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Tips for Navigating Your Rights as a Cancer Patient

According to the CDC, 650,000 cancer patients receive chemotherapy at outpatient clinics each year. Some have to go through different types of treatment along the way. Others need in-home care or prescription medications. Some might need more than the standard when it comes to rounds of chemo.

Whatever the case, when you’re a cancer patient, you’re more than a number. There is no “cookie-cutter” way of doing things, which is why it’s important to know your rights and stand up for them throughout the treatment process.

It’s understandable to feel nervous and even overwhelmed by a cancer diagnosis. But, if you choose to take charge of your rights and be an empowered patient, you’ll be more comfortable and encouraged throughout treatment. Let’s take a look at a few of those rights and how you can navigate through them to stay safe and informed.

The Right to Informed Consent

Information is your best friend as a cancer patient. That’s why it’s so important to work with a team of medical professionals you trust. With that, you have the right to informed consent about any suggested treatment option. The basics of informed consent include:

  • Explaining information so you can make a decision
  • Your ability to make a decision
  • Your understanding of the information
  • Your voluntary decisions about treatment

Nearly every scenario throughout your treatment process should require informed consent. Everything from surgeries to advanced medical testing should be thoroughly discussed before your healthcare provider does anything.

Not only will informed consent make you more comfortable with procedures, but it can also help to promote your safety. You have the right to feel safe as a patient. If there is a procedure you’re not comfortable with, it’s your choice to say no. Alternatively, you can ask for more information from your doctor. Don’t be afraid to participate in major decisions about your care. This is your life, after all.

Because of the constant improvements in healthcare and technology, you might end up being okay with a procedure that you were hesitant about. Give your provider the chance to explain those advancements to you by questioning things when you’re uncomfortable.

The Right to Privacy

Cancer can often feel like a very public thing. Families and friends regularly get involved. Some people even make groups on social media to show support throughout treatment. Those are great ways to feel surrounded by love and to gather strength from others.

But, not everything about your treatment should be public.

Thanks to the HIPAA act of 1996, you have the right to obtain your medical records. You also have the right to the privacy of those records. It’s up to you who can view them and who can obtain them (and for what purposes). Improper access can cause serious consequences. As a patient, it’s important to know who can legally view your records and who can’t.

Keep in mind that most medical records include everything from doctors’ notes to medical test results. Knowing who can see them and what they can be used for can offer you peace of mind and let you know they aren’t just being passed around to everyone for no reason.

The Right to Clear Information

Perhaps the most important and impactful right you have as a cancer patient is the right to clear and concise information. The other two rights listed here can easily fall under the umbrella of this one. Without being educated on every last detail of your treatment, you could go into it with fear, confusion, or without 100% certainty that it’s what you want.

Informed consent covers some of that. Your doctors should explain to you what you can expect from each step of treatment. But, clear information goes beyond the treatment itself.

You also have a right to know the details of every service and what it will cost. If you’re someone without insurance or if your plan won’t cover it, you might consider opting for something else. Unfortunately, medical care in this country isn’t currently an inherent right. That means there are some gaps in financial support that can impact your treatment. Some government assistance programs can help you fill in those gaps. For example, Medicare Part A covers:

  • Inpatient care
  • Skilled nursing care
  • Hospice care
  • Home services

Medicare Part B can also cover many of the prescription drugs often associated with clear treatment. If you happen to need multiple MRIs during your treatment, Medicare can also help as long as you’re in a hospital that accepts it. These are things to speak with your doctor about ahead of time. While your financial situation shouldn’t have to determine your treatment, it might come down to that for some people.

Cancer is a difficult thing to deal with, but it becomes even harder when you don’t fight for your rights. Keep these rights in mind as you navigate through treatment. Knowing what you deserve can help you to feel more empowered in a time where things might seem uncertain and overwhelming.

Which Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know

Which Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What do you need to know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR metastatic breast cancer? Expert Dr. Jane Meisel reviews recent research news, discusses the role of key tests–including biomarker testing –in determining a treatment plan, and shares advice for self-advocacy.

Jane Lowe Meisel, MD is an Associate Professor of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Meisel, here.

[Editor’s Note: On August 23, 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for individuals 16 years of age and older.]

Download Program Guide

See More From INSIST! Metastatic Breast Cancer

Related Resources:

 

What Could Advances in Breast Cancer Research Mean for You?

How Can You Advocate for the Best Breast Cancer Care?

Factors That Guide a Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Decision

 


Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. In today’s webinar, we’ll discuss how you can access the most personalized metastatic breast cancer therapy for your individual disease and why it’s vital to insist on key testing. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few more important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials.

If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during the webinar. At the end of this program, you’ll receive a link to a program survey. Please take a moment to provide feedback about your experience today, in order to help plan future webinars. And finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember, this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team – Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you.

All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining us is Dr. Jane Meisel. Dr. Meisel, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely and thank you so much for having me. My name is Jane Meisel and I’m a medical oncologist at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. I’ve been here for about six years and before that, I did my training in Boston and at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York. And I specialize in breast cancer and have had a lot of great opportunities to treat amazing patients and participate in a lot of research.

And I’m looking forward to having this discussion with you today.

Katherine:

Thank you for joining us, we really appreciate it. So, let’s start by discussing the latest developments in treatment and research updates. Are there recent developments you feel breast cancer patients should know about?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely and I think it’s really been such a remarkable time because even during COVID, a pandemic, where I think a lot of people worried that research efforts would shut down or stall. We’ve still seen the approval of a number of drugs in the past year that’ve really already markedly changed lives. And a lot of important findings that’ve come out of other trials that they have opportunity to do that as well.

I think some of the biggest information that was presented at our most recent large meeting, which was the American Society of Clinical Oncology, or ASCO National Meeting in 2021, were a few things that pertain to the metastatic breast cancer population. One was two studies, the PALOMA-3 Trial and the MONALEESA-3 Trial, which looked at a class of drugs called CDK4-6 inhibitors along with anti-estrogen pills in metastatic estrogen-positive breast cancer.

And really confirm for patients that not only do these drugs improve the amount of time that people can stay on treatment before their cancer progresses, but actually improve how long people live. Even when they’re used very, very early on in treatment, they impact survival down the line for many, many years. So, it really confirms for physicians like me that this class of drugs should be used as the standard of care and first line for patients with estrogen-positive stage IV breast cancer, and I think that’s important for patients to know. Along those lines, there a drug called sacituzumab govitecan, or Trodelvy, which is a much easier to say name.

Katherine:

Yes.

Dr. Meisel:

A new antibody drug conjugate in triple-negative metastatic breast cancer. And we’ve also seen, since this drug was approved last year, it has markedly changed the lives of many patients with triple-negative disease. And the study called the ascent trial, which is what led to that drug’s approval was studied further and some of these additional results presented at ASCO this year.

And found that this drug not only improves again, how long people get before they have to move on to another treatment, but actually improves how long people live as well, even when given later on in the course of therapy. So again, really encouraging use especially in triple-negative metastatic disease, which is hard to treat. And I think another study that’s really worth patients and doctors taking a hard look at, was actually a study that looked at patient outcomes and patient experience. This is a study that actually talked with metastatic patients and gathered their views on treatment related adverse effects.

Talked to patients about what adverse effects they were experiencing from drugs. How they managed those adverse effects. And found that most patients, over 90%, will be willing to talk about reducing the dose of drugs or changing dosing schedules, in order to improve quality of life. And I think that’s really important because a lot of times, the doses of drugs that get approved are the doses that are the highest doses that don’t cause extreme toxicity. But sometimes people can have effective, really good outcomes on lower doses and have much better quality of life.

And in metastatic breast cancer where really the goal often times is to help people live as long as they can, but also as importantly, as well as they can, be able to have those open-ended conversations between patients and doctors about what’s really impacting your quality of life now and how can we make that better is important. And this study I think really highlighted that both for patients and physicians, how important that back and forth is to having a successful outcome. Both in terms of how life is lived, but in terms of quality of that life.

Katherine:

Right. Right. How can patients stay up to date on developing research?

Dr. Meisel:

It’s so interesting because there is so much coming out and I think it can be hard to figure out what Phase I study that looks exciting is really going to become something, versus what really could be important in my treatment today. And what I always tell people is actually, the NCI website. So, the National Cancer Institute, has a phenomenal page looking at advances in breast cancer research. So, if you Google “NCI advances in breast cancer research,” there’s a great page that comes up. And it’s impressively up to date and I think very patient-friendly.

Breaks things down into early stage and metastatic and then in the metastatic section, talks about estrogen-positive, HER2-positive, triple-negative, which we can talk about more today but are the three big subtype of metastatic disease that dictate how we treat them. And then have links to all the different research updates and talk about what these drugs are, what the classes are and what the settings are in which they’re studied.

And so, I think that’s a really great first stop and then the links can take you to all different stuff that’s on the page that you might want to look into more in depth. And then also, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which is a phenomenal organization. They have a great website, too and if you click around on the website, you can see not only who they’ve donated money to that’s doing promising research, they also have podcasts, they have a blog with science and research news. I think that’s a really great site for patients to use to stay updated.

Katherine:

Let’s shift gears for a moment and talk about another time sensitive topic, COVID. Now that vaccines are available, are they safe and effective for breast cancer patients?

Dr. Meisel:

Yeah, I think the short answer to that is yes, absolutely. I’m encouraging all my patients, no matter what their treatment status is to go ahead and get vaccinated. And we are seeing now this third surge in COVID with cases rising all over the country, and really among unvaccinated populations. And with the delta variant being more transmissible, I think it’s all the more time, even if you haven’t considered vaccination up until now, to really go ahead and strongly consider getting a vaccine.

I think some of the hesitations that some of the people have talked to me about is that there were not a lot of active cancer patients, if any, included in the initial trials. And whereas that is true, it’s still the case that now, so many cancer patients have been vaccinated. We haven’t really heard about adverse effects in vaccination being something that’s higher in patients who have cancer who are on active treatment. I think the one challenge is, if you have a compromised immune system because of cancer treatment, there’s the possibility that you might not mount the same immune response to the vaccine as someone who doesn’t have cancer or isn’t getting active treatment.

So, while I would say yes, definitely get vaccinated, I would also at the same time encourage caution in saying, because you might not mount the same, 95 percent or whatever immune response, it may still be a good idea to wear a mask when you go to the grocery store, taking those precautions because no one really knows what’s coming and it’s better to be safe than sorry. But I think we will get a lot of information as the months go on about, do we need boosters? Who might need boosters more soon than others and some of that will get clarified for us, but my short answer would be yes, vaccines for all.

