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Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Essential Myeloma Testing

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Essential Myeloma Testing from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Being empowered to speak up about your myeloma care is not only important but essential. Dr. Saad Usmani, a myeloma expert, shares advice for partnering with your doctor and provides key questions to ask about myeloma test results.

Dr. Saad Usmani is the Chief of Myeloma Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Learn more about Dr. Usmani, here.

See More From INSIST! Myeloma


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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

If patients are concerned about voicing their concerns and I think many of us are, why should they feel like they’re a partner in their care?

Dr. Usmani:

Well, that’s the only way that they will feel empowered. And we have to remember why we’re doing this, right? So, we’re doing this so that we can alleviate the burden of this disease from our patients and give them as good of quality of life as possible. And it’s a partnership. And in that partnership, the patient is the most important partner. Everyone else – it’s like you’re the main character.

The patient’s the main character in the movie. And all of us are supporting cast around them. I think that’s how you have to approach it. That’s how – that’s why it’s very important. And of course, patients – we’re not expecting our patients to read the papers and be knowledgeable about everything. But have a general sense of what to expect and it will be – so, having a more educated patient helps them deal with treatments better and have realistic expectations of what’s to come.

Katherine Banwell:

Right. As I mentioned at the start of this program, Dr. Usmani, patients should insist on essential myeloma testing prior to choosing a treatment. As we conclude, I think it’s important to point out that some patients may not know if that can even receive these important tests. So, what key question should they ask their physician about them?

Dr. Usmani:

So, you should be asking your physician about what kind of myeloma you have? What stage of myeloma you have? How much involvement in the bones you have? Do you have any chromosome abnormalities or any features of disease that put you at a higher chance of the myeloma coming back?

As you ask these questions, your physician will be prompted to think about “Okay. Am I missing something in my work?” And you can always ask is there anything else you need to do in terms of testing to give you a better idea of how best to approach my treatment and follow-up. 

Which Tests Are Essential to Diagnose and Treat Myeloma?

Which Tests Are Essential to Diagnose and Treat Myeloma? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Several tests follow a myeloma diagnosis and continue throughout one’s care. Myeloma expert Dr. Saad Usmani provides an overview of these essential tests, including blood tests and cytogenetics, and how the results impact overall treatment options.

Dr. Saad Usmani is the Chief of Myeloma Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Learn more about Dr. Usmani, here.

See More From INSIST! Myeloma


Related Programs:

How Is Minimal Residual Disease (MRD) Testing Used in Myeloma Care_

How Is Minimal Residual Disease (MRD) Testing Used in Myeloma Care? 

How Are Cytogenetics Used in Myeloma Care_

How Are Cytogenetics Used in Myeloma Care?

What Should You Ask Your Doctor About Myeloma Testing_

What Should You Ask Your Doctor About Myeloma Testing?


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

What tests are necessary to help understand a patient’s specific disease both at diagnosis and prior to treatment?

Dr. Usmani:

So, the testing includes – what’s the objective of testing – we do tests to help diagnosis to assess how much of cancer we’re dealing with and then what kind of cancer we’re dealing with. Even within a given cancer, how much cancer you have and what kind you have is important. Folks can have a little bit of cancer in terms of burden. But it can be aggressive in its nature. So, you can have King Kong at your door, or it could be the green giant just trying to serve up veggies. Whereas King Kong will bite your head off.

So, with that in mind, there are things that we do such as blood tests to see effects on blood counts, kidneys, liver. We also do certain blood tests to identify what kind of multiple myeloma a patient may have as an example. So, the kind of myeloma protein they’re secreting. The kind of light chain they’re secreting. Then urine tests are done to see if there are any proteins that are leaking through the kidneys if there is kidney damage. Then bone marrow biopsy to a) look at how much myeloma and b) what kind by specific testing that we do on the bone marrow biopsy. And then imaging to see what parts of the bone’s affected.

Katherine Banwell:

Great. I’m assuming that these tests will help with the opening of the stages of myeloma.

So, how is myeloma staged?

Dr. Usmani:

So, the staging of myeloma is still a work in progress. The reason why I say that is we have a good way of accessing how much myeloma a patient may have. But if we don’t combine it well with what kind or how aggressive it may be. So, staging in myeloma relies on two blood tests that are serum albumin and serum beta-2 macroglobulin.

And they help us give a good assessment of how much myeloma patients have. And maybe a little bit of information about whether patients may have a bit more aggressive kind. But then you overlay that with cytogenetic information from the myeloma cells that are from the biopsy as well as another blood test called LDH.

If patients have any of the quote unquote high-risk features, they are – along with a high level of beta-2 microglobulin, you stage them as stage 3. If they don’t have them, they’re stage 1. If they have some of the features, they’re kind of in between in stage 2. And that’s how we stage multiple myeloma.

Katherine Banwell:

You mentioned cytogenetics. What testing is involved in that?

Dr. Usmani:

So, bone marrow biopsy – it’s very broad. But there are two parts to it.

One part is getting the bone marrow aspirated where we insert a needle into the pelvic bone and get parts of the bone marrow – the blood inside the bones out. And look at how much percentage of plasma cells are there. What kind of surface markers or features they have.

And then we look at if those cancer cells have any chromosome abnormalities that are unique to myeloma. And some chromosome abnormalities can be high-risk.

What does high-risk mean? High-risk means if you treat patients in a certain fashion, they have a higher chance of relapsing or a higher chance of the myeloma coming back out of remission. So, we identify those features by way of looking at cytogenetics. And there are different techniques in which we can take a look at that.

Katherine Banwell:

And what are those techniques? There’s something called FISH, right?

Dr. Usmani:

Yes.

Katherine Banwell:

And flow cytometry and also next generation sequencing?

Dr. Usmani:

Yes. So, and there is also conventional cytogenetics. So, flow cytometry looks at the different proteins that are part of the surface of any cell – any blood cell for that matter. It could also be any other cell as well, not just blood cells.

But in this particular case when we do flow on the blood marrow aspirate, we’re looking for unique features of those myeloma cells. But that does not tell us anything about the chromosomes. Conventional cytogenetics is the old fashion way. It’s a 40 – 50-year-old technique in which you make the cells in a test tube. You make those cells go through cell division. Each human cell has 46 chromosomes or 23 pairs. And when the cells are dividing, those chromosomes kind of line up in the center.

And the old fashion technique of conventional cytogenetics was take a look at the cells when those cells – when the chromosomes are aligned, and see if some parts of the chromosomes are missing or one chunk of one chromosome has attached to the other. That’s the old fashion way. The FISH technique, what it does is it’s geared toward identifying specific abnormalities.

And one part of that particular protein or molecule that goes and attaches to that chromosome has a color-coded probe. So, you can see within a cell different colors light up. And based on those unique features, you can identify “Okay. This cell over here is missing a part of chromosome 17. Or this part of chromosome 14 is attached to chromosome 4.” That’s FISH. So, FISH is very specific. Conventional cytogenetics is not. Next-generation sequencing, there are – that’s a broad term.

You can measure different types of nucleic acids: RNA versus DNA. And those different techniques identify specific – they can identify specific mutations in a cancer cell.

So, each of these techniques provide different layers of information for our myeloma patients. 

How Does Essential Testing Affect Myeloma Care and Treatment?

How Does Essential Testing Affect Myeloma Care and Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Why is it important to ask about essential testing for your myeloma? Find out how test results could reveal more about your myeloma and may help determine the most effective care for your individual disease.

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What Should You Ask Your Doctor About Myeloma Testing?


Transcript:

Why should you ask your doctor about essential myeloma testing?

When a patient is diagnosed with myeloma, they typically undergo a series of tests that aid in diagnosing and staging their individual disease. The standard tests include:

  • Blood Test
  • Urine Test
  • Bone Marrow Biopsy, and
  • Imaging

As research in the field evolves, genetic profiling via more in-depth cytogenetic testing is increasingly common to further classify your myeloma. This testing often identifies unique biomarkers of the myeloma, such as translocations or changes in chromosomes.

So why do the results of these tests matter?

  • The presence of certain biomarkers can indicate a patient is low-risk, which can suggest a more positive prognosis.
  • There are certain biomarkers that indicate high-risk myeloma, meaning an aggressive treatment approach may be more effective.

