia: a white sort of appearance, feeling dizzy or lightheaded when standing, short of breath, weak, tired, fatigue. Those are all pretty clear presenting symptoms for AML. Because the bone marrow also is responsible for making platelets that clot the blood, some people will present with a bleeding complication, or a very subtle rash made up of these particular red dots. We call that a petechial rash. And that rash can come on when the platelet count gets very low.

Sometimes a person will present with an infection or infections that don’t go away or don’t clear because of decrease in white blood cells, the infection-fighting cells of the bone marrow. Those are made in the bone marrow and can fail in the setting of this disease. So, those are the most common symptoms at presentation, symptoms that are reflective of bone marrow failure.

 

Ross:

You mentioned that sometimes the presentation could be very dramatic, and it sounds like the symptoms are very severe, very quickly. Is that always the case? Is that often the case?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

That is the case in, I would say, a minority of times. That’s usually the case. It’s more often seen in younger patients with AML. Typically, older patients with AML have a more smoldering course and a much less dramatic presentation, although this sort of very dramatic and dangerous presentation can happen in older patients, but it’s probably something like a third of the time that those very dramatic and medical emergency presentations occur.

 

Ross:

How important is early diagnosis?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Well, I mean, it’s crucial. I mean, in particular in those cases where it’s a very dramatic and proliferative diagnosis, or presentation. A quick diagnosis and recognition of this condition is very important because the sooner a person starts effective treatment the better the ultimate outcome is.

I would say in general terms that applies to all AML patients, but certainly there’s some degrees of variation. So, there’s some AML patients that when I hear about their case on the phone from a referring doctor, it’s appropriate to see them next week in the clinic.

So, it’s not always a medical emergency, but we would never, even in those next-week-in-the-clinic patients, this isn’t something that can wait for weeks or certainly months. This is something that needs to be addressed fairly quickly.

 

Ross:

What are the best ways to manage those symptoms?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Right. So, I mean, at presentation, all those symptoms, the best way to manage those are to start treatment as quickly as possible. So, impacting the underlying cause of this disease is the most important and critical factor to getting a person feeling better because all of these problems stem from the disease in the bone marrow, and so everything else that you do to sort of help a person’s symptoms are Band-Aids when you’re not talking about getting to the root cause.

So, that’s at presentation. Now once we start treatment, there are many potential side effects to any number of treatments. And it all is dependent on what treatment you’re getting and other things about you that will make this a significant problem in some cases. And in that setting, we do have ways that we can aggressively manage a person’s side effects.

 

Ross:

Can you manage all of the symptoms? Or can people still be experiencing symptoms even after they’re in treatment?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Absolutely. So, a person with this disease, depending on how long they’ve had it and some of the features, may not be feeling back to their baseline self for potentially weeks or months after treatment starts in the best-case scenario. So, that can be very frustrating, but a person needs to sort of be able to continue to have a good outlook and stay positive.

Because we are able in many cases to make a big impact on this disease and return a person to their pre-disease quality of life.

 

Ross:

What are some of the myths that you hear, Dr. Pollyea, about the treatment? Some things that people come in to you saying they think that it helps, but there’s no science to back that up?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

So, myths about treatment, so many people have a lot of preconceived notions about the intensity of a therapy that they’re going to be asked to withstand. And although sometimes we do treat this disease very intensively, that’s not always the case, and now we have some very effective lower-intensity regimens that can be used in a variety of different scenarios.

There are a lot of people who have a lot of preconceived notions about a stem-cell transplant or a bone-marrow transplant and whether or not they would be eligible for this based on maybe what they’ve heard from friends or family, or what they’ve seen in the internet.

And those are often incorrect. And so, keeping an open mind about treatment options, and discussing those in detail with your doctor are really, really important.

 

Ross:

You mentioned sometimes it presents in young people, sometimes in older people. What’s sort of typical?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

This is a disease of predominantly older patients, so the median age of presentation is 68. So, that means that over half of the patients are over 68 years old at diagnosis. So, while this does happen, can happen in younger patients, that’s really an unusual situation. This disease is, like I said, it is predominantly a disease of older patients.

 

Ross:

There are some patients who I understand think that supplements can deal with the symptoms of AML. Is that accurate?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

You know, I mean, I think the supplement question is always a challenge. A lot of these supplements, or most of these supplements have never been tested with the rigor of treatments that we’re accustomed to in the medical establishment.