Katherine:

Excellent, that’s very helpful.

Dr. Meisel:

Thank you.

Katherine:

Since this webinar is focused on metastatic disease, would you define metastatic breast cancer for us?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely. And I think metastatic breast cancer is one of those terms that as doctors, we throw around a lot and often times don’t stop to check understanding as to what that means.

And what metastatic breast cancer is and means, is breast cancer that is spread outside of the breast and surrounding lymph nodes to another organ system. So, metastatic breast cancer, some of the most common places where it spreads are to the bone, to the skin, to the lungs, to the liver, to the brain. There are other places it can spread to. I’ve seen it on the ovaries, in the GI tract. But basically, when breast cancer spreads outside of the breast and surrounding lymph nodes to another organ system, that’s when we consider it metastatic.

Katherine:

How can a patient ensure they are getting an accurate diagnosis?

Dr. Meisel:

Another good question. And I think the most important thing when you’re considering whether or not you have a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer is to get a biopsy of that metastatic site. So, you wouldn’t want to assume, just based on a CT scan that shows something in the bone that you have metastatic disease. Ideally, we would biopsy that spot or some spot that was indicative of metastatic disease to actually prove that there is metastatic cancer in that distant site.

Because sometimes it’s nothing. Sometimes you get scans and a little bone abnormality, maybe a scar from a prior fall. And then also, sometimes if it is metastatic, sometimes the breast cancer, the hormone receptor status, for example, can change from the primary site to the metastatic site. And that might impact treatment. So, it’s important to both get a metastatic biopsy to confirm diagnosis. And also, to understand what the treatment plan might be. And I think also for patients, just to make sure that you understand what your stage is, ask your doctor.

Say, what is my stage? Because sometimes doctors think people understand and they don’t actually, so checking that understanding is important. But if your doctor or provider is not actively checking your understanding, you can check it with them to make sure that if you are metastatic or have Stage IV disease, which is another way we define metastatic or talk about metastatic cancer, that you make sure you have the definition right.

Katherine:

Right, right. So, once someone has been diagnosed with metastatic disease, are there key tests that’re used to help understand how their disease may behave and progress?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely. So, I think the first thing as I said is that metastatic biopsy. Another thing that’s very important is understanding the hormone receptor status and the HER2 status of the breast cancer. And probably for a lot of you listening, if you have listened to metastatic breast cancer webinars before or maybe know someone or have had a diagnosis yourself, you’re well versed in this. But for some who may not be, I think a quick overview is maybe helpful. Breast cancer can be divided into three different subtypes. So, triple-negative, estrogen-positive or HER2-positive. And estrogen-positive breast cancer is the most common kind.

That tends to be driven by hormones and often treated with what we call, endocrine therapy. So, anti-estrogen pills, things like Tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors are examples of that. And that’s one kind. And then there’s HER2-positive breast cancer, which is a type of breast cancer that over expresses a marker called HER2. And we now, since we know about that marker, have been able to develop a lot of different treatments that target HER2 selectively.

And can be used to treat that subtype. And then triple-negative is basically estrogen-negative, progesterone-negative and HER2-negative. And that type of breast cancer traditionally was treated essentially only with chemotherapy. But now we’ve had some breakthroughs, which we’ll talk about I think later in this program talking about immunotherapy and more targeted therapy for that. But those subtypes help determine how we treat patients. And it also can sometimes predict behavior.

I would say one of the other things that helps us predict behavior of metastatic disease is, if a patient had early-stage disease before, how quickly they developed metastatic disease. So, for example, someone who develops estrogen-positive metastatic breast cancer 12 years out from their original diagnosis is statistically more likely to have a slower progressing course of disease than someone who develops triple-negative metastatic disease very soon after their initial treatment. So, I would say that’s the primary thing we look at in terms of determining treatment plan and then predicting overall course.

Katherine:

Right. Well, let’s talk about treatment options for advanced disease.

Can you review the types of treatments available for metastatic breast cancer?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely. And what I’ll do is, I’ll give you a broad overview and then because there’s so much and this is such a rich environment, I mean, I give hour long lectures just about the treatment of metastatic triple-negative breast cancer to our fellows. So, there is so much meaty information here. But I’ll give an overview with some key buzzwords so then people can go look up things that matter more to them or interest them more. So, as I said, we start with thinking about, is this hormone receptor-positive or estrogen-positive breast cancer? Is this HER2-positive or is this triple-negative? And those factors really send us down different paths.

So, if someone is estrogen-positive, I had mentioned before the PALOMA and MONALEESA studies showing that CDK4-6 inhibitors, which is a class of drugs that the first one was approved in 2015 and then two others have been approved subsequently. So, relatively new drugs. But those drugs, which are pills, added to traditional anti-estrogen therapy which would be aromatase inhibitors or fulvestrant.

Are often great first-line options for these patients. And people can do well for years on just that alone, with estrogen-positive metastatic breast cancer. On average, about two years before people progress and need something new. And then after that, there are lots of trials ongoing looking at different ways in which an estrogen-positive breast cancer might progress on that regiment and how do we target that. So that there are multiple other anti-estrogen options down the line that people can use in estrogen-positive breast cancer before they need to even think about going on to something like chemotherapy.

So, really lots and lots of options for those patients, but probably starting with a CDK4-6 inhibitor plus anti-estrogen combination. And then in HER2-positive breast cancer, typically the first-line treatment would be what we call monoclonal antibodies directed at HER2. So, something like Herceptin and Perjeta, which you may have heard of. And often combined with chemotherapy. But again, this is one of those areas that is also very, I think the art of medicine is very important and patient dependent.

Some of these regiments depend a little bit on patient’s age and other medical problems and desires, whether to include chemotherapy along with that frontline anti-HER2 regimen. Or whether to think about something like anti-estrogen therapy if the patient is HER2-positive and estrogen-positive. And then there are a lot of other different things we’re also using in HER2-positive disease after patients progress on that initial therapy, so there are what we call, antibody drug conjugates, where a chemotherapy like drug is attached to an antibody that then brings the chemo to the HER2-positive cell and allows for chemotherapy penetration more directly.

And then a class of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors, which are oral drugs that get directed at HER2. So, another really exciting area to treat and a place where we’ve seen so many advances. And then in triple-negative breast cancer, I’d mentioned that chemotherapy has really been the mainstay of treatment historically because there weren’t great targets. But recently we’ve seen that immunotherapy, along with chemotherapy drugs like Keytruda, which you may have heard of.

Or atezolizumab, which is Mesenteric, can be used along with chemo and patients that overexpress a molecule called, PDL1. And that can actually include not just how long patients spend on the first treatment, but how long they live. So, we’re seeing a lot of triple-negative patients being great candidates for immune-based regimen now. And then for patients who have inherited a BRCA gene mutation, which many of you may have heard of. That gene mutation can actually predispose a triple-negative patient to be more receptive to a class of drugs called PARP inhibitors.

So, drugs like olaparib (Lynparza) or talazoparib (Talzenna) are new drugs that’ve been approved in the last couple of years in triple-negative metastatic breast cancer for patients who carry a BRCA1 mutation or BRCA2 mutation. And then there are also antibody drug conjugates in triple-negative breast cancer as well. The Trodelvy that’s been approved and then of course others that are in clinical trials currently. So, as you can see, it’s complex. I mean, the treatment of metastatic breast cancer is complicated. And so, it’s important I think to really be able to have a dialogue with your provider about what they’re recommending for you and why.

And I think there are often lots of options. And so, as much as you can make your doctor aware of what matters to you in terms of what side effects are you most afraid of or would you like most to avoid, what dosing schedules would be idea for your schedule for the rest of your life. So that you can deal with taking kids to school or the job that you’re currently working on or whatever, I think helps your doctor help you come up with the right regiment for you.

Katherine:

Yeah. Yeah. So, what factors are considered when deciding on the best treatment approach for an individual patient?

Dr. Meisel:

So, I think certainly the tumor type that we were talking about. Is it estrogen-positive or HER2-negative or HER2-positive? I think response to past treatments, both in terms of if someone has had metastatic disease for a long time and has had a few treatments already, how long did they respond to those treatments and how completely did they respond to those treatments. Did they have stable disease for a while or did their cancer actively shrink?

And then I think other than that, it would be some of the things I touched on. Side effect profiles. Do patients have pre-existing neuropathy from other chemotherapy? If so, maybe you want to avoid a regiment that causes more neuropathy. Schedule. Some patients, it’s really important to be on a certain schedule, as opposed to a different schedule. I think whether there are clinical trials available instead of whatever the standard of care regiment would be is also important.

Because for some patients who are interested in pushing the envelope or who might be a great candidate for a particular trial, if there is one that they’re a candidate for that’s not horribly inconvenient from a logistics standpoint, then trials I think are also a great option to consider. So, I think from an effectiveness standpoint, you want to think about the tumor type response to past treatments. And then potentially, if the patient has had, what we call genomic profiling, where the tumor has been sent for basically genomic analysis, to see what genes might be mutated in the tumor that could potentially drive a response to a newer, different therapy.

All those things can be taken into account as we think about the cancer. But then there is the patient specific factors, and I think those would be mainly side effects, schedule, clinical trials and desire or not to pursue those. And then, just what the patient’s perspective is on the plan that you’re offering them.

Katherine:

What is biomarker testing and how do results impact treatment options?

Dr. Meisel:

Great question. So, I think people often confuse germline mutations and somatic mutations. So, I’ll talk about that a little bit as we talk ab out biomarkers. So, I think biomarkers in general are factors within the tumor that allow us to make treatment decisions. So, if a biomarker in the tumor can predict response to a certain type of treatment, we want to know what that biomarker is so we can better treat the patient and more elegantly design a regimen. So, for example, having an estrogen-positive tumor, estrogen positivity is a biomarker suggestive of response to anti-estrogen treatments, which is why we give anti-estrogen therapy to ER-positive breast cancers.

But more recently, we’ve been able to move a little bit beyond estrogen, HER2- and triple-negative as our subtypes and think a little bit more in some patients about more sophisticated biomarkers. And that’s where somatic mutation testing comes in. So, there are germline mutations, which are inherited mutations that’re present in every cell in your body. So, for example, if your mother was a BRCA mutation carrier and based that BRCA mutation down to you, you would have a germline BRCA mutation. So, your cancer would carry a BRCA mutation, but so would every other cell you have.