Knowing your risk in myeloma is useful to your healthcare team when choosing a treatment approach or may help in determining if a clinical trial might be right for you.

How can you Insist on the best care for YOUR myeloma?

  • First, always speak up and ask questions. Remember, you have a voice in YOUR myeloma care. Your doctor is expecting you to ask questions and should be able to answer them.
  • Ask your doctor if you have had or will receive genetic testing for risk stratification and how the results may impact your care and treatment plan. Be sure to ask for paper or electronic copies of your important test results.
  • And finally, bring a friend or a loved one to your appointments to help you process information and to take notes.

To learn more about your myeloma and access tools for self-advocacy, visit powerfulpatients.org/myeloma 

Which Tests Do You Need Before Choosing a Lung Cancer Treatment?

Which Tests Do You Need Before Choosing a Lung Cancer Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Why is it important to ask about biomarker testing for your lung cancer? Find out how test results could reveal more about your lung cancer and may help determine the most effective treatment approach for your individual disease.

See More From INSIST! Lung Cancer

Related Resources:

Accessing Personalized Treatment for Lung Cancer

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What Are the Advantages of Newer Lung Cancer Treatment Approaches?


Transcript:

Why should you ask your doctor about biomarker testing?

Biomarker testing, sometimes referred to as molecular testing or genetic testing, identifies specific gene mutations, proteins, chromosomal abnormalities, and/or other molecular changes that are unique to YOU and YOUR lung cancer.

The analysis is performed by testing the tumor tissue or by testing tumor DNA extracted from blood to identify unique characteristics of the cancer itself.

So why do the test results matter?

The test results may predict how your lung cancer will behave and could indicate that one type of treatment may be more effective than another.

In some cases, biomarkers can indicate that a newer approach, such as targeted therapy or immunotherapy, may work better for you.

Common mutations associated with lung cancer include the EGFR, ALK, ROS1, BRAF, TP53 and KRAS genes, among others. In some cases, there are inhibitor therapies that target specific mutations. For example, if the EGFR mutation is detected, it may mean that an EGFR inhibitor, a type of targeted therapy, may work well for your type of lung cancer.

Another common biomarker associated with lung cancer is PD-L1. PD-L1 is a receptor expressed on the surface of tumor cells. The presence of PD-L1 indicates that a lung cancer patient may respond well to immunotherapy.

The results could also show that your cancer has a mutation or marker that may prevent a certain therapy from being effective, sparing you from getting a treatment that won’t work well for you.

Identification of biomarkers may also help you to find a clinical trial that may be appropriate for your particular cancer.

How can you insist on the best lung cancer care?

  • First, bring a friend or a loved one to your appointments to help you process and recall information.
  • Before you begin treatment, ensure you have had biomarker testing. Talk with your doctor about the results and how they may impact your care and treatment plan.
  • Finally, always speak up and ask questions. Remember, you have a voice in YOUR lung cancer care.

To learn more about lung cancer and to access tools for self-advocacy, visit powerfulpatients.org/lungcancer.

Which Myeloma Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know

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

What should you know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR myeloma? Myeloma expert Dr. Saad Usmani reviews essential testing that may help guide treatment decisions, and discusses the impact of risk stratification on myeloma care. Dr. Usmani also provides an overview of treatments in development, the importance of clinical trials, and shares why he’s hopeful about the future of myeloma research.

Dr. Saad Usmani is the Chief of Myeloma Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Learn more about Dr. Usmani, here.

Download Guide

See More From INSIST! Myeloma

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Essential Tests & Imaging After a Myeloma Diagnosis

Lab Tests in Myeloma: Key Results to Monitor

Myeloma Targeted Therapy: Why Identifying Chromosomal Abnormalities is Key


Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello. And welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today, we’re going to discuss how to access the most personalized care for your myeloma and why you should insist on essential testing. Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Okay. Let’s met our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Saad Usmani. Dr. Usmani, would you introduce yourself please?

Dr. Usmani:

Certainly. Thank you for inviting me, Katherine. I’m Saad Usmani. I’m the incoming chief of myeloma at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Katherine:

Excellent. Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to join us today. Before we delve into the discussion, let’s start by defining a term that we’re hearing more frequently. What is personalized medicine?

Dr. Usmani:

Personalized medicine is a fancy term to examine different aspects of a patient’s health outside of their cancer diagnosis. And also, the cancer itself – factors that are associated with good response to treatment or an early relapse from treatment. So, it’s a holistic kind of an approach that looks at all of these factors together. Also, looks at the patient’s mental and social well-being and comes up with a game plan for them.

So, I would probably divide the various factors that kind of come into play with the personalized medicine or personalized approach to cancer treatment by taking into account factors that are patient-related, factors that are cancer- or disease-related, and then factors that are related to treatments that they maybe receiving.

So, these three kinds of combined together to form a plan that is unique to that individual patient.

Katherine:

Right. What tests are necessary to help understand a patient’s specific disease both at diagnosis and prior to treatment?

Dr. Usmani:

So, the testing includes – what’s the objective of testing – we do tests to help in diagnosis to assess how much of cancer we’re dealing with and then what kind of cancer we’re dealing with. Even within a given cancer, how much cancer you have and what kind you have is important. Folks can have a little bit of cancer in

terms of burden. But it can be aggressive in its nature. So, you can have King Kong at your door, or it could be the green giant just trying to serve up veggies. Whereas King Kong will bite your head off.

So, with that in mind, there are things that we do such as blood tests to see effects on blood counts, kidneys, liver. We also do certain blood tests to identify what kind of multiple myeloma a patient may have as an example. So, the kind of myeloma protein they’re secreting. The kind of light chain they’re secreting. Then urine tests are done to see if there are any proteins that are leaking through the kidneys if there is kidney damage. Then bone marrow biopsy to a) look at how much myeloma and b) what kind by specific testing that we do on the bone marrow biopsy. And then imaging to see what parts of the bone’s affected.

Katherine:

Great. I’m assuming that these tests will help with the opening of the stages of myeloma.

So, how is myeloma staged?

Dr. Usmani:

So, the staging of myeloma is still a work in progress. The reason why I say that is we have a good way of accessing how much myeloma a patient may have. But if we don’t combine it well with what kind or how aggressive it may be. So, staging in myeloma relies on two blood tests that are serum albumin and serum beta-2 macroglobulin.

And they help us give a good assessment of how much myeloma patients have. And maybe a little bit of information about whether patients may have a bit more aggressive kind. But then you overlay that with cytogenetic information from the myeloma cells that are from the biopsy as well as another blood test called LDH.

If patients have any of the quote unquote high risk features, they are – along with a high level of beta 2 microglobulin, you stage them as stage three. If they don’t have them, they’re stage one. If they have some of the features, they’re kind of in between in stage two. And that’s how we stage multiple myeloma.

Katherine:

You mentioned cytogenetics. What testing is involved in that?

Dr. Usmani:

So, bone marrow biopsy – it’s very broad. But there are two parts to it.

One part is getting the bone marrow aspirated where we insert a needle into the pelvic bone and get parts of the bone marrow – the blood inside the bones out. And look at how much percentage of plasma cells are there. What kind of surface markers or features they have.

And then we look at if those cancer cells have any chromosome abnormalities that are unique to myeloma. And some chromosome abnormalities can be high-risk.

What does high-risk mean? High-risk means if you treat patients in a certain fashion, they have a higher chance of relapsing or a higher chance of the myeloma coming back out of remission. So, we identify those features by way of looking at cytogenetics. And there are different techniques in which we can take a look at that.

Katherine:

And what are those techniques? There’s something called FISH, right?

Dr. Usmani:

Yes.

Katherine:

And flow cytometry and also next generation sequencing?

Dr. Usmani:

Yes. So, and there is also conventional cytogenetics. So, flow cytometry looks at the different proteins that are part of the surface of any cell – any blood cell for that matter. It could also be any other cell as well, not just blood cells.

But in this particular case when we do flow on the blood marrow aspirate, we’re looking for unique features of those myeloma cells. But that does not tell us anything about the chromosomes. Conventional cytogenetics is the old fashion way. It’s a 40 – 50-year-old technique in which you make the cells in a test tube. You make those cells go through cell division. Each human cell has 46 chromosomes or 23 pairs. And when the cells are dividing, those chromosomes kind of line up in the center.