That being said, I won’t deny that some of the supplements can help patients based on what patients’ experiences are and what they tell me. I think what’s really important is just be very open and honest with your doctor about the supplements that you’re taking or want to take to ensure that there are no sort of unanticipated interactions with treatments.

Because I think most doctors are very open to having their patients care for themselves in the ways that they’ve become accustomed to, and they know their bodies very well, and we’re very open to that. But there are sometimes that a drug or a supplement might have a bad interaction with the treatment.

And so, a good example in my practice is antioxidants. So, there’s a lot of literature, a lot of interest in antioxidants as cancer-prevention treatment.

And a lot of that is not well-established, but still I don’t see much harm. But when it comes time to treating a cancer, that’s a very different situation. When we give a patient treatment to try to kill the cancer cells, many times we’re trying to provoke oxidation. That’s part of how these drugs and these treatments work.

So, if you’re taking those treatments, but also at the same time taking antioxidants, there’s the potential you could sort of be cutting your therapy off at the knees, fighting it with one hand behind your back. So, for the period of time when my patients are getting an active treatment, I ask that they don’t take it antioxidant.

And they can resume that in the future in the hopes of preventing another cancer. But the time to prevent with an antioxidant isn’t appropriate when you’re dealing with an active cancer. So, that’s just one example.

 

Ross:

Fatigue could be a symptom of AML, but there are a lot of causes of fatigue.

How do you differentiate between something that really could be AML and something that isn’t?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. That’s a challenge because I think these are, as I said, older patients. And older patients have a lot of other medical problems. And older people get fatigued, just that’s unfortunately part of the normal aging process. So, we would usually make an assumption that a person’s fatigue and diagnosis is due to the leukemia, the anemia as a result of the leukemia.

But as we successfully treat a patient if they are responding based on their numbers and other objective criteria, but the fatigue is not improving then I think that’s where we would start to look at other contributing factors, and there can be many, so having an open mind at that point is important.

But at the beginning, this is such a monster of a disease, it’s so overwhelming, I think the focus is usually on assumption that the fatigue is due to the disease or to a treatment associated with this disease.

 

Ross:

This question: is loss of appetite a symptom of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. I definitely see that, hear that, so sometimes people come in and they say that. Sometimes it may not be a loss of appetite, but an extreme weight loss, so a lot of different types of cancer, including AML, can cause that, just basically unintentional weight loss.

A person’s not trying to lose weight. They’re eating what they think is their normal amount and they’re losing tremendous amounts of weight. So, those are both potential presenting symptoms with AML. And loss of appetite, unfortunately, can be associated with some of the treatments for this disease. And taste changes, things not tasting good, can all contribute to that as well, so those are all challenges that our patients face.

 

Ross:

How important is to get a second opinion? I mean, are all doctors like you pretty much on the same page when it comes to symptoms and treatment?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

So, this is a challenge. So, the answer to the second question first is unfortunately, no. A lot of this hasn’t quite been standardized. And some doctors, oncologists, cancer doctors, they’ll predominantly be treating the things that are common: colon cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer. And they will probably only have a few cases of acute leukemia a year.

And so, their approach to this is going to be different than somebody who spends all day seeing patients with AML and thinking about AML.

So, a second opinion is a very nice thing to be able to do. The problem with this disease is that most times it doesn’t afford that opportunity. So, with other conditions you have some time to go out, read about it, talk to some different doctors, get a good plan together.

With AML, often that’s not a possibility. A person is so urgently sick that you have to sorta deal with the resources where you are. The best recommendation I have there, if you do find yourself in a situation where there’s not a lot of expertise is to ask your doctor to just call somebody in the region or email somebody in the region who may have that expertise.

And most doctors all over the country have that sort of resource or partner that they will go to and talk the case through with them, and maybe a transfer to one of those high-volume centers is appropriate.

And maybe that’s not a possibility or appropriate, but maybe you would benefit from just talking… Maybe your doctor would benefit from talking this through. But in cases where it’s not such a dramatic presentation, then yeah, for sure, I think a second opinion can be appropriate. But this isn’t something that can be sort of drawn out for long period of time.

 

Ross:

You know, when you find out something like this, your tendency might be to jump on the web and start searching for AML. How do you vet those sources that you look at? How do you figure out that their – what would be a sign that they’re bogus sources?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. I mean, I think this field is so rapidly changing and the treatment that we have, that I would, for the most part, assume that what you’re finding on the web is not relevant and is not an up-to-date resource. So, the resources that I listed, the NCCN, UpToDate, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, I should mention.