And that’s a biomarker. That would make you a candidate for something like a PARP inhibitor. But in cancers, which the genes in the cancer have gone awry by definition, there are often other biomarkers within that tumor that may make you a candidate for certain treatments. And so, those mutations that arise in the cancer itself are called, somatic mutations. Those are mutations in the tumor, can’t be passed down to your offspring or anything like that and were not inherited by your parents. But mutations that’ve accumulated over time as these cancer cells have gone awry.

And so, genomic testing, or biomarker testing can be done often on a metastatic specimen. So, to be specific about it, say you had a metastatic breast cancer to the liver. You could have a liver biopsy done and that tissue from the liver biopsy could be sent for genomic testing. There are a lot of companies that do this and there are also some larger cancer centers that actually do in house testing for genomics. So, this testing can be done and what it does then is, it helps you determine, do you have a biomarker that predisposes you to a certain treatment.

So, if that metastatic liver tissues, for example contained high levels of PBL1 expression for example and you were triple-negative, that would say to your doctor, “Ooh, this is a great candidate for immunotherapy along with chemotherapy.” Or if you’re estrogen-positive, for example, and your tumor contains a mutation in the gene called PIK3CA and that might make you a candidate for a drug called, alpelisib (Piqray). So, these mutations could often be paired to a drug or treatment options, or sometimes to a clinical trial to allow patients to come take advantage of more targeted therapies.

That sometimes, because they’re targeted, have fewer side effects than drugs that are a little more discriminate.

Katherine:

Marie sent in this question prior to the program. Are there some genetic tests that’re more accurate than others?

Dr. Meisel:

That’s a good question. I would say most genetic testing platforms have been heavily vetted and approved by national organizations and laboratories that’ve been tested multiple times before they’re allowed to be marketed. So, I wouldn’t say that one genetic testing program is necessarily better than another. I think that any of the commercially available platforms that’re used are probably pretty accurate.

Katherine:

Okay. How does symptom management play into the treatment decision?

Dr. Meisel:

I was just going to add one thing to that, if that’s okay. I was going to say that I think it’s important when you’re using genetic testing platforms though to know what you’re testing for. So, there are some platforms that will just test for say, the three most common mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 that Ashkenazi Jews have.

And so, if you get that testing back and you’re negative, you might think oh, I don’t have a mutation in those genes. Well, we know from that testing, just as an example, is that you don’t have a mutation in those three alleles of that gene. But if you haven’t had full gene sequencing, you could have a mutation somewhere else in that gene. So, I would say all genetic testing that’s commercially available is probably pretty accurate. But it is important when you get testing done to know what you’re testing for and what you’re not testing for so you can interpret your results accurately. And genetic counselors, as well as your doctors can help you do that.

Katherine:

Right, right. Okay, I’m going to ask the question, this question again. How does symptom management play into the treatment decision?

Dr. Meisel:

I think symptom management is huge, because like I said and I tell this to all my patients at the outset of treatment that most of the time, metastatic breast cancer becomes a chronic diagnosis for a patient. You’re dealing with it, essentially like a chronic illness for the rest of your life. And you’re on some form of treatment for the most part, for the foreseeable future.

And so, making sure quality of life is as good as it can be is critically important. And I think symptom management is a huge part of that and we know that if we can treat and manage symptoms well, people can live better and often live longer because then they can stay on treatment for more extensive periods of time comfortably. And so, I always encourage patients, don’t be a martyr.

Don’t think you have to just bounce in here and tell me everything’s okay if it’s not okay. If you’re having symptoms and side effects from treatment, or from the cancer, I want to know about them so that we can really aggressively manage those symptoms just like we’re aggressively managing the cancer. A lot of times oncologists can do that on their own. We are pretty well versed in managing a lot of symptoms and side effects.

But a lot of times also, there are teams of doctors either who do palliative care or here at Emory, we call it supportive oncology where they are specially trained in things like pain management and managing more common side effects like nausea, constipation, diarrhea, appetite suppression, that can go along with cancer and with treatment.

And then they often will co-manage patients with us as well, just to make sure there’s that really strong focus on maintaining as much of a low symptom burden as possible.

Katherine:

So, you mentioned earlier, clinical trials. When should patients consider participating in a trial?

Dr. Meisel:

I think it’s a great question and I think the answer is really, almost any time. There are trials in every setting. So, I think one of the common misconceptions about clinical trials is that you really only should be in a clinical trial, or your doctor might only mention a clinical trial if they don’t have other options for you or if you’re really in stage. And I think that perception is changing. But I think the reality is that there are clinical trials in every setting.

So, we have clinical trails looking at prevention of breast cancer. Clinical trials looking to optimize early-stage treatment of breast cancer. Clinical trials looking at secondary prevention, so once you’ve had breast cancer, how can we reduce your risk of recurrence. And then lots of clinical trials in the metastatic setting both for patients who are initially diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.

And then in second, third, fourth line and even for patients who have had tons and tons of additional therapy that we’re looking at new drugs for. So, I think at almost any juncture where you’re making a treatment change, it’s probably appropriate to say, would there be a clinical trail that you can think of that would be good for me in this setting? And it may be that there’s a one that’s 12 hours away, and it’s not convenient for you or feasible.

And it may be that your doctor doesn’t necessarily know of one but then that prompts them to ask a colleague who may be more involved in clinical trial design and development. Or it may be that there is one, but you ultimately choose not to pursue it because you have a different option. But I think it’s always appropriate to ask, would there be a trail for me? Because if there is, then maybe that opens up an option you hadn’t thought about before.

Katherine:

Sure. For patients who aren’t familiar with the stages of clinical trials, would you give us a brief overview of the stages?

Dr. Meisel:

Yeah. Absolutely. So, in terms of clinical trials that’re being done in humans, we talk about Phase I, Phase II and Phase III typically. So, a Phase II clinical trial is typically an earlier stage trial.

Looking at either a drug that has not been tested in humans before or a drug that has not been tested in a particular combination in humans before. And so, those trials are done only in select institutions, usually academic institutions as opposed to private hospitals. And they often have what’s called a dose finding phase and then a dose escalation phase. So, the earliest part of those trials is actually looking at, what is the safest dose to give to patients?

So, they start the first patients at a low dose of the compound. And if those patients do well, the next patients that’re enrolled get enrolled at a slightly higher dose. And then up until they reach the highest dose they can find where people are tolerating it and doing reasonably well. And in those Phase I trials, doctors and investigators are also evaluating efficacy, is this drug working. But the primary goal of the early phase trial is actually to find the right dose to then study in larger groups. And so, if they find the right dose and there’s good biological rationale for the compound, then the trial would go on to a Phase II.

Which might be just what we call single arm Phase II study, where every patient is getting that experimental drug. And we monitor them to see, is the drug effective, or is it less effective than the standard of care? Or sometimes they’re what we call, randomized Phase II trials where patients are randomized to either get the experimental drug, or to get what the standard of care would be in that situation. I think a lot of people get afraid about the idea of a randomized trial because they’re afraid they’re going to be randomized to a placebo. And that is really not done in the metastatic setting, because it wouldn’t be ethical to give a patient with active cancer a placebo.

So, usually the randomization would be either to the study compound or to a standard of care drug. And then if things look good in a Phase II trial, then a Phase III study is done which is usually what the FDA requires to allow a drug to go on and be administered outside of a study for approval. And those Phase III trials tend to be larger studies that’re done in larger groups of patients with more statistical validity because of their size, to determine, is this drug really better than the standard.

Katherine:

Right. We have another question we received earlier, this one from Eileen. She asks, how will I know whether my treatment is working?

Dr. Meisel:

That’s a really good question. So, I think for patients who have symptoms from their cancer, they often will know the drug is working because their symptoms improve. Say if you have lung metastases and you are short of breath and your shortness of breath gets better. That’s a really good sign that the treatment is working. I would say that often what we are doing, and it depends a little bit on the regimen and what the patient is getting and how often they’re coming in.

But we’re checking labs as well and sometimes there are lab abnormalities when a patient is diagnosed with metastatic cancer that can then improve over time. So, for example, if someone has a heavy burden of bone involvement with breast cancer, there’s a lab value called the alkaline phosphatases that will often be elevated. If that starts elevated and comes down, that’s a really good sign. And some of their liver function tests that we check and if a patient has liver metastases, we often will see those come down if a patient is responding.

There are also, what we call tumor markers that we can check in patients with metastatic breast cancer. Those would be proteins in the blood basically that can be made by the breast cancer in abundance. And those are called CA27-29 and CA15-3. Some doctors check both of them. Some will just check one depending on which one their laboratory at their institution is running. But typically, I will check those at diagnosis of metastatic disease. And then if it’s elevated, I know it’s a good marker to follow for my patient. And then I’ll follow that monthly or every three weeks, depending on when the patient is coming in to see me.

And if I see that marker start to go down, it’s not an absolute, but it can be a good early indicator of improvement with the treatment. And then I think it varies a little bit from practice to practice and based on patient preference. But often there will be scans done when a patient is initially diagnosed to determine the extent of the disease. So, usually a CT scan of the chest and the abdomen and the pelvis or a PET scan, which some of you may have heard of. Either one of those is good.

And that can be done about every 12 weeks usually in the beginning, to make sure a patient is responding and once you feel confident that they are, those can be done sell frequently. So, I would say the scans and the lab work and then the patient’s overall condition are usually the way that we look to see, are we having a response or not.

Katherine:

We’ve talked about several key tests. Some patients may be confused about whether they’ve received these tests. So, what questions should they ask their physician to make sure they’re getting appropriate testing?

Dr. Meisel:

I think it’s probably useful because not everybody needs every test, and I think there are often things you hear about online or from friends or even in a webinar like this, and there may be a good reason why you haven’t had that particular test. So, I wouldn’t assume that if you haven’t had everything that we’ve talked about today even, that someone’s made a mistake or that you need that and aren’t getting it. But I would ask. I think it’s always helpful to know more, knowledge is power. And so, if you have never had a CT scan or a CA27-29 level or a genomic testing.

I think it’s not a bad thing if you’re curious about it, to just ask your treating team, “Hey, I heard about genomic testing, is there a reason I haven’t had that? Or have I had that?” Maybe you have, and they called it something else. I think it is complicated, but I think it helps to understand what you’ve had done and what you haven’t had done. And sometimes, asking about something like that may prompt the team to do things that my benefit you.

Katherine:

Before we wrap up, Dr. Meisel, how do you feel about the future of breast cancer research and what would you like patients to know?