And the old fashion technique of conventional cytogenetics was take a look at the cells when those cells – when the chromosomes are aligned, and see if some parts of the chromosomes are missing or one chunk of one chromosome has attached to the other. That’s the old fashion way. The FISH technique, what it does is it’s geared toward identifying specific abnormalities.

And one part of that particular protein or molecule that goes and attaches to that chromosome has a color-coded probe. So, you can see within a cell different colors light up. And based on those unique features, you can identify “Okay. This cell over here is missing a part of chromosome 17. Or this part of chromosome 14 is attached to chromosome 4.” That’s FISH. So, FISH is very specific. Conventional cytogenetics is not. Next-generation sequencing, there are – that’s a broad term. You can measure different types of nucleic acids: RNA versus DNA. And those different techniques identify specific – they can identify specific mutations in a cancer cell.

So, each of these techniques provide different layers of information for our myeloma patients.

Katherine:

Thank you for that explanation. I appreciate it. How can the results of these tests affect prognosis and treatment?

Dr. Usmani:

So, currently for the most part, we’re treating myeloma patients in a similar fashion. Except for some tweaking based on these quote unquote high-risk features. So, there are certain chromosomes abnormalities that tell us that a patient has a higher chance of relapsing early even if they get the standard of care treatment. So, we try to enroll those patients into a clinical trial or have better optimization of their induction treatment and their maintenance strategy.

So, identifying these high-risk abnormalities is important because our treatment decisions may be modified for that patient’s disease. Or we might be able to get them to a clinical trial sooner than later.

Katherine:

Right. What is risk stratification? And how is it used in patient care?

Dr. Usmani:

So, risk stratification helps us identify people who are going to do well in terms of getting to a good response and maintaining that response and maintaining being progression free or being disease free versus those folks who maybe relapsing sooner. And that’s called risk stratification. So, you are essentially identifying and dividing patients into two different buckets saying, “All right. I have to pay attention to this person a bit more because they can relapse soon. So, I’m going to be keeping an eye on their labs and such very much, much closely.”

Katherine:

Let’s talk about therapy for myeloma patients. How are low-risk patients treated?

Dr. Usmani:

So, typically, the low or standard risk patients are treated with at least a three-drug induction treatment at the time of diagnosis. Or sometimes with four-drugs if you combine an antibody treatment. There are various regimens but the standard of care is at least three drugs. Then for patients who may be eligible for a stem cell transplant, they go on to receive autologus stem cell transplant.

Once they’ve recovered from the stem cell transplant, they go on to maintenance treatment.

And the idea is that the induction along with stem cell transplant for those patients who are eligible gets patients to as deep as a response as possible. And the concept of maintenance is you maintain them in that response and delay the disease from coming back.

Katherine:

Right. And then what about high-risk patients? How are they treated?

Dr. Usmani:

So, for high-risk patients, we typically prefer using a four-drug regimen. Either daratumumab (Daralex) RVd or carfilzomib (Kyprolis) with len dex or KRd as induction treatment for high-risk patients. After the stem cell transplant, most patients would continue both the lenalidomide as maintenance along with the proteasome inhibitor. If f patients had low or standard risk disease, they would only be getting lenalidomide as maintenance. So, here for high-risk patients, you’re adding a proteasome inhibitor.

Katherine:

Right. I see. Okay. And where do clinical trials fit into treatment?

Dr. Usmani:

So, as a clinical researcher, I’m a big proponent of telling my patients that if there’s a clinical trial that’s available to you, it doesn’t matter which stage of disease you’re at. Whether you’re newly diagnosed, or another myeloma has come back. Consider a clinical trial as your first and best option. Talk to physicians about both the standard of care options as well as clinical trial options.

Most clinical trials in myeloma are not someone getting treatment and the other person not getting anything. The trials that we’re doing, patients are getting at the very least the standard of care treatment. So, I would say that the – yeah. I mean, the clinical trials end up being the best option for majority of patients instead of standard of care.

Katherine:

Who is stem cell transplant right for?

Dr. Usmani:

So, stem cell transplant are kind of a misnomer. There is nothing magical about getting your own – collecting your stem cells and giving them back to you. I think the stems cells are – the way that – what they’re really doing is helping the patients bone marrow recover from the melphalan chemotherapy that’s given as part of the stem cell transplant because it’s melphalan, which was our first anti-myeloma medicine discovered back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. That has been a mainstay of treatment of myeloma for six, seven decades now.

But if you give high doses of melphalan, there’s certain side effects. It can damage the stem cells and delay blood count recovery. So, that’s why patients get stem cells. So, in the body of evidence we have, most myeloma patients would be eligible for a stem cell transplant either at the time of diagnosis or if they decide to collect their stem cells and hold it back for the first relapse. That would be the other setting. But age is not a barrier. It’s more about how fit a patient is. And this is where a comprehensive myeloma geriatric assessment becomes important because an eyeball test is not good enough. You need to have more complex assessment of patients. So –

Katherine:

So, this is looking at comorbidities.

Dr. Usmani:

It is looking at comorbidities.

It’s looking at performance status. It’s looking at cardiopulmonary reserve. It’s looking at cognition and mental health as well. So, all of those factors. And obviously besides that, if you don’t have good social support, then going through a stem cell transplant becomes a challenge as well. So, there’s all these factors that kind of come into play together.

Katherine:

Yeah. Dr. Usmani, how is immunotherapy advancing in this field?

Dr. Usmani:

I think that’s the big area of research and clinical therapeutics over the past five or six years is immunotherapies. And it’s a broad umbrella. There are a few things that kind of fall under it – under that category.

So, it includes antibody-based treatments, includes CAR T-cell therapies. Yeah. I mean, it’s a very active area. Again, we can have a one-day seminar just talking about all the advances that are happening in that specific space. But that’s the new frontier. I think that’s the immunotherapies play a big role in finding a cure for myeloma.

Katherine:

You mentioned CAR T-cell therapy. Is it showing a lot of promise in myeloma care and treatment?

Dr. Usmani:

It is in the relapse refractory as in the advance refractory patients as well as in early relapse patients. And we are just starting to do clinical trials in newly diagnosed, high-risk patients. So, yes. It’s showing good promise. One advantage of CAR T-cell therapy is once you get the CAR T-cell therapy, it’s a one and done deal.

You just get CAR T-cell therapy and there’s no maintenance. So, patients really enjoyed that part of being off of therapy. They go into remission and then they don’t have to take anything for months or even a few years. So, I think that’s the biggest excitement about CAR Ts.

Katherine:

Yeah. Once a patient begins therapy, how do you monitor whether a treatment is working?

Dr. Usmani:

So, as part of the diagnostic work up, we typically have identified in the blood using serum protein electrophoresis and serum free light chains. What kind of myeloma proteins these – that particular patient’s myeloma cells are making. And we can monitor them every cycle of treatment. So, every three or four weeks.

And that’s the most noninvasive way of seeing if the treatment is working. The second obviously important thing is if someone has symptoms. If they have kidney damage, if they have bone pain, all of those things start improving as you’re getting treatment. And then in some patients, we’re also looking at imaging like PET CT scans at certain time points. And at some point, we do also look at the bone marrow biopsies to see what’s really going on in the factory.

Katherine:

We often hear the term MRD, or minimal residual disease used in the myeloma space. So, what is it exactly and how is it used in patient care?

Dr. Usmani:

So, minimal residual disease is a way to measure how much myeloma is left over in a given patient.

And historically, we were simply looking at the serum proteins and the light chain levels along with just the morphology of the bone marrow to see if – kind of determine a response. But we can have a much deeper assessment of how many cancer cells as a leftover from a bone marrow biopsy by different measurements. Someone can be in a complete response with M-Spike is gone. The light chains have normalized.

Yet they can still have 10,000 – 100,000 myeloma cells still in the bone marrow. And just using the bone marrow biopsy the way that we used to, we won’t be able to see them. We’ll just see, “Oh, these look like normal plasma cells.” So, using next generation sequencing and flow cytometry, we can look at normal myeloma cells at a very deep level – one out of one million.