A very important resource that has up-to-date information, and they have even phone numbers for patients and their families to call to get connected with the proper people in a particular city, so that is a really important resource. But I’d be really, really cautious about what you find on the internet because things are changing so fast in this field. There’s a lot of outdated and misinformation on the internet.

 

Ross:

Well, then there’s outright scams. One of the things you mentioned before we went on is be cautious if someone’s asking you to put money upfront, or if it’s a nonmedical facility. What are some things that people should watch out for?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, one of the things that is so important in our area is clinical trials and participating in clinical trials. Patients who opt to do this and receive experimental therapies can sometimes get the treatment of the future, get a drug that’s not currently available through the FDA, but may have a lot of promise.

And this is the way that we fight this disease. We’ve recently had an onslaught of approvals for AML and that’s because the patients being willing to participate in sanctioned clinical trials. So, participating in a sanctioned clinical trial is crucial, and it’s always a recommendation of all leukemia doctors.

When you participate in a conventional clinical trial, you’re asked to sign a consent form that explains what you’re doing and why. There is a confirmation that this has been vetted by an institution’s regulatory board that is prioritizing the safety and well-being of you, the patient. This has been approved by the FDA as a clinical trial. Nobody would ever ask you to pay money. That’s not ethical to participate in a clinical trial. Insurance covers whatever standard of care. And the clinical trial covers anything that isn’t.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re not being asked to sign a consent form, where a clinical trial has not been reviewed by a regulatory board, where your doctor is not a leukemia specialist, where the FDA has not sanctioned the treatment, all of those are alarm signs.

Because there are people out there that are preying on patients in a desperate situation, a very difficult time in their life, and giving them sort of false hope and leading them down paths that are not legitimate.

One easy thing to do to sorta check to see if a clinical trial is legitimate is to go onto clinicaltrials.gov.

This is a resource set up by our national healthcare system that now feeds in every legitimate clinical trial from all over the world, needs to be registered on clinicaltrials.gov. So, if you can’t find your clinical trial on clinicaltrials.gov, I would have a lot skepticism and caution about that.

 

Ross:

Like what advice do you have for people when they’re first diagnosed? What are the first things they should try to do?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. I mean, that reaction is totally normal and natural. I mean, many times these people are perfectly healthy or have been perfectly healthy, and this news is a complete shock.

And so, it is normal and appropriate to have some period of grieving for the healthy life that you are losing. But I would also, while giving yourself that time to grieve, first, draw on your support system, your family, your friends. Allow them to help you. Accept that assistance that they have. And to be optimistic because we are getting so much better at treating this disease.

I had mentioned before, there has been an onslaught of approvals for drugs in this area the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades. We have new tools and weapons in our arsenal that we couldn’t have dreamed of even a few years ago.

We in our community are very excited and hopeful about the future and we hope that that will translate ultimately to patients, but being depressed or being down, being scared, all of that is normal.

All of that is expected. Anyone would feel like that. Allowing yourself to have those feelings and emotions is important, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of doing what you need to do to fight this disease.

 

Ross:

It sounds like you’re hopeful about new treatments for the disease. How about a cure? What’s the science? What’s the medical science say about that? Are we getting any closer to that?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

We are getting closer to curing this in more cases. So, like I mentioned before, as bad as this is, we can already cure some subsets of patients. There’s one type of Acute Myeloid Leukemia called Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia, APL. It’s an uncommon form of AML, less than 10 percent.

But we can cure close to 99 percent of people with APL. And APL, 15 years ago, was universally the worst form of acute leukemia to get. So, that dramatic 180 that we’ve seen in APL, we are hoping to translate into other forms of AML.

Some other forms of AML have cure rates as high as 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent in the right setting. Sometimes we can cure patients with a stem cell transplant fairly reliably. So, we are very, very hopeful about our ability to continue to make progress and cure more and more and more of these patients. That’s the future that we see.

 

Ross:

Dr. Pollyea, thank you so much. And thank you so much for ending on such a positive note. We really appreciate it. And thank you for joining us for this program today.

To learn more about AML and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Ross Reynolds. Thanks for joining us.

Tag Archive for: bone marrow transplant

Fact or Fiction? AML Treatment and Side Effects

When it comes to online Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) resources, how do you separate fact from fiction? During this LIVE webinar, Dr. Jessica Altman, Director of Acute Leukemia Program at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, will share her expertise on treatments and side effects associated with AML.

Watch online on Monday, July 1 at 3 PM Eastern (2PM Central, 12PM Pacific) for a 30-minute virtual webinar. Send questions in advance to question@powerfulpatients.org.

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