Dr. Meisel:

Yeah, I think one of the most important things and I actually said this to a family this morning where a loved one had received a new diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer is that the field has evolved so much over the past five years. I think often when people get a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, it’s the most dreadful feeling they ever had. They remember that day for the rest of their lives. But we are seeing so many people do so well for so long now and tolerate treatments well because the treatments are better tolerated.

And there’s I think more attention being paid now to symptom management. That people really can do so much better than they’ve been doing. And I would say really, every year, even every six months, when I go to give a lecture on a topic in metastatic breast cancer, I can’t just give the same talk. I’m always having to update my slides because there’s so many new things coming out, so much new research on the table.

And we’re seeing so many new drug approvals now that we’re starting to unlock some of these new mutations and reasons for progression and understanding new drug classes. So, really think it is a bright time to be in breast cancer research, and there’s never been a better time to be a patient if you have to fall into that category.

Katherine:

It all sounds so promising, Dr. Meisel. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Meisel:

You’re so welcome. Thank you for having me.

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners. If you would like to watch this webinar again, there will be a replay available soon. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. Also, don’t forget to take the survey immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan future programs.

To learn more about breast cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit PowerfulPatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell, thanks for joining us.

 

Navigating Relationships and Your Mental Health After a Diagnosis

The moment you receive a cancer diagnosis, it can feel like everything in your life flips upside down. It’s one reason why 15-25% of cancer patients experience depression. We’ve become a society that focuses on so many stereotypes and “what ifs” when it comes to cancer that it can take a toll on your mental health.

It can also impact your relationships and how you move forward in your life.

Obviously, how your mental health is impacted can depend on the severity of your diagnosis. In any case, however, it’s important to make your mental wellbeing and your relationships a priority. Yes, taking care of your physical health is crucial. But now, more than ever, being in the right mental state and having people you love around to support you will make a big difference.

So, how can you navigate relationships and your mental health after a diagnosis?

Accepting Your Emotions

It’s not uncommon for people who receive a life-changing diagnosis to go through a whirlwind of emotions. But, you might feel as though you have to keep them hidden. There are so many things to go through after a cancer diagnosis. To keep looking forward and pushing ahead with treatment, you might think that you don’t have time to acknowledge your emotions.

That kind of attitude can be damaging. It can lead to depression, anxiety, or even PTSD. To effectively cope with your diagnosis, you have to allow yourself to feel.  Face your emotions,  no matter what they are. When you don’t, you’ll start to notice things like muscle tension, fatigue, or more aches and pains than usual. You might also start to recognize that certain things trigger powerful emotions more than others, and they become harder to bottle up.

When you try to push your emotions down, you’ll add more stress to your life. As a result, your mental state can continue to spiral, and it can cause even more turmoil in your relationships. Whether you’re married, dating, or dealing with friendships, your mental health state can have a big influence on how you feel about those relationships and how you treat people who love you.

Recognizing Problems in Your Relationship

It’s not uncommon for people with mental health conditions to feel tension or strain in their relationships. If your mental health is suffering after your diagnosis, you might already be noticing some changes. Some common issues that tend to occur include:

  • A lack of communication
  • Distractions
  • More frequent arguments
  • Misunderstandings

It’s also common to experience a lack of intimacy when you’re struggling with mental health issues. For example, anxiety can cause pain during intercourse for women and may contribute to erectile dysfunction for men. Depression can lead to a decreased interest in physical intimacy or even emotional closeness.

Take a look at your actions and attitude. Are you pushing people away or playing the role of the victim? Whether you’re in a romantic relationship with someone or you’re thinking about how you act around family and friends, any connection can struggle with the wrong attitude. You have to be willing to adapt to your diagnosis, highlight your best assets, and let the people in your life surround and support you.

You should always be on the lookout for issues in your relationship after a diagnosis. If you’re experiencing problems, consider your mental health state, and how the two might connect. Having strong relationships is important for your overall well-being, and you’re going to want someone there with you as often as possible so you’re not alone on this new journey.

Seeking Support

Another reason strong relationships are so important after a diagnosis is because of support. Having a support system can help you to:

  • Continue with a sense of normalcy
  • Maintain your emotional stability
  • Keep a positive attitude
  • Get the rest you need while having things looked after for you

Friends, family, and even a spouse or partner should all be a part of your support group. If you allow yourself to reach out for help, you might be surprised by who is willing to be there for you.

If you find that your mental health is still suffering, consider talking to a therapist, counselor, or psychiatric nurse. There is currently a mental health care provider shortage across the country, though options like telehealth and community initiatives are making providers more accessible to everyone. Talking to a mental health professional will make it easier to open up and expand on your feelings. You’ll get to the root cause of your anxiety or depression and learn the skills necessary to manage your symptoms.

When you receive a cancer diagnosis, you’ll need to put your time, energy, and drive into beating the physical disease. To do that, however, you might need to focus on the strength of your mental state, first. Keep these ideas in mind for navigating relationships and your mental health, and your entire treatment experience can be a more positive one.

NCCN Guidance on Safety and Effectiveness of COVID-19 Vaccines for Cancer Patients

NCCN Guidance on Safety and Effectiveness of COVID-19 Vaccines for Cancer Patients from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine recommended for people living with cancer? Dr. Erin Roesch shares recommendations from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) for those undergoing cancer treatment, including guidance on mask wearing and advice for family members.

Dr. Erin Roesch is a breast medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Roesch here.


Transcript:

Katherine: 

Many cancer patients have questions about the COVID vaccine. Is it safe? Do we need to continue wearing masks? Here to address these questions is cancer expert, Dr. Erin Roesch. Dr. Roesch, would you introduce yourself?

Dr. Roesch: 

Hello. And thank you for inviting me to participate in this very important conversation. My name is Erin Roesch. I am a breast medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic.

Katherine: 

Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us today. I’d like to run through a list of concerns that cancer patients have about vaccines in general and the COVID vaccine specifically.

So, let’s start with a basic question. Should people get vaccinated if they have cancer?

Dr. Roesch: 

Yes. All individuals diagnosed with cancer should get the COVID-19 vaccine as recommended by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network or NCCN.

An immunocompromised state makes many people with cancer at higher risk of serious COVID-19 illness. Those who are vaccinated are less likely to become sick with COVID-19. And, also, vaccinated people who do get COVID-19 are much less likely to become seriously ill.

I would also mention that those living in the same household as a person diagnosed with cancer and caregivers or other close contacts should also get vaccinated.

Katherine: 

Another common question is whether people with cancer should wait for any reason to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Roesch: 

Most people with cancer should get the vaccine as soon as they can with a few exceptions according to NCCN.

People in the process of receiving stem cell transplant or cellular therapy should wait at least three months after they finish treatment to get vaccinated.

Those diagnosed with certain forms of leukemia should also wait a few weeks after receiving treatment to allow their immune system to recover so the vaccine can be effective.

It’s not been clearly defined exactly how chemotherapy affects responses to COVID-19 vaccines. But some data suggests that immune responses may not be as robust. However, it is still recommended that those receiving chemotherapy and also immunotherapy and radiation should get vaccinated whenever they can.

Katherine:

I think a lot of people are concerned too about whether one vaccine is better than another. What would you say to them?

Dr. Roesch:

And that is a common question that I often get in my clinic. And I advise my patients to receive or take whatever vaccine they are offered.

We don’t really have any studies or data at this point suggesting one being better than another in cancer patients.

Katherine: 

Some people are wondering if the vaccine can give a person COVID-19. How would you address that?

Dr. Roesch: 

I would say that as none of the currently available vaccines are made with a live virus, the vaccine itself can’t give a person COVID-19. By getting vaccinated, actually, those who are immunocompromised are really helping society to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Immunocompromised people who get COVID-19 may be more likely to infect others due to prolonged shedding of the virus after infection.

Katherine:

What about side effects? Are the vaccine’s side effects worse for people with cancer?

Dr. Roesch:  

No. Side effects do not appear to be worse for those diagnosed with cancer. Results to date suggest that the vaccine’s side effects in people with and without cancer are really no different.

These side effects, as we have seen, may include arm soreness, rash, fatigue, chills, fever, headache, for example.

Katherine: 

And, finally, can cancer patients stop wearing a mask after they’ve been vaccinated?

Dr. Roesch:

Cancer patients should continue to wear a mask post-vaccination. Many people with cancer may have a harder time actually fighting infections and may not respond as well to vaccines. So, people diagnosed with cancer and their close contacts should get vaccinated and then continue to follow precautions, which include wearing masks, social distancing, hand hygiene.

Katherine:

Is there a certain length of time that people need to continue wearing a mask after being vaccinated?

Dr. Roesch:  

At this time, I would recommend patients continue to follow the CDC guidelines that are currently in place. And at this point, I don’t think we have a projected end time for that yet.

Katherine:    

Is there anything else you’d like to share with cancer patients who may be concerned about vaccinations?

Dr. Roesch:    

I would encourage those diagnosed with cancer to not only themselves get vaccinated but to also really voice and stress the importance of vaccination to those that surround them, including, again, members of their household, close contacts, and even beyond their inner circle.

I would also advise people to try and avoid letting the concern of possible side effects related to the shot deter them from getting it. The symptoms of COVID-19 can be much worse and potentially serious for some compared with the relatively minor side effects that we’ve seen with the vaccine itself.

I also would mention I’ve had personal patients that have expressed concern about functioning of their immune system while receiving chemotherapy and how this might affect their response to the vaccine. I do emphasize to them that even though responses might not be as strong as they may be in the absence of active treatment, I feel like the potential benefits of the vaccine still outweigh the risks in my mind.

Katherine:   

Thanks so much for joining us today, Dr. Roesch.

Dr. Roesch:

Thank you for having me.

Tools for Living with Cancer and COVID-19

Tools for Living with Cancer and COVID-19 from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Breast Cancer Network Manager Mary Leer highlights the importance of a previous interview with Dr. Shaji Kumar focused on COVID-19 and cancer. In the original interview, Empowered Patient and Care Partner Ask the Expert: Addressing COVID-19 Concerns, vaccine concerns are also addressed and key factors are given for cancer patients, survivors, and care partners.  

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Transcript:

Mary Leer:

Hello, my name is Mary Leer, and I am the Patient Empowerment Network’s [PEN’s] Network Manager for the Breast Cancer Network.  