But these tests are highly specialized. And especially the flow cytometry requires a lot of expertise. The NGS requires good sampling at the time of diagnosis as well as subsequent specimen.

Katherine:

Here’s a question we received from a viewer before the program. Mary writes: “I was just diagnosed with MGUS, and I’m obviously very concerned. What should I be looking for and how often should I check in with my doctor?”

Dr. Usmani: That is a very good question. MGUS is a precursor disease to myeloma and other class cell muscle disorders. And based on the original homestead county data from the mayo clinic, if there were 100 folks who had MGUS, one out of 100 every year would – there’d be one percent likelihood of them progressing to myeloma or some other plasma cell disorder.

So, the overall risk say in the next 20 years for a given patient is fairly low. And what we look at when we’re determining how frequently to check the blood or see the patient is the value of that M-spike.

If it’s a high value, if it’s two or three, we’ll be checking the labs more frequently every three months or so. Maybe seeing them every six months for the first year or two. If the M-spike value is very low, it’s one gram or less, we might be just checking labs once or twice a year and seeing patients once a year. But I would highly recommend in addition to seeing your regular hematologist who diagnosed you with this MGUS to do seek an opinion at a myeloma center of excellence.

Katherine:

Okay. If a patient is interested in participating in a clinical trial, what question should they ask their doctor?

Dr. Usmani:

The question that they should ask each time when you’re at that fork is can you please share with me what clinical trial options I have and compare them. Give me more information about “How do they compare with the standard of care treatments that are being offered?” And if you do not have any clinical trial options, would it be worthwhile, to again seek an opinion at a myeloma center of excellence to see if there are clinical trials available.

And in today’s day and age, you can have a virtual consult with a myeloma center of excellence. You don’t have to even go in. You can just chat with an expert on video and see if a clinical trial maybe right for you.

Katherine:

Are there common misconceptions you hear from patients concerning clinical trials?

Dr. Usmani:

Yeah. I think the most common perception patients have is “Oh, I’m going to be used a Guinea pig for something that hasn’t been used in humans before.”

Katherine:

In a human before. Exactly.

Dr. Usmani:

So, most of the clinical trials are not first in human trials. Yes. We do have first in human trials where we are using novel treatments in some instances.

But there is strong rational and safety guardrails built around that. And if you’re participating in a first in human study, it’s highly likely that the other treatments have stopped working and there might not be other options. However, majority of trials that patients end up participating in are getting at least the standard of care treatment. So, I think it’s very clear to kind of communicate this to patients that, “Hey, you are going to be getting a standard of care treatment even if you go on the quote unquote control arm. It’s not that you’re getting placebo.”

So, I think clarifying what the protocol is, giving patients information kind of alleviates some of those concerns. But that’s the most common misconception people have.

Katherine:

If patients are concerned about voicing their concerns and I think many of us are, why should they feel like they’re a partner in their care?

Dr. Usmani:

Well, that’s the only way that they will feel empowered. And we have to remember why we’re doing this, right? So, we’re doing this so that we can alleviate the burden of this disease from our patients and give them as good of quality of life as possible. And it’s a partnership. And in that partnership, the patient is the most important partner. Everyone else – it’s like you’re the main character.

The patient’s the main character in the movie. And all of us are supporting cast around them. I think that’s how you have to approach it. That’s how – that’s why it’s very important. And of course, patients – we’re not expecting our patients to read the papers and be knowledgeable about everything. But have a general sense of what to expect and it will be – so, having a more educated patient helps them deal with treatments better and have realistic expectations of what’s to come.

Katherine:

Right. As I mentioned at the start of this program, Dr. Usmani, patients should insist on essential myeloma testing prior to choosing a treatment. As we conclude, I think it’s important to point out that some patients may not know if that can even receive these important tests. So, what key question should they ask their physician about them?

Dr. Usmani:

So, you should be asking your physician about what kind of myeloma you have? What stage of myeloma you have? How much involvement in the bones you have? Do you have any chromosome abnormalities or any features of disease that put you at a higher chance of the myeloma coming back?

As you ask these questions, your physician will be prompted to think about “Okay. Am I missing something in my work?” And you can always ask is there anything else you need to do in terms of testing to give you a better idea of how best to approach my treatment and follow up.

Katherine:

I’d like to close by asking about developments in myeloma research and treatment.

What’s new that you feel patients should know about?

Dr. Usmani:

Oh, my. We can spend a long time with this answer. I would say that we understand what’s driving myeloma as a disease. We have a better understanding of what’s going on with the rest of the immune system and the bone marrow microenvironment where the myeloma cells live. So, the treatments that are being developed right now are trying to combine different ways in which you can shut the myeloma cell down by targeting those abnormalities or those abnormal pathways. And also, to harness the patient’s immune system to go after the cancer cells. So, combining what we’re calling immunotherapy with small molecule or more cancer directed treatments.

So, I think that’s kind of where the field is headed. And it’s – these are smarter strategies, smarter treatments. And we’re moving away from old fashioned conventional chemotherapies.

Katherine:

Dr. Usmani, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s just been a pleasure.

Dr. Usmani:

It’s been my privilege. Thank you so much for inviting me to this.

Katherine:

Thank you. And thank you to all of our partners.

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

 

How Will You Know if Your Lung Cancer Treatment Is Working?

How Will You Know if Your Lung Cancer Treatment Is Working? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How do lung cancer experts determine if a treatment approach is working? Expert Dr. Heather Wakelee explains how treatment effectiveness is monitored and what should be analyzed when treatments stop working.

Dr. Heather Wakelee is a thoracic medical oncologist and deputy director of the Stanford Cancer Institute where she also serves as the division chief of medical oncology. Learn more about Dr. Wakelee, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

We have a question that we received from an audience member earlier. Jeff asks, “How do you know if your lung cancer treatment is working?”

Dr. Wakelee:

So, there are a lot of ways of knowing if treatment is helping. So, the one I rely on the most is, “Does the patient overall feel better?” That is difficult to say exactly how. Sometimes people are having breathing problems; they feel that that’s better. Sometimes their energy’s lower. They feel better. It can be vague. We also use scans. So, we tend to get scans, depending on the treatment we’re giving, every couple of months plus or minus, sometimes, every three months to help track what’s actually going on. But occasionally, there are discrepancies.

So, sometimes, the scan, is it better? Is it not better? Can’t really tell. And then, you’re always taking that, “How does the patient feel?” So, usually, if the scans are better, the patient feels better. It’s easy. Usually if the patient’s feeling worse and the scan looks worse, clear decision. Not a good one, but clearly, we need to do something different. But sometimes, you’re left, and especially this happens with the first scan because you get a scan, it takes a little while, you start the new treatment, then you get the next scan, how much of the changes happened before you started the new one and how much didn’t? So, these can be more challenging conversations, but generally if the patient’s feeling a little bit better, the scan’s unclear, we usually say, “You know, let’s give this treatment a little bit more time.” We also, I think your question was specifically around how do we tell if it’s working, but you also often need to be thinking about, “Well, what’s it doing that’s negative to the person and is that potential, those side effects worth the benefits we are or are not seeing?”

So, it’s kind of all of those things together. It can be a bit complex.

Katherine:

What goes into the decision to change therapies if it becomes necessary?

Dr. Wakelee:

So, when we’re thinking about making a change, the way I always look at it is, is where we are today still okay or not? And, if it’s not, that would be because clearly the cancer’s growing or clearly the side effects are just not tolerable. Then, we decide together with the patient we need to do something different. And, when we think about what do we do next, we look at what have we’ve already done, did it work or not, if not, let’s do something more different. And so, let’s think about something that might be somewhat similar. When we’re dealing with targeted therapies, we have ways to try to figure out what changed in the tumor that made it now resistant or not working with that treatment.

And so, with some of the pill drugs, there’s been a lot of research and understanding how does the tumor change that helps it evade, get away from, be resistant to whatever treatment you’re on.

And then, sometimes, we have other pill drugs that work in that particular setting, not always. With immune therapy, we’re trying to better understand why does the immune therapy stop working?