 As PEN’s Breast Cancer Network Manager, I was proud to sit down with noted Mayo Clinic expert, Dr. Shaji Kumar. The interview helped me think deeply about my own experience as a cancer survivor and how it relates to my experience living through the pandemic that is still around us all. As cancer patients, we’ve had to live with multiple uncertainties and make decisions that can quite literally and figuratively be painful. We’ve had to make decisions about cancer treatment with our medical team, and we’ve had to deal with the fact that it is in our own best interest to at times take a path that we do not want to take in the name of healing ourselves and living a healthier life. We have learned to live with options and making choices with outcomes that are not certain, our experience and roles as survivors and as caregivers can make it hard sometimes difficult to understand the decisions of others who are hesitant or resistant to getting a vaccine. So I listened and learned from Dr. Kumar discussion about the importance of getting vaccinated to reach a significant percentage of our population. He shows compassion for those whose fear of the pandemic has led them to a decision to turn away from getting vaccinated, perhaps out of fear, distrust of medicine and anger about government impinging on personal rights, or perhaps, of course, their own personal health journey, please implore others to listen to the interviews Jeff and I did with Dr. Kumar. 

Dr. Kumar gave us very clear advice.  He answers many of the questions about COVID-19 that cancer patients, and our community have been asking and frankly worrying about. As you listen to the interviews on PEN’s website, you will hear his voice of reason, make it clear how critical it is for cancer patients, indeed all of us to get vaccinated for the sake of our own and for others’ health. As he states there are uncertainties about aspects of vaccination, such as the strength and length of one’s individual protective immune response, but the bottom line is that cancer patients especially need to be vaccinated to protect their health, even if one is well post-treatment. If still in cancer treatment or if one has had the COVID-19 illness, he told us to discuss the optimum time to get vaccinated with your medical team. He truly gave a clear message that there is solid evidence for the efficacy, safety of approved covid vaccines. Listen carefully and share Dr. Kumar’s interview responses with your cancer community and with your family. His answers address lingering questions my family and I had about COVID and cancer, the bottom line, these interviews with Dr. Kumar are once again, a way of giving us the tools to compassionately help ourselves and others through this COVID-19 health crisis. 

How Has Cancer Research Evolved in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

How Has Cancer Research Evolved in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What have been some benefits for cancer research during the COVID-19 pandemic? Expert. Dr. Shaji Kumar describes some of the clinical trial changes that have been born from the pandemic to improve access to care and to decrease the risk of infection for cancer patients.

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Transcript:

Mary Leer:

Are there any noticeable trends born out of the pandemic that will be or could be a benefit to the future of cancer care or research?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

That’s a very important question, and I think we always learn from adversity, and I think this is going to be no different. I think, especially when the pandemic hit back in the spring of last year, we all had to think fast on our feet to figure out how best to continue to tell about the best care for the cancer patients without compromising the care in any way. And we knew that bringing the patients back into the clinic at the same rate we did before the pandemic would expose them to significant risk for infection, so how do we continue with treatment? There have been very different things people have tried…one of them is to try and get the medications to patients at home. If they are on IV medications, they can be changed to something that’s comparable that can be given by mouth. We already did that for some patients. For some patients who used to come to the clinic very often, so we figure out is there a way for them to get some of those testing done in a clinic much closer to home, so they can avoid the travel, they can avoid being in a bigger city, they can avoid being in a bigger institution, again, reducing the risk of exposure, and then you look at those numbers and then decide on the next course of treatment. We converted many of the clinic visits to video visits. Nothing is as good as having the patient right in front of you, but this is the best we could do under the circumstances.

And I think that helped. So I think the clinical trials was a big problem because in many of those trials were done in a very rigid fashion with very little variability allowed within the protocols. And everybody loosened from the clinical trial sponsors, the pharmaceutical companies, the institutional review board, the investigators to try and build flexibility into those clinical trial structures to allow patients to continue to be on those trials, So what does that mean for the future? I think the video visits are here to stay, I think we will continue to utilize that and bring patients back to the clinic only when it’s absolutely needed. I think the clinical trials will have in-built flexibility so that patients can enroll on clinical trials remotely, they can potentially be given some of those medications at home, maybe it would be something where we would check into the patients on a regular basis to make sure things are proceeding in the right way. I think there are increasingly technologies that will allow the patients to communicate in real time with the care team and also provide many of the data that we need through iPads or iPhones, Apple watches, whatever we end up using.

So that is that I think that technology will rapidly take off in the next few years. So I think a lot of the care of the patients with cancer in general, and particularly cancer patients, is going to look very different five years from now, because of all these things that we have always thought of and we thought, “Yeah it will take time to implement, it’s difficult.” Now we figure it out in a year. We can do a lot of those things.

Jeff Bushnell:

What’s the final takeaway for the average cancer patient and caregiver, how to get through this? What’s your bottom line for us all?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Your cancer treatment comes first, let’s not compromise on it, let us do it as safe as we can by observing all the instructions in terms of social distancing, masking, avoiding gatherings, getting vaccinated, and make sure you keep connected with your care team. You don’t have to be in the clinic to do that. There’s a variety of different tools, I think every hospital has options to either through their medical records to message their care team, or set up video visits and so forth.

So we want to be in a state where it was before the pandemic in terms of your communications, but use the technology, so we can decrease the risk of exposure without compromising the quality of care.

Should Cancer Patients Get COVID-19 Vaccines If They’ve Tested Positive for Antibodies or the Virus?

Should Cancer Patients Get COVID-19 Vaccines If They’ve Tested Positive for Antibodies or the Virus? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What are the recommendations for cancer patients on COVID-19 vaccines if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies or the virus? Expert Dr. Shaji Kumar shares current vaccine recommendations for cancer patients.

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Transcript:

Mary Leer:

Here’s a question many cancer patients are unclear about if antibodies are present or if I have tested positive before, “Should I still get the vaccine?”

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

I know the recommendation right now is to go ahead and get the vaccine, partly because we don’t know the natural immunity from the infection, how long does it last. So it seems like the antibodies can start to wane off the infection. And again, we don’t have a lot of data on it, but it looks 3 to 6 months, it might start waning at least to the level that they can detect. Now, whether that is sufficient or even the undetectable levels is protective against a future infection, we don’t know. There have been some reports of people getting a second infection even though they have been infected before again, scattered reports, we don’t know how widespread that phenomenon is going to be, so given all these, I think the current recommendation would be to go ahead and get vaccinated. We generally tell people to wait for two to three months after the infection to go ahead with the vaccination.

Jeff Bushnell:

Is the idea of pre-screening, especially for cancer patients, maybe who may be at risk to see whether they have antibodies be an effective thing to decide which vaccine they should get? What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

You look at the Moderna and the Pfizer trials, and they said, now over 90 percent effective. Look at the AstraZeneca trials, you know, it’s like they recorded 70 to 80, 85 percent, and the J&J about 80 to 90 percent effective. Do these numbers mean much? It’s really hard to know, I think, partly because they have been tested in, again, different countries, different times, as the virus was continually changing its characteristics. So one could argue that maybe the vaccines that were tested later on when this will be some of the mutants were already there might be more effective, but we don’t know.

I think at the end of the day, 80 versus 90 is not something we would decide a vaccine on. The fact that, yes, if something was only 10 percent effective versus 90 percent, it’s a probably different story. So based on the numbers we have seen, I would say whatever you can get to first, if you don’t want to get jabbed twice, maybe you go with something that goes, it’s only one dose, but that may be the only distinguishing factor here, but nevertheless, I think we have to just get the vaccination, the first vaccine that we can get our hands on.

How Can People Help Achieve COVID-19 Herd Immunity?

How Can People Help Achieve COVID-19 Herd Immunity? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

How can community members help work toward COVID-19 herd immunity? Expert Dr. Shaji Kumar explains why some are hesitant to get COVID-19 vaccines and ways that members in the community can educate others about COVID-19 infection and how vaccine access can be increased in remote areas.

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Transcript:

Jeff Bushnell:

Vaccine hesitancy has really become sort of the issue to the potential of achieving herd immunity, but the average person, how can we help overcome hesitancy and increase the people’s trust in the vaccine, and also increase the equitable distribution amongst all populations? Problems for being able to get it. What can we do to sort of push ourselves over the hill to get to that herd immunity?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

You bring up a very important point, and I hope we are in a much better place than many parts of the world right now because we have one of the few countries where a significant proportion of the people have been vaccinated, but we are not quite at the point where we can claim herd immunity, I think we still need to continue to pursue this, and I think the ideal goal is to get everyone who’s eligible to get a vaccine vaccinated. Now, you bring up some of the very important points, because even though vaccine hesitancy is a real problem, the underlying reason behind this is manifold, and the only way to tackle that is we have a multi-front approach that will take into account what is the reason behind it.

So for the people where it’s hard to get to populations which can live in far from the areas, it may be more the ability to use those vaccines, which does need the complicated storage, for example, the J&J vaccine. You only need one dose. It’s easy to store. So that may be one of the approaches to be taken. And people who believe that this is a vaccine is going to create side effects, or it’s part of some grand scheme to introduce a variety of things. I think it’s a person of education, and I think they really need to tell them what can happen with, not really just to them, but the fact that if you continue to allow these infections to proceed on stuff, there are going to be increasing numbers of mutations, and that in turn is going to make the pandemic much more difficult to control in the long run. So it’s totally an individual benefit, but it’s on to the society’s benefit to have everyone be vaccinated. And then definitely, I think knowing that should anything unto it happen, there’s going to be medical care that’s going to be available to these individuals, and I think that’s also an important point, so who are near and dear to them is going to be the key thing

What Information Is There for Those Hesitant About COVID-19 Vaccines?

What Information Is There for Those Hesitant About COVID-19 Vaccines? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

For those cancer patients who have COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, what information is there about vaccine development? Expert Dr. Shaji Kumar shares details about development and clinical trials of the COVID-19 vaccines – and the reasons why testing could be carried out at a rapid rate compared to other vaccines.

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Transcript:

Mary Leer:

Can you speak to those who might be hesitant about the speed of vaccine development around COVID. I’ve heard this often from other people saying, “Well, they develop this so quickly, how can we trust it?”

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

I think those concerns are quite valid, I think vaccines have always been a very controversial topic and not just COVID vaccination but even for childhood vaccinations. There have been long-standing concerns that some of those vaccinations may be responsible for some of the issues that we see in the children and even in the late adulthood. I think what we really want to get across is, again, taking that question apart, and there are multiple different aspects to it, one is the whole concept of how we created the vaccine so quickly, we kept telling everyone from the time that it started that it takes five to 10 years to develop a good vaccine, and now we have something in a year, so obviously that raises concerns amongst people. I think it’s just a testament to how far technology has come. In the past, we had to isolate the protein and use that protein to develop the immune response, and what has been really unique about the COVID situation has been the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine, both of which uses a new technology called the mRNA-based technology. And this is something that has been developed over the past decade to decade-and-a-half, and I would say this is a platform that was perfect, just waiting for the right opportunity to come along.

And the COVID situation really presented that. And even though it was the speed with which this was developed, is just because the technology has come along so much and we can actually do that, and the second is how fast the clinical trials have been done, and I think that speaks to, again, the infrastructure that they have been developed over the years to rapidly develop and implement a clinical trial. So the clinical trials, both Pfizer and Moderna trials had 40 to 50,000 people enrolled in a quick phase and the community transmission that was happening at a very high rate. We could get these trials done in a very rapid manner, so the patients or the people who enrolled in this clinical trial the fact that they were not getting infected could be determined in a much, much faster fashion than what you would have done in the past with any of the other vaccines. So I think the technology is robust. The [COVID] trials are very well-conducted and the end point in terms of efficacy has been very well-determined or very accurately determined. And given the size of these trials and the number of people who have been a goal, I think we can feel fairly confident that the risk associated with this vaccine is pretty low, so you can argue that one of the risk of a particular side effect is only 1 in 80,000. So maybe to the 40,000 people enroll in the trial, they may not have adequate numbers of that and that was certainly a concern when they started vaccinating. And we just know a couple of days ago, there was a publication that looked at almost like 63 million vaccine doses that have been given, and overall the risk of vaccine related side effects have been very, very minimal.

But on the other hand, we all heard about what would happen with some of those vaccines and the blood clots, and I think that even though…yes, it is, as it is a risk. It is a very, very small risk. And the fact that you were able to identify them right away again, I think tells us that should there be rare side effects, you’re going to find it, and we are going to figure out the mechanics of why those side effects happen. And we’re going to figure out how to avoid those things.

So, I think the information flow is so fast and all the data related to vaccines and the side effects are being captured in a real-time fashion that you’d immediately be aware of side effects should that happen.

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.

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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.

What COVID-19 Vaccine Efficacy and Side Effects Do Cancer Patients Experience?

What COVID-19 Vaccine Efficacy and Side Effects Do Cancer Patients Experience? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What do cancer patients experience in COVID-19 vaccine side effects and effectiveness? Expert Dr. Shaji Kumar explains side effects reported in both cancer patients and non-cancer patients, what’s known about immune response from the vaccines, and current COVID-19 vaccine recommendations. 

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Transcript:

Jeff Bushnell:

For cancer patients who have tested positive for COVID, are there notable consistencies amongst that group of people, and have we learned anything from those patients yet about maybe their chances of getting it more, or their reaction to it?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

We know that there’s a wide spectrum of reaction to the vaccine. The majority of the people would not notice any symptoms related to that except for some pain at the injection site. There are some folks, number of people who might have more or just myalgia, muscle pains, just feeling fatigue, some low-grade fevers, just feeling blah for 24-48 hours, and it seems to be not too uncommon. The reactions to the vaccine in terms of the side effects or the symptoms, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference between cancer patients and normal individuals. Now, in terms of the efficacy of vaccination, there’s going to be a wide variation in terms of how strong an immune response one might develop against vaccines. We know from, not necessarily the COVID vaccine, but the vaccinations that have been used in the past, whether it be flu vaccines or pneumococcal vaccines, that we all get patients with cancer or patients going through treatment for cancer that can suppress the immune system, tend to have a lower response. But again, that varies quite widely from patient to patient now, there are some vaccines where we can clearly look at the antibody response and say, “Oh, this is not adequate, and we need to maybe give an extra shot.”

We just don’t have that information for COVID vaccines yet. So the way I would look at it is, even though the response in a given person might be less than what we eventually would identify to be optimal, it’s likely to be better than not having the vaccine, so I would encourage obviously, everybody to get the vaccine. Now, what about someone who has already had an infection, what would be the response? Should we vaccinate those people? We certainly should. Again, we don’t know the immunity from a natural infection, how long would that last? That is still something that is unknown, and the vaccination dose is likely to make the responses more relevant and more durable, so I would recommend the vaccines for everyone. We don’t think one vaccine is any different from another in terms of your underlying cancer or lack thereof. So in terms of assessing for the antibodies, there is no clear guideline in terms of what one should anticipate from the vaccine, so there is really no way to say, check the antibody, and they can go ahead and get one more dose or you’re fully vaccinated. So I think the bottom line is, get the vaccine, you don’t need to necessarily test for a response, and then we continue with the usual measures for prevention

How Can Cancer Patients Protect Themselves During COVID-19?

How Can Cancer Patients Protect Themselves During COVID-19? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can cancer patients and their loved ones protect themselves from COVID-19 infection? Expert Dr. Shaji Kumar shares information about the risk of infection for cancer patients and advice for precautionary measures against the virus.

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Transcript:

Mary Leer:

What should every patient and care partner facing a cancer diagnosis know during the pandemic?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

I think it’s a challenging time for everyone, and it’s obviously more challenging for patients dealing with cancer at the same time, thankfully, we have a vaccine at hand that will certainly make the situation a lot better, but I think from a cancer standpoint, I think what we need to keep in mind all the precautions we talk about in terms  of social distancing, masking, hand washing and all those measures apply equally to everyone, even more so to patients with cancer. And the reason why we say that it’s even more important for several reasons, one, and we continue to learn more about the pandemic and its impact on cancer, one thing that has become clear is that patients with underlying conditions including cancer are to other folks were more affected by the infection, more likely to have more severe interactions and poorer outcomes. Now, patients with cancer appear to be at a higher risk of getting the infection and then they get the infection having a more serious disease. Now, it’s hard to know how much of this is also related to the fact that patients with cancer often have to go into the hospital or the clinic, and hence are more likely to get exposed to the infection than someone who is able to just stay at home.

So that’s one thing. And second, we know that the ongoing treatment for cancer definitely suppresses the immune system, and hence places people at a higher risk of the infection itself. Now, even patients who have their past history of cancer, this appears to be some increased risk, even though this is a little bit, unclear how much more it impacts those individuals. But I think the bottom line is keep the awareness that you might be at a higher risk of getting the infection, more serious infection, and the need to take those precautionary measures in a more strict fashion, and getting the vaccination when you can get it is all things that one needs to keep in mind.

Empowered Patient and Care Partner Ask the Expert: Addressing COVID-19 Concerns

Empowered Patient and Care Partner Ask the Expert: Addressing COVID-19 Concerns from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

With COVID-19 infection and vaccine concerns, what are the key points for cancer patients and care partners to know? Expert Dr. Shaji Kumar from Mayo Clinic shares valuable information about protective measures against COVID-19 infection, vaccine side effects and effectiveness, working toward herd immunity, and cancer research benefits that have emerged from the pandemic. 

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Transcript:

Mary Leer:

My name is Mary Leer. I’m the Breast Cancer Network Manager.

Jeff Bushnell:

And I’m Jeff Bushnell, the MPN Network Manager at the Patient Empowerment Network. I’m a caregiver.

Dr. Shaji Kumar: I

’m Shaji Kumar, a hematologist at Mayo Clinic.

Mary Leer:

Jeff and I are proud to be part of a strong team of compassionate volunteers, helping health communities adapt to the realities of living with a serious illness, living with cancer during a pandemic certainly presents another layer of challenges. So, Jeff and I will drill down to ask the important questions from the community. For this production, Empowered Patient and Care Partner Ask the Expert, we are very lucky to be joined by noted expert, Dr. Shaji Kumar, a consultant in the division of hematology at Mayo Clinic. Thank you for taking the time to join us, Dr. Kumar.

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Thank you for having me, Mary.

Mary Leer:

Let’s start with the top of mind questions for so many of us right now, what should every patient and care partner facing a cancer diagnosis know during the pandemic?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

I think it’s a challenging time for everyone, and it’s obviously more challenging for patients dealing with cancer at the same time, thankfully, we have a vaccine at hand that will certainly make the situation a lot better, but I think from a cancer standpoint, I think what we need to keep in mind all the precautions we talk about in terms  of social distancing, masking, hand washing and all those measures apply equally to everyone, even more so to patients with cancer. And the reason why we say that it’s even more important for several reasons, one, and we continue to learn more about the pandemic and its impact on cancer, one thing that has become clear is that patients with underlying conditions including cancer are to other folks were more affected by the infection, more likely to have more severe interactions and poorer outcomes. Now, patients with cancer appear to be at a higher risk of getting the infection and then they get the infection having a more serious disease. Now, it’s hard to know how much of this is also related to the fact that patients with cancer often have to go into the hospital or the clinic, and hence are more likely to get exposed to the infection than someone who is able to just stay at home.

So that’s one thing. And second, we know that the ongoing treatment for cancer definitely suppresses the immune system, and hence places people at a higher risk of the infection itself. Now, even patients who have their past history of cancer, this appears to be some increased risk, even though this is a little bit, unclear how much more it impacts those individuals. But I think the bottom line is keep the awareness that you might be at a higher risk of getting the infection, more serious infection, and the need to take those precautionary measures in a more strict fashion, and getting the vaccination when you can get it is all things that one needs to keep in mind.

Jeff Bushnell:

Well, that’s wonderful, Dr. Kumar, you mentioned the vaccinations, I am a strong proponent of that, I happen to have been involved in the Moderna vaccine trial, which is and still enrolled, they’re doing the follow-up. I guess they’re checking the last time I was in last week, they took 8 vials of blood, I think they’re checking to see whether I have the antibodies and how long it will last, but I was very happy with the way it was conducted, they were very forthcoming with information.

It was very interesting. And out here in San Diego, where I am, we have done pretty well as a county in vaccinating people and Summer got the vaccine as well with myelofibrosis and she feels a lot better. But for cancer patients who have tested positive for COVID, are there notable consistencies amongst that group of people, and have we learned anything from those patients yet about maybe their chances of getting it more, or their reaction to it? That kind of thing.