Sometimes you can add back to it, like, you can add chemotherapy back to immune therapy alone or sometimes you can do radiation with immune therapy to get that response back. Or, add other combinations to it. So, that’s another thing that we’re working on. And then, like I said, if someone hasn’t ever had chemotherapy and the tumor’s become resistant, we’re going to be thinking a lot about chemo because that can play a role against so many different reasons that the cancer might not be responding to whatever treatments someone’s on. And then also, looking at how the patient’s feeling and doing, what their overall what we call “performance status, ” their sort of overall health, and how well do we feel with them that they’re going to be able to tolerate the next treatment because, you’re always having to weigh how much is this likely to help, and how might this harm in finding the right balance. 

How Are Targeted Therapy and Immunotherapy Used in Lung Cancer Care?

How Are Targeted Therapy and Immunotherapy Used in Lung Cancer Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Expert Dr. Heather Wakelee explains how targeted therapy and immunotherapy work to treat lung cancer and which patient type each therapy is most appropriate for.

Dr. Heather Wakelee is a thoracic medical oncologist and deputy director of the Stanford Cancer Institute where she also serves as the division chief of medical oncology. Learn more about Dr. Wakelee, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Dr. Wakelee, you mentioned targeted therapies. How do they work?

Dr. Wakelee:

Targeted therapies are something we can use when we find a specific gene mutation in the tumor. So, I mentioned before that in order for a cancer cell to become cancer, something has to happen to the DNA in the cell.

And, there’s a change or a mutation in the DNA of the cell which leads it to be a cancer. And, a lot of the time, that mutation happens in a specific kind of gene that makes a type of protein called a tyrosine kinase. And for those of you who haven’t studied a lot of science, it’s a word you might not have heard before. But basically, these tyrosine kinases are proteins in the body that make a lot of changes to what’s going on in the rest of the cell. So, they’re sort of what we call regulators. And, one way of thinking about them is like on and off switches. So, normally, their job is to sit and if the right molecule comes around, that turns it on, and then it turns on other proteins in the cell. And if that molecule isn’t there, it’s turned off. So, it’s this on and off switch that does a lot of other aspects of what’s going on in the cell. But, sometimes, a mutation happens. It turns it on all the time. So, it’s like if you leave the light on.

It’s on all the time, that’s using a lot of energy, and that’s actually what’s driving the cell to act like a cancer. And so, we can now look for some of those mutations that turn some of these tyrosine kinases on all the time. But we’ve also developed drugs that we can use to turn them off. So, if we find this specific gene mutation that’s turning, say, the EGFR protein on all the time, if we find that, we can have the patient take a pill that then turns that off.

And that helps the cancer slow down, some of it die, some of the cancer cells die, but it doesn’t completely wipe it out. It helps the patient for a long time though by shrinking the cancer, helping them feel better because the symptoms are gone, keeping the cancer from growing. But, cancer cells are clever. They continue to divide, they can continue to make new mutations, and eventually, they figure out ways around that. So, when we talk about targeted therapy, it’s a setting where we find the cancer.

In the cancer, we find the gene mutation, it’s in one of these specific types of proteins, genes that make specific protein that turn something on that we can then turn off, and with those pill drugs, we can have a big impact for people.

Katherine:

And, what exactly is immunotherapy?

Dr. Wakelee:

Immunotherapies are treatments that were used to help keep the immune system more active.

So, the immune system is a very complex mechanism. There are cells that their whole job is to figure out and find things that are not us. So, they are looking for bacteria, they’re looking for cells that have a virus in them, and when they find it, they attack. And, that attack can be in the form of antibodies, it can be cells that actually go in and attack other cells directly, and we are all familiar a little bit with the immune system because we know that if we get a cold, our body, we can get a fever, that’s part of our immune response, and we get better. And then, some people know the bad side of the immune system if they have allergies or certain autoimmune diseases where the immune system gets a little bit too revved up and starts to recognize normal things as foreign.

So, in the setting of cancer, normally, the immune system is able to recognize a cancer cell, see that it’s different from the rest, and get rid of it. But, cancer cells are clever and they figure out ways to evade the immune system. And, one of the ways they do this is they put a protein called PD-L1. So, PD-L1 is a protein that a lot of our normal cells use to say, “Just a normal cell. Ignore me.”

And so, when an immune cell comes in and sees that, it gets turned off it goes away. So, what our immune therapies do is most of them are blocking that PD-L1 protein. And, when they do that, it’s sort of like taking away the stop sign. So, you’ve got a tumor using a stop sign to say, “Go away, immune cell,” you block it so the immune cells can’t see that stop sign, and so then it kills the cancer cell better. So, that’s how these drugs work, and that’s the immune therapy.

There are some other stop signs besides PD-1 and PD-L1, but that’s the most common. So, when we’re talking about immune therapy, it’s drugs that block that. So, they increase the ability for the immune cell to recognize cancers. The risk from them is that you can get the body to recognize normal tissue as a problem sometimes. So, that’s the toxicity that we watch for. 

What Are the Goals of Lung Cancer Treatment?

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

The goals of lung cancer treatment can vary depending on the stage. Expert Dr. Heather Wakelee explains how lung cancer stage is determined and shares insight about the goals of treatment at each stage.

Dr. Heather Wakelee is a thoracic medical oncologist and deputy director of the Stanford Cancer Institute where she also serves as the division chief of medical oncology. Learn more about Dr. Wakelee, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Let’s turn to treatment, Dr. Wakelee. On a basic level, what are the goals of treatment for lung cancer?

Dr. Wakelee:

So, with lung cancer, we’d love to cure everybody, that’s the ultimate goal, and do it in a way where people are able to continue living their life as they were before the cancer diagnosis. The ways that we do it, first of all, we’ve got to find the cancer, and that’s where screening is such an important aspect of things. If we can find the cancer at an earlier stage, we’re more likely to be able to cure someone.

So, what do I mean by “earlier stage?” Well, when a tumor first develops, usually, there is a single cell that develops a mutation, meaning a change in the gene, which gives that cell an advantage so it doesn’t die the way it’s supposed to. And then, it keeps growing, and dividing, and making new cells. And those over time get to a large enough size that they are the cancer. And given more time, those cancer cells start to spread into other parts of the body, usually first into what we call the lymph nodes, and from there then into other organs in the body. And this stage refers to health or how the cancer spread. So, the stage I cancer is still in that ball of cancer. Stage II means that it’s spread into some lymph nodes. Stage III is it spread into more lymph nodes, usually in the center part of the chest or mediastinum, and that’s where it starts to be much more difficult for the surgeons to be able to truly remove all of the cancer.

And then stage IV means that the cancer is not something that we’re going to be able to remove with surgery. It’s spread either within the lung to the lining of the lung or it has spread to other organs in the body. And so, when we talk about those stages that I, II, III, IV, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But, I think for most people, if they just think about it as stage I, just the cancer, stage II, lymph nodes and the lungs, stage III, lymph nodes in the center, and then stage IV, elsewhere, that’s a good way to kind of wrap your head around it.

And when we talk about stage I and II, that’s the truly early stage where we hope to be able to cure people with surgery. Surgery alone is enough for the majority of people with stage I cancer, and for maybe half, a little more than half of people with stage II. So, how can we be better than that? Well, that’s where there’s been a lot of new advances. So, adding chemotherapy after surgery can help a lot of stage II patients.

If the tumor genomic testing biomarkers shows that there’s a mutation called EGFR, we now know that there’s a pill drug that people can take that would prolong the time to when the cancer might come back. And then, just very recently, there was stated that that immune therapy drugs

IV can also prolong time to when the cancer comes back and maybe improve cure if the tumor has that biomarker called PD-L1. So, that’s that early stage. So it’s, again, getting more and more complicated and emphasizing that you’ve got to understand the biomarkers of the tumor to know how to best help someone.

When we move to stage III, some have surgery, but when you can’t have surgery, then we do the chemotherapy and the radiation. That’s the key part of the treatment there. And, we also know that immune therapy can be really helpful for a lot of patients when it’s given after the chemo and radiation’s completed. And then for stage IV, I talked about that already, which is you’ve gotta do the biomarkers to figure out the best treatments for some people starting with a targeted pill drug is the right thing if their tumor has those right gene mutations.