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

We know that there’s a wide spectrum of reaction to the vaccine. The majority of the people would not notice any symptoms related to that except for some pain at the injection site.  Not there are some folks, number of people who might have more or just myalgia, muscle pains, just feeling fatigue, some low-grade fevers, just feeling blah for 24-48 hours, and it seems to be not too uncommon. The reactions to the vaccine in terms of the side effects or the symptoms, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference between cancer patients and normal individuals. Now, in terms of the efficacy of vaccination, you just mentioned Jeff, about you being checked for the antibodies, obviously, that is something that we hope will happen to all individuals who get the vaccine, but we know that is not going to be the case, there’s going to be a wide variation in terms of how strong an immune response one might develop against vaccines. Now We know from, not necessarily the COVID vaccine, but the vaccinations that have been used in the past, whether it be flu vaccines or pneumococcal vaccines, that we all get patients with cancer or patients going through treatment for cancer that can suppress the immune system, tend to have a lower response. But again, that varies quite widely from patient to patient now, there are some vaccines where we can clearly look at the antibody response and say, “Oh, this is not adequate, and we need to maybe give an extra shot.”

We just don’t have that information for COVID vaccines yet. So the way I would look at it is, even though the response to the back in a given person might be less than what we eventually would identify to be optimal, it’s likely to be better than not having to see the vaccine, so I would encourage obviously, everybody to get the vaccine. Now, what about someone who has already had an infection, what would be the response? Should we vaccinate those people? We certainly should. Again, we don’t know the immunity from a natural infection, how long would that last? That is still something that is unknown, and the vaccination dose is likely to make the responses more relevant and more durable, so I would recommend the vaccines for everyone. We don’t think one vaccine is any different from another in terms of your underlying cancer or lack thereof. So in terms of assessing for the antibodies, there is no clear guideline in terms of what one should anticipate from  the vaccine, so there is really no way to say, check the antibody, and they can go ahead and get one more dose or you’re fully vaccinated. So I think the bottom line is, get the vaccine, you don’t need to necessarily test for a response, and then we continue with the usual measures for prevention.

Jeff Bushnell:

And so what would you tell the… I guess that’s pretty much the answer to the next question I had. 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:

Yeah, no, I think there’s one other important aspect, Jeff, to that question you just raised, 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 sometime 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.

Mary Leer:

Wow, thank you so much. That’s so helpful. I’m going to shift to vaccine hesitancy. This is an important topic for many. Drug development takes years, sometimes decades. Can you speak to those who might be hesitant about the speed of vaccine development around COVID. I’ve heard this often from other people saying, “Well, they develop this so quickly, how can we trust it?”

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Yeah, no, I think those concerns are quite valid, I think vaccines have always been a very controversial topic and not just COVID vaccination but even for childhood vaccinations. There have been long-standing concerns that some of those vaccinations may be responsible for some of the issues that we see in the children and even in the late adulthood. I think what we really want to get across is, again, taking that question apart, and there are multiple different aspects to it, one is the whole concept of how we created the vaccine so quickly, we kept telling everyone from the time that it started that it takes five to 10 years to develop a good vaccine, and now we have something in a year, so obviously that raises concerns amongst people. I think it’s just a testament to how far technology has come. In the past, we had to isolate the protein and use that protein to develop the immune response, and what has been really unique about the COVID situation has been the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine, both of which uses a new technology called the mRNA-based technology. And this is something that has been developed over the past decade to decade-and-a-half, and I would say this is a platform that was perfect, just waiting for the right opportunity to come along.

And the COVID situation really presented that. And even though it was the speed with which this was developed, is just because the technology has come along so much and we can actually do that, and the second is how fast the clinical trials have been done, and I think that speaks to, again, the infrastructure that they have been developed over the years to rapidly develop and implement a clinical trial. So the clinical trials, both Pfizer and Moderna trials had 40 to 50,000 people enrolled in a quick phase and the community transmission that was happening at a very high rate. We could get these trials done in a very rapid manner, so the patients or the people who enrolled in this clinical trial the fact that they were not getting infected could be determined in a much, much faster fashion than what you would have done in the past with any of the other vaccines. So I think the technology is robust. The [COVID]  trials are very well-conducted and the end point in terms of efficacy has been very well-determined or very accurately determined.  And given the size of these trials and the number of people who have been a goal, I think we can feel fairly confident that the risk associated with this vaccine is pretty low, so you can argue that one of the risk of a particular side effect is only 1 in 80,000. So maybe to the 40,000 people enroll in the trial, they may not have adequate numbers of that and that was certainly a concern when they started vaccinating. And we just know a couple of days ago, there was a publication that looked at almost like 63 million vaccination doses that have been given, and overall the risk of vaccine related side effects have been very, very minimal.

So I think that should also boost our confidence.

But on the other hand, we all heard about what would happen with some of those vaccines and the blood clots, and I think that even though…yes, it is, as it is a risk. It is a very, very small risk. And the fact that you were able to identify them right away again, I think tells us that should there be rare side effects, you’re going to find it, and we are going to figure out the mechanics of why those side effects happen. And we’re going to figure out how to avoid those things.

So, I think the information flow is so fast and all the data related to vaccines and the side effects are being captured in a real-time fashion that we would be… You’d immediately be of avail of side effects should that happen.

Mary Leer:

Wow, that’s so reassuring. Thank you.

Jeff Bushnell:

Another question kind of along the same lines, doctor is the last few days, especially, it’s Vaccine hesitancy has really become sort of the issue to the potential of achieving herd immunity, and how can everybody in the medical community, you guys are facing those stuff in a different way, but the average person, how can we help overcome hesitancy and increase the people’s trust in the vaccine, and also increase the equitable distribution amongst all populations? Some populations are hesitant to take it, others have distance problems for being able to get it. What can we do to sort of push ourselves over the hill to get to that herd immunity?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Yeah, no, You bring up a very important point, and I hope we are in a much better place than many parts of the world right now because we have one of the few countries where a significant proportion of the people have been vaccinated, but we are not quite at the point where we can claim herd immunity, I think we still need to continue to pursue this, and I think the ideal goal is to get everyone who’s eligible to get a vaccine vaccinated. Now, you bring up some of the very important points, because even though vaccine hesitancy is a real problem, the underlying reason behind this is manifold, and the only way to tackle that is we have a multi-front approach that will take into account what is the reason behind it.

So for the people where it’s hard to get to populations which can live in far from the areas, it may be more the ability to use those vaccines, which does need the complicated storage, for example, the J&J vaccine. You only need one dose. It’s easy to store. So that may be one of the approaches to be taken. And people who believe that this is a vaccine is going to create side effects, or it’s part of some grand scheme to introduce a variety of things. I think it’s a person of education, and I think they really need to tell them what can happen with. Not really just to them, but the fact that if you continue to allow these infections to proceed on stuff, there are going to be increasing numbers of mutations, and that in turn is going to make the pandemic much more difficult to control in the long run. So it’s totally an individual benefit, but it’s on to the society’s benefit to have everyone be vaccinated. And then definitely, I think knowing that should anything unto it happen, there’s going to be medical care that’s going to be available to these individuals, and I think that’s also an important point, so who are near and dear to them is going to be the key thing.

Mary Leer:

Here’s a question many cancer patients are unclear about if antibodies are present or if I have tested positive before, there’s a wondering, “Should I still get the vaccine?”

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Yeah, I know the recommendation right now is to go ahead and get the vaccine, partly because we don’t know the natural immunity from the infection, how long does it last. So it seems like the antibodies can start to wane off the infection. And again, we don’t have a lot of data on it, but it looks 3 to 6 months, it might start waning at least to the level that they can detect. Now, whether that is sufficient or even the undetectable levels is protective against a future infection, we don’t know. There have been some reports of people getting a second infection even though they have been infected before again, scattered reports, we don’t know how widespread that phenomenon is going to be, so given all these, I think the current recommendation would be to go ahead and get vaccinated. We generally tell people to wait for two to three months after the infection to go ahead with the vaccination.

Mary Leer:

Alright, thank you

Jeff Bushnell:

Should people… Is the idea of pre-screening, especially for cancer patients, maybe who may be at risk, I guess, to see whether they have antibodies or whatever, be an effective thing to decide which vaccine they should get? or I know, as I say, I was in the trial and they were very forthcoming to the participants with what the numbers were, and I was flabbergasted at how effective the vaccine was, it was just amazing to me, and that kind of information that I guess is not available publicly maybe it should be. Does it help to decide which vaccine you get? All I hear on the TV is get the first one you can. What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Yeah, no, I completely agree with you. I think even those numbers may mean… You look at the Moderna and the Pfizer trials, and they said, now over 90 percent effective. Look at the AstraZeneca trials, you know, it’s like they recorded 70 to 80, 85 percent, and the J&J about 80 to 90 percent effective. Do these numbers mean much? It’s really hard to know, I think, partly because they have been tested in, again, different countries, different times, as the virus was continually changing its characteristics. So it does it mean… So one could argue that maybe the vaccines that were tested later on when this will be some of the mutants were already there might be more effective, but we don’t know.

I think at the end of the day, 80 versus 90 is not something we would decide a vaccine on. The fact that, yes, if something was only 10 percent effective versus 90 percent, it’s a probably different story. So based on the numbers we have seen, I would say whatever you can get to first, if you don’t want to get jabbed twice, maybe you go with something that goes, it’s only one dose, but that may be the only distinguishing factor here, but nevertheless, I think we have to just get the vaccination, the first vaccine that we can get our hands on.

Mary Leer:

So let’s hope there is some good that comes from the bad. Are there any noticeable trends born out of the pandemic that will be or could be a benefit to the future of cancer care or research?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Mary, That’s a very important question, and I think we always learn from adversity, and I think this is going to be no different. I think, especially when the pandemic hit back in the spring of last year, we all had to think fast on our feet to figure out how best to continue to tell about the best care for the cancer patients without compromising the care in any way. And we knew that bringing the patients back into the clinic at the same rate we did before the pandemic would expose them to significant risk for infection, so how do we continue with treatment? There have been very different things people have tried…one of them is to try and get the medications to patients at home. If they are on IV medications, they can be changed to something that’s comparable that can be given by mouth. We already did that for some patients. For some patients who used to come to the clinic very often, so we figure out is there a way for them to get some of those testing done in a clinic much closer to home, so they can avoid the travel, they can avoid being in a bigger city, they can avoid being in a bigger institution, again, reducing the risk of exposure, and then you look at those numbers and then decide on the next course of treatment. We converted many of the clinic visits to video visits. Nothing is as good as having the patient right in front of you, but this is the best we could do under the circumstances.