For other people, immune therapy alone might be an option if the PD-L1 level is very high and they don’t have one of those gene mutations in the tumor. And for a lot of people, chemotherapy or chemotherapy plus immunotherapy is the right strategy.

Katherine:

Would you help the audience understand the types of therapy for small cell lung cancer specifically?

Dr. Wakelee:

Yes. So, small cell still has the same kind of staging, but it’s a little bit more simple. We talk about extensive stage or limited stage. And what that has to do with is we rarely do surgery for small cell. It tends to have spread earlier. There are a few cases where that’s done, but normally, we divide it up into limited or extensive. And when we talk about that, limited is the radiation doctors can get all of the cancer in one radiation field, and then radiation plus chemotherapy is the standard approach to try to cure. If it’s more extensive than that, then it becomes extensive stage.

And, the best treatment are going to be chemotherapy plus those immune therapy drugs added together.

And so, the chemotherapy drugs that we use for non-small cell and small cell, the platinum drugs play a role in all of it. The drug we partner is a little bit different. There’s a drug etoposide we use a lot in small cell and a lot of other options for non-small cell. And then, the immune therapy drugs, there are a lot of options that are fairly similar for both small cell and for non-small cell. 

In-Depth Testing for Lung Cancer Prognosis and Treatment

In-Depth Testing for Lung Cancer Prognosis and Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How is in-depth lung cancer testing used in determining lung cancer prognosis and treatment? Expert Dr. Heather Wakelee shares insight about biomarker testing, genomic testing, and how test results may impact treatment options.

Dr. Heather Wakelee is a thoracic medical oncologist and deputy director of the Stanford Cancer Institute where she also serves as the division chief of medical oncology. Learn more about Dr. Wakelee, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Dr. Wakelee, but what is genomic or biomarker testing?

Dr. Wakelee:

So, we are struggling with how to have one unifying way of describing it because it’s so complicated. So, to me, biomarker testing is any aspect of the tumor that helps us choose the best treatment for that patient. And so, it’s a very broad term. And, within biomarker testing, there are several different ways that we look at it.

So, one is to look at what proteins are on the cell’s surface. And, we do that by having stains that we use to stain the tissue. So again, complicated, but when a piece of tissue is taken out of the person, part of the tumor is removed. It’s sliced into little tiny slices, which are then put on glass slides that can be looked at under the microscope. And, that’s how the pathology doctors can look and see, “Ah, this looks like cancer,” or, “It doesn’t look like cancer.” When it does look like cancer, you can then put on stains, so basically, different colored antibodies that will light up if that particular protein is there. And so, that helps us figure out for sure that this started in the lung because there are specific proteins that are only found in lung. So, that’s one way we used it, and this is an older technology. But we also can use that to look for how much of this PD-L1 protein is expressed.

And so, that’s an important biomarker, but it’s not based on genomics, which is when we’re talking about the DNA.

Then, we have the genomic testing, and that’s when we’re looking at the genome of the tumor and how that genome is different. And, that’s that DNA or RNA testing. We talk about it with the next-gen sequencing. So, “sequencing,” any of those terms are all meaning we’re looking at some aspect of what makes the tumor genes and therefore the proteins made by the tumor different than the rest of the genes in the person.

And so, that testing, that genomic testing can be done on either the tumor specimen or that’s where we can do blood tests that will be able to pull out those bits of the DNA that are from the tumor versus from the person and help us figure out what’s going on with the cancer. So, when we talk about biomarkers, the whole picture, and when I’m talking with patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer, we talk about well, there’s chemotherapy treatment, which is good for almost everybody. There is targeted therapy.

Targeted therapy is usually based on those genomic tests, and the genomic tests can be done either on the tissue or on blood. But, they’re really important to have a full understanding of the

tumors to do a comprehensive or next-gen sequencing analysis of the tumor or DNA. And then, you have the immune therapy where that PD-L1 biomarker is important. So, that’s the way I think about it, and the biomarkers are really critical for helping us figure out what’s the best path forward for any individual patient.

When I started treating lung cancer patients 20 years ago, we only had chemotherapy. And now, for metastatic disease, with using the right biomarkers, we can figure out so much more about the cancer to be able to personalize the treatment, for many patients, being able to offer pill therapies that are somewhat less toxic and highly active and give people more time. And now, we’re in the immune therapy revolution, which is helping a whole other group of patients living with lung cancer to be able to live with quality life for much longer. And the pace of discovery is just going up so quickly. And, I think that’s what I’m most hopeful about is just how much attention is being paid on lung cancer and finding better therapies that are going to help more people for a longer period of time. 

Which Tests Do You Need Following a Lung Cancer Diagnosis?

Which Tests Do You Need Following a Lung Cancer Diagnosis? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Which lung cancer tests do patients need after a diagnosis? Expert Dr. Heather Wakelee provides an overview of lung cancer testing, explains how the results are used, and discusses how testing differs for small cell lung cancer versus non-small cell lung cancer.

Dr. Heather Wakelee is a thoracic medical oncologist and deputy director of the Stanford Cancer Institute where she also serves as the division chief of medical oncology. Learn more about Dr. Wakelee, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Can you provide an overview of important tests following a lung cancer diagnosis?

Dr. Wakelee:

That’s a fabulous question. When we think about the tests that we need to have done, they’re mostly tests that are done on the tumor, so, either if someone has a surgery or at the time of biopsy. and, that’s where we can figure out what we call, again, the histology that’s squamous or non-squamous. That’s when they look at it under the microscope. But, they also, with the tumor specimen, you can pull the DNA out of the tumor and then test for the gene mutations in the tumor. And, I always emphasize these are not changes in the genes that are in the whole person. They are things that are unique to the tumor. They are what make the tumor different from the rest of the person.

So, we look at those gene mutations, or that’s kind of a biomarker. So, there are a lot of terms that we use, and I know it gets really confusing. So, I try to use “biomarker” to mean all of these things, but that gene mutation is what we look at in the tumor tissue to see if there are specific changes that will allow us to give a pill therapy, a targeted pill therapy. And then, there are also aspects of the tumor that help us figure out whether or not the immune therapy might work, and most commonly, that’s something called PD-L1. That’s a protein that we look at on the surface of the tumor, and so again, under the microscope.

Katherine:

And, when you talk about extracting DNA, is that via a blood test?

Dr. Wakelee:

So, we have two different ways to do that. So, what I was talking about before was from the tumor tissue, you can extract the DNA. But now, there are these liquid biopsies where we can draw blood and find the tumor DNA that is different from the rest of the person’s DNA and look for those gene mutations in the tumor.

And that is where there’s a lot of developments happening. And, that’s so fabulous because they’re often faster results for patients, and it means that you cannot have to go through another biopsy. We still need the biopsy to establish whether or not there is even cancer. But, once we know that there’s cancer for sure, then we can use the liquid biopsies to get a faster information result on those gene mutations and to follow over time to see how the tumor evolves because tumors change after they’ve been treated.

Katherine:

Do you use imaging at all?

Dr. Wakelee:

Yes. Always. So, when someone is first diagnosed with cancer, we usually find that because of imaging, so, a CT scan or an X-ray, maybe they had a screening CT scan or maybe they had a cough that led someone to go get an X-ray, an examination. So, the imaging is a part of the original diagnosis. And in addition to CT scans, we’ll often get a PET scan that helps us look for, in a different way, the rest of the body, maybe an MRI of the brain to look in that area.

And then, wherever we’ve found the tumor, we will track that area with scans over time. And, it gets a little complicated for a patient that was found with what we call early-stage disease. So, stage I or II. Many of the times, those patients can have surgery and then we don’t have any tumor we can follow anymore. But we get CT scans to look to see if it could have come back. For patients with more advanced disease, so, stage III that couldn’t have surgery or stage IV, there we have areas that we’re going to continue to follow with the scans. And which scans and how often is going to depend a lot on what treatment the patient’s on and where the tumors are located that we’re tracking.

Katherine:

Do these tests differ for small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer patients? And, I know that non-small cell lung cancer is also known as NSCLC.