And I think that helped. So I think the clinical trials was a big problem because in many of those trials were done in a very rigid fashion with very little variability allowed within the protocols. And everybody loosened from the clinical trial sponsors, the pharmaceutical companies, the institutional review board, the investigators to try and build flexibility into those clinical trial structures to allow patients to continue to be on those trials, many of which are important and both helping. So what does that mean for the future? I think the video visits are here to stay, I think we will continue to utilize that and bring patients back to the clinic only when it’s absolutely needed. I think the clinical trials will have in-built flexibility so that patients can enroll on clinical trials remotely, they can potentially be given some of those medications at home, maybe it would be something where we would check into the patients on a regular basis to make sure things are proceeding in the right way. I think there are increasingly technologies that will allow the patients to communicate in real time with the care team and also provide many of the data that we need through iPads or iPhones, Apple watches, whatever we end up using.

So that is that I think that technology will rapidly take off in the next few years, I think. So I think a lot of the care of the patients with cancer in general, and particularly cancer patients, I think is going to look very different five years from now, because of all these things that we have always thought of and we thought, “Yeah it will take time to implement, it’s difficult.” Now we figure it out in a year. We can do a lot of those things.

Mary Leer:

Yeah, thank you.

Jeff Bushnell:

For the final question, you’ve given tremendous information here, Dr. Kumar w What’s the final takeaway for the average cancer patient and caregiver, how to get through this? What’s your bottom line for us all?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Bottomline is, I think Your cancer treatment comes first, let’s not compromise on it, let us do it as safe as we can by observing all the instructions in terms of social distancing, masking, avoiding gatherings, getting vaccinated, and make sure you keep connected with your care team. You don’t have to be in the clinic to do that. There’s a variety of different tools, I think every hospital has options to either through their medical records to message their care team, or set up video visits and so forth.

So we want to be in a state where it was before the pandemic in terms of your communications, but use the technology, so we can decrease the risk of exposure without compromising the quality of care.

Mary Leer:

Alright, well, thank you so much, Dr. Kumar, that you have just given us such valuable information, and I want to thank Jeff as well, and the Patient Empowerment Network for putting this together.

Jeff Bushnell:

Thank you, Dr. Kumar, appreciate it.

Dr. Kumar:

Thank you, Jeff.

How to Regain Self-Esteem and Body Confidence After Cancer Treatment

Getting through cancer treatment is a huge accomplishment. The moment you’re finished with your final session, it can feel like you’re on cloud nine. You’ve done something incredible.

Unfortunately, it may not take long for those positive feelings to waver.

Cancer treatments are often intense and can cause noticeable changes to your body. While those changes are necessary to fight back against the disease, many can linger once treatment is done. That can leave you with low self-esteem. You might even start to struggle with mental health conditions like depression or anxiety1.

Whether it’s healing from major surgery, dealing with hair loss, weight fluctuations, or a change in your sex drive, it’s not uncommon for the after-effects of cancer treatment to make you see yourself differently.

So, how can you regain confidence in your body after your treatment journey is over?

Common Body Image Issues

Going through cancer treatment can make you feel strong on the inside, but lose confidence in your external appearance. Because both the disease and treatment can cause your body to change, it’s not uncommon for your physical appearance to affect your self-esteem.

If you’re feeling “off” after your treatment or you’re struggling with your self-confidence, it could be the result of how you see yourself when you look in the mirror. Some of the most common signs of body image issues are:

  • Your feelings about your body are affecting other areas of your life
  • You speak negatively/harshly about your image
  • You avoid seeing your own image as much as possible
  • You obsessively try to change your image with makeup/grooming

Unfortunately, we’re currently living in a period that makes it harder than ever to avoid your own image. If you’re working remotely, for example, you might be one of the 300 million people logging into Zoom meetings every day2.

The current remote culture has created some self-esteem issues of its own. Working from home can be beneficial for patients going through treatment or those in recovery. But, it’s not without its potential drawbacks.

Problems like Zoom fatigue and Zoom dysmorphia have come to the forefront for many people. Zoom dysmorphia, for example, is a condition that causes someone to develop self-image issues from looking at themselves on a screen. When you’re on Zoom meetings all day, it’s easy to start nitpicking your flaws or seeing things that others wouldn’t even notice. If you’ve recently gone through cancer treatment and are already dealing with body image issues, seeing a pixelated version of yourself on a screen can make matters worse.

So, what can you do if you’re struggling with any of these problems?

Explore Your Emotions

You might feel negative about having a negative image of yourself. After all, you just went through something life-changing and came out on the other side. But, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is ignoring how you really feel. By shoving your feelings aside, you’re putting yourself at risk for them to “bubble up” and explode later.

Instead, accept how you’re feeling. Accept the loss you’ve experienced when it comes to the way you used to look. It’s okay to feel sad or frustrated. It’s okay to grieve.

Once you’ve worked through those feelings, you can attempt to shift your mindset. Focus on the things you’ve been through and how they have made you stronger. What have you gained from this experience, and how have you changed positively?

If you’re having a difficult time focusing on the brighter side, lean on your support system. That can include:

  • Family members
  • Friends
  • Doctors
  • Support groups
  • Online forums

You can even talk to other cancer patients for advice about self-image3. The important thing is to remember you’re not alone. You undoubtedly had support with you throughout your treatment. That doesn’t just disappear because you’re cancer-free. Keep leaning on that support for help with your mental health and advice on how to keep moving forward.

Focus On What You Can Change

When it comes to your physical appearance, there are things you can and can’t control.  For example, if you lost your hair during treatment, you can’t make it grow back any faster. But, you can opt for a wig, or choose to wear hats when out in public. If your skin became dull and dry, you can’t change it overnight. But, you can use creams and lotions to bring back hydration and elasticity. If you experienced weight loss, you can purchase clothes that fit better for now, and work on slowly regaining the weight over time.

By focusing on the things you can control, you’re less likely to get frustrated. Most image issues you’ll face after cancer treatment are temporary. It may take a long time to get back to normal. But, you can take comfort in knowing most of them aren’t permanent.

When it comes to physical issues like surgery scars, they will typically fade over time, too. You can help that process with different creams and body butter. But, it’s okay to accept the fact that you may always have a scar or two. Instead of looking at those scars as something “ugly” or embarrassing, consider the fact that you get to stand there and see them. You made it through something that not everyone else gets to. A surgery scar is a sign of strength and victory.

In addition to changing what you can and accepting what you can’t, regaining confidence can come from leading a healthy life. Practice self-care every day. Develop healthy habits that make you feel good about yourself, inside and out. Get enough sleep, work out if you feel strong enough, and take time to relax each day.

Your body has been through a lot. While it’s understandable to feel self-conscious at first, realizing what it’s done for you can make you more accepting and willing to love yourself again.


Sources:

  1. Cancer patients left to cope with mental health problems alone
  2. Zoom User Stats: How Many People Use Zoom in 2021?
  3. Self-Image, Sexuality, and Cancer

Cancer-Related Depression: What You Should Know

An overwhelming 40 percent of people are projected to experience cancer at some point in their lifetime and of those patients, over 10 percent will suffer from depression related to their illness. There are a variety of reasons a person’s mental health can be impacted by cancer. Common factors are if the cancer is terminal or invasive, feeling a lack of autonomy or control over one’s life, feelings of guilt or shame for behaviors associated with cancer like smoking, loss of identity resulting from weakness, appearance changes, or loss of friends or a job.

The mental health of cancer patients is often less considered, but its impact on the progression of cancer is strongly considered by doctors, with over 70 percent of oncologists believing that mood affects the progression of cancer.

Wherever you are in your journey with cancer –– if you were recently diagnosed, if you’re a caregiver, relative, or friend of a patient, or if it is a long part of your past –– it’s important to consider mental, not just physical, health. Even cancer survivors can develop depression after they are declared cancer-free. Fear of recurrence, permanent changes to the body and overall health, and lack of community or understanding take a huge mental toll on patients.

For a variety of reasons, it’s important to recognize symptoms of depression in yourself or loved ones who live with cancer. Keep reading to explore methods of acknowledging and alleviating depression related to cancer.

Common symptoms to look out for:

  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Irritability
  • Frequent crying
  • Lack of motivation
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Sleep changes
  • Fatigue
  • Appetite loss
  • Decreased libido

Methods of coping

Get professional help

As with any serious mental health issue, it is best to see a mental health professional. A mental health professional such as a therapist or a psychiatrist can help you view your mental health holistically, not just in the context of cancer, and help determine triggers and various treatment plans individualized for each patient.

Although cancer patients may feel overwhelmed with doctor’s appointments, there are increasingly more flexible options like online psychiatry services that incorporate treatments like talk therapy with the option to prescribe an antidepressant if needed.

Surround yourself with community

Feeling supported by friends and family in difficult times is extremely important for one’s well being. In fact, it has been found that a lack of friendship is a major diagnostic criterion for a variety of mental health issues.

If you have lacked friendships or support in the past, cancer may be an opportunity to bond with those with similar experiences. There are often a variety of cancer support groups associated with charities and hospitals that help cancer patients establish community and social assistance. Some even organize retreats and wellness clinics so it is worth looking into the resources available to you. Your oncologist, for example, may be able to point you in the right direction.

If you find it difficult to keep up with your friendships, or if you lack the energy to socialize in a way that feels comfortable, pets are also found to be extremely therapeutic in the way that they provide a sort of social support. For example, dogs can provide a sense of companionship and help lower stress levels by increasing “feel-good” hormones like oxytocin in their owners. Pets like dogs even help promote a healthy lifestyle by walking them and helping their owners socialize with other dog owners at places like a dog park. This is an especially beneficial option for introverted individuals.

Make an effort to laugh

Laughter is also therapeutic, and luckily also extremely accessible. Whether it be with family and friends or by watching a comedy on Netflix, laughter can counterbalance the somberness of cancer treatment and recovery. Laughter is even considered a serious treatment for stress and depression in the medical community. However, it’s not something that can be prescribed, it has to be actively sought.

Be aware of the content you’re consuming and ask yourself whether it lightens or dampens your mood. When you pick a movie to watch or a book to read, if not a comedy try and choose something lighthearted. Ask your family and friends to send you pictures of their pets or funny videos. Go after whatever makes you happy and promotes laughter in your life!

It is completely natural to experience overwhelming emotions and even develop depression while experiencing, and even long after, cancer. Cancer is not only a diagnosis but an experience that changes nearly all aspects of a person’s life. Whether it be you yourself or a close friend or family member, it is important to recognize not just the physical, but the mental health implications of cancer. There are many ways to support someone who is experiencing cancer-related depression. Try experimenting with different options to see what works for you.