Dr. Wakelee:

Yes. So, long ago, the only distinction we had with lung cancer was that small cell versus non-small cell, and that is something that is seen under the microscope when that tissue is taken out from the biopsy. The pathology doctors look at it under the microscope, and the cells look different. And, the small cell lung cancer, those cells are small. It’s not very creative naming. And then, everything else is non-small cell or NSCLC. So, it’s SCLC and NSCLC. So, that was one of the first distinctions.

And, it is still very important because the chemotherapy drugs that we use are slightly different. And, the genetic, those gene mutations, we see them in any cancer. That’s what makes a cancer different from the rest of the body. But in small cell lung cancer, the tumor mutations that we see are not things that we know how to target specifically. In non-small cell, there are targets that we can target specifically for some patients.

So, just there, it’s different in having the targeted pill drugs in non-small cell, not so much in small cell. With immune therapy, those newer immune therapy IV drugs, they can work in both small cell and non-small cell.

But for small cell, the biomarkers, that PD-L1 level is not as important for helping us figure out who’s going to benefit. For non-small cell, with many of the drugs, it is important. So, there are differences there. 

Accessing Personalized Treatment for Lung Cancer

 

Accessing Personalized Treatment for Lung Cancer from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Lung cancer expert Dr. Heather Wakelee defines personalized medicine and explains the factors that are considered when determining a treatment approach.

Dr. Heather Wakelee is a thoracic medical oncologist and deputy director of the Stanford Cancer Institute where she also serves as the division chief of medical oncology. Learn more about Dr. Wakelee, here.

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Which Tests Do You Need Following a Lung Cancer Diagnosis?

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Transcript:

Katherine:

We’ve been hearing the term “personalized medicine” a lot more often. How would you define that term?

Dr. Wakelee:

That’s a great question. So, I think back when I first started taking care of patients living with lung cancer 20 years ago, we really just had chemotherapy for those with metastatic disease. And for those with earlier stage disease, it was just surgery radiation. And since that time, we’ve learned a whole lot and brought in a lot of different types of treatment. Surgery and radiation still have important roles for many patients.

And we think about them as being targeted and personalized based on stage, but it’s a little bit different. When we talk about personalized, we’re thinking more about what are aspects about the tumor that allow us to pick the right systemic treatment. So, “systemic” meaning a pill or something that we give IV.

With chemotherapy, we don’t have much to pick between them as far as specifics for the tumor. We can look at what we call the histology, which is how it looks under the microscope, whether it’s the squamous type or the non-squamous type and some of the chemotherapy drugs matter there. But, in the last 15, 20 years, we’ve learned about the specific what we call “gene mutations” that define the tumor.

And, depending on the gene mutation in the tumor, for some patients, we can give them pill therapy drugs that will work well. So, that’s personalized. Or, immune therapy now is an option for a lot of patients. That’s usually IV therapy.

And, there are some aspects of the tumor that can help us pick that also. 

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

 

Which Lung 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 lung cancer? Lung cancer specialist Dr. Heather Wakelee reviews key factors that help guide treatment decisions, including biomarker testing, and shares advice for partnering with your team to advocate for the best care.

Dr. Heather Wakelee is a thoracic medical oncologist and deputy director of the Stanford Cancer Institute where she also serves as the division chief of medical oncology. Learn more about Dr. Wakelee, here.

This program is brought to you by the Patient Empowerment Network. It is made possible through support from Daiichi Sankyo, Foundation Medicine, Illumina, Merck, Novartis, and generous donations from people like you.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for you today’s program. Today, we’re going to discuss how to access the most personalized lung cancer therapy for your individual disease and why patients should insist on essential testing. Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you.

Let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Heather Wakelee. Dr. Wakelee, would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Wakelee:              

Sure. Thank you so much and I’m really delighted to be on this and get to address all of our listeners. So, I am Dr. Heather Wakelee and I am a lung cancer specialist. I work at Stanford University where I’m also the chief of the Division of Medical Oncology.

Katherine:                  

Excellent. Thank you. Before we get into an in-depth discussion on lung cancer treatment, we’ve been hearing the term “personalized medicine” a lot more often. How would you define that term?

Dr. Wakelee:              

That’s a great question. So, I think back when I first started taking care of patients living with lung cancer 20 years ago, we really just had chemotherapy for those with metastatic disease. And for those with earlier stage disease, it was just surgery radiation. And since that time, we’ve learned a whole lot and brought in a lot of different types of treatment. Surgery and radiation still have important roles for many patients.

And we think about them as being targeted and personalized based on stage, but it’s a little bit different. When we talk about personalized, we’re thinking more about what are aspects about the tumor that allow us to pick the right systemic treatment. So, “systemic” meaning a pill or something that we give IV.

With chemotherapy, we don’t have much to pick between them as far as specifics for the tumor. We can look at what we call the histology, which is how it looks under the microscope, whether it’s the squamous type or the non-squamous type and some of the chemotherapy drugs matter there. But, in the last 15, 20 years, we’ve learned about the specific what we call “gene mutations” that define the tumor.

And, depending on the gene mutation in the tumor, for some patients, we can give them pill therapy drugs that will work well. So, that’s personalized. Or, immune therapy now is an option for a lot of patients. That’s usually IV therapy.

And, there are some aspects of the tumor that can help us pick that also.

Katherine:                  

Well, I imagine that much of personalized immunotherapy for a patient requires a number of tests and then a thorough review of the results. So, can you provide an overview of important tests following a lung cancer diagnosis?

Dr. Wakelee:              

That’s a fabulous question. When we think about the tests that we need to have done, they’re mostly tests that are done on the tumor, so, either if someone has a surgery or at the time of biopsy. and, that’s where we can figure out what we call, again, the histology that’s squamous or non-squamous. That’s when they look at it under the microscope. But, they also, with the tumor specimen, you can pull the DNA out of the tumor and then test for the gene mutations in the tumor. And, I always emphasize these are not changes in the genes that are in the whole person. They are things that are unique to the tumor. They are what make the tumor different from the rest of the person.

So, we look at those gene mutations or that’s kind of a biomarker. So, there are a lot of terms that we use, and I know it gets really confusing. So, I try to use “biomarker” to mean all of these things, but that gene mutation is what we look at in the tumor tissue to see if there are specific changes that will allow us to give a pill therapy, a targeted pill therapy. And then, there are also aspects of the tumor that help us figure out whether or not the immune therapy might work, and most commonly, that’s something called PD-L1. That’s a protein that we look at on the surface of the tumor, and so again, under the microscope.

Katherine:                  

And, when you talk about extracting DNA, is that via a blood test?

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, we have two different ways to do that. So, what I was talking about before was from the tumor tissue, you can extract the DNA. But now, there are these liquid biopsies where we can draw blood and find the tumor DNA that is different from the rest of the person’s DNA and look for those gene mutations in the tumor.

And that is where there’s a lot of developments happening. And, that’s so fabulous because they’re often faster results for patients, and it means that you can not have to go through another biopsy. We still need the biopsy to establish whether or not there is even cancer. But, once we know that there’s cancer for sure, then we can use the liquid biopsies to get a faster information result on those gene mutations and to follow over time to see how the tumor evolves because tumors change after they’ve been treated.

Katherine:                  

Do you use imaging at all?

Dr. Wakelee:              

Yes. Always. So, when someone is first diagnosed with cancer, we usually find that because of imaging, so, a CT scan or an X-ray, maybe they had a screening CT scan or maybe they had a cough that led someone to go get an X-ray, an examination. So, the imaging is a part of the original diagnosis. And in addition to CT scans, we’ll often get a PET scan that helps us look for, in a different way, the rest of the body, maybe an MRI of the brain to look in that area.

And then, wherever we’ve found the tumor, we will track that area with scans over time. And, it gets a little complicated for a patient that was found with what we call early-stage disease. So, stage I or II. Many of the times, those patients can have surgery and then we don’t have any tumor we can follow anymore. But we get CT scans to look to see if it could have come back. For patients with more advanced disease, so, stage III that couldn’t have surgery or stage IV, there we have areas that we’re going to continue to follow with the scans. And which scans and how often is going to depend a lot on what treatment the patient’s on and where the tumors are located that we’re tracking.

Katherine:                  

Do these tests differ for small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer patients? And, I know that non-small cell lung cancer is also known as NSCLC.

Dr. Wakelee:              

Yes. So, long ago, the only distinction we had with lung cancer was that small cell versus non-small cell, and that is something that is seen under the microscope when that tissue is taken out from the biopsy. The pathology doctors look at it under the microscope, and the cells look different. And, the small cell lung cancer, those cells are small. It’s not very creative naming. And then, everything else is non-small cell or NSCLC. So, it’s SCLC and NSCLC. So, that was one of the first distinctions.

And, it is still very important because the chemotherapy drugs that we use are slightly different. And, the genetic, those gene mutations, we see them in any cancer. That’s what makes a cancer different from the rest of the body. But in small cell lung cancer, the tumor mutations that we see are not things that we know how to target specifically. In non-small cell, there are targets that we can target specifically for some patients.

So, just there, it’s different in having the targeted pill drugs in non-small cell, not so much in small cell. With immune therapy, those newer immune therapy IV drugs, they can work in both small cell and non-small cell. But for small cell, the biomarkers, that PD-L1 level is not as important for helping us figure out who’s going to benefit. For non-small cell, with many of the drugs, it is important. So, there are differences there.

Katherine:                  

Well, let’s go a little deeper. And, you did mention some of this already, Dr. Wakelee, but what is genomic or biomarker testing?

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, we are struggling with how to have one unifying way of describing it because it’s so complicated. So, to me, biomarker testing is any aspect of the tumor that helps us choose the best treatment for that patient. And so, it’s a very broad term. And, within biomarker testing, there are several different ways that we look at it.

So, one is to look at what proteins are on the cell’s surface. And, we do that by having stains that we use to stain the tissue. So again, complicated, but when a piece of tissue is taken out of the person, part of the tumor is removed. It’s sliced into little tiny slices, which are then put on glass slides that can be looked at under the microscope. And, that’s how the pathology doctors can look and see, “Ah, this looks like cancer,” or, “It doesn’t look like cancer.” When it does look like cancer, you can then put on stains, so basically, different colored antibodies that will light up if that particular protein is there. And so, that helps us figure out for sure that this started in the lung because there are specific proteins that are only found in lung. So, that’s one way we used it, and this is an older technology. But, we also can use that to look for how much of this PD-L1 protein is expressed. And so, that’s an important biomarker, but it’s not based on genomics, which is when we’re talking about the DNA.

 Then, we have the genomic testing, and that’s when we’re looking at the genome of the tumor and how that genome is different. And, that’s that DNA or RNA testing. We talk about it with the next-gen sequencing. So, “sequencing,” any of those terms are all meaning we’re looking at some aspect of what makes the tumor genes and therefore the proteins made by the tumor different than the rest of the genes in the person.

And so, that testing, that genomic testing can be done on either the tumor specimen or that’s where we can do blood tests that will be able to pull out those bits of the DNA that are from the tumor versus from the person and help us figure out what’s going on with the cancer. So, when we talk about biomarkers, the whole picture, and when I’m talking with patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer, we talk about well, there’s chemotherapy treatment, which is good for almost everybody. There is targeted therapy.

Targeted therapy is usually based on those genomic tests, and the genomic tests can be done either on the tissue or on blood. But, they’re really important to have a full understanding of the tumors to do a comprehensive or next-gen sequencing analysis of the tumor or DNA. And then, you have the immune therapy where that PD-L1 biomarker is important. So, that’s the way I think about it, and the biomarkers are really critical for helping us figure out what’s the best path forward for any individual patient.

Katherine:                  

Let’s turn to treatment, Dr. Wakelee. On a basic level, what are the goals of treatment for lung cancer?

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, with lung cancer, we’d love to cure everybody, that’s the ultimate goal, and do it in a way where people are able to continue living their life as they were before the cancer diagnosis. The ways that we do it, first of all, we’ve got to find the cancer, and that’s where screening is such an important aspect of things. If we can find the cancer at an earlier stage, we’re more likely to be able to cure someone.

So, what do I mean by “earlier stage?” Well, when a tumor first develops, usually, there is a single cell that develops a mutation, meaning a change in the gene, which gives that cell an advantage so it doesn’t die the way it’s supposed to. And then, it keeps growing, and dividing, and making new cells. And those over time get to a large enough size that they are the cancer. And given more time, those cancer cells start to spread into other parts of the body, usually first into what we call the lymph nodes, and from there then into other organs in the body. And this stage refers to health or how the cancer spread. So, the stage I cancer is still in that ball of cancer. Stage II means that it’s spread into some lymph nodes. Stage III is it spread into more lymph nodes, usually in the center part of the chest or mediastinum, and that’s where it starts to be much more difficult for the surgeons to be able to truly remove all of the cancer.

And then stage IV means that the cancer is not something that we’re going to be able to remove with surgery. It’s spread either within the lung to the lining of the lung or it has spread to other organs in the body. And so, when we talk about those stages that I, II, III, IV, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But, I think for most people, if they just think about it as stage I, just the cancer, stage II, lymph nodes and the lungs, stage III, lymph nodes in the center, and then stage IV, elsewhere, that’s a good way to kind of wrap your head around it.

And when we talk about stage I and II, that’s the truly early stage where we hope to be able to cure people with surgery. Surgery alone is enough for the majority of people with stage I cancer, and for maybe half, a little more than half of people with stage II. So, how can we be better than that? Well, that’s where there’s been a lot of new advances. So, adding chemotherapy after surgery can help a lot of stage II patients.

If the tumor genomic testing biomarkers shows that there’s a mutation called EGFR, we now know that there’s a pill drug that people can take that would prolong the time to when the cancer might come back. And then, just very recently, there was stated that that immune therapy drugs IV can also prolong time to when the cancer comes back and maybe improve cure if the tumor has that biomarker called PD-L1. So, that’s that early stage. So it’s, again, getting more and more complicated and emphasizing that you’ve got to understand the biomarkers of the tumor to know how to best help someone.

When we move to stage III, some have surgery, but when you can’t have surgery, then we do the chemotherapy and the radiation. That’s the key part of the treatment there. And, we also know that immune therapy can be really helpful for a lot of patients when it’s given after the chemo and radiation’s completed. And then for stage IV, I talked about that already, which is you’ve got to do the biomarkers to figure out the best treatments for some people starting with a targeted pill drug is the right thing if their tumor has those right gene mutations.

For other people, immune therapy alone might be an option if the PD-L1 level is very high and they don’t have one of those gene mutations in the tumor. And for a lot of people, chemotherapy or chemotherapy plus immunotherapy is the right strategy.

Katherine:                  

Would you help the audience understand the types of therapy for small cell lung cancer specifically?

Dr. Wakelee:              

Yes. So, small cell still has the same kind of staging, but it’s a little bit more simple. We talk about extensive stage or limited stage. And what that has to do with is we rarely do surgery for small cell. It tends to have spread earlier. There are a few cases where that’s done, but normally, we divide it up into limited or extensive. And when we talk about that, limited is the radiation doctors can get all of the cancer in one radiation field, and then radiation plus chemotherapy is the standard approach to try to cure. If it’s more extensive than that, then it becomes extensive stage.

And, the best treatment are going to be chemotherapy plus those immune therapy drugs added together.

And so, the chemotherapy drugs that we use for non-small cell and small cell, the platinum drugs play a role in all of it. The drug we partner is a little bit different. There’s a drug etoposide we use a lot in small cell and a lot of other options for non-small cell. And then, the immune therapy drugs, there are a lot of options that are fairly similar for both small cell and for non-small cell. 

Katherine:                  

Dr. Wakelee, you mentioned targeted therapies. How do they work?

Dr. Wakelee:               

Targeted therapies are something we can use when we find a specific gene mutation in the tumor. So, I mentioned before that in order for a cancer cell to become cancer, something has to happen to the DNA in the cell.

And, there’s a change or a mutation in the DNA of the cell which leads it to be a cancer. And, a lot of the time, that mutation happens in a specific kind of gene that makes a type of protein called a tyrosine kinase. And for those of you who haven’t studied a lot of science, it’s a word you might not have heard before. But basically, these tyrosine kinases are proteins in the body that make a lot of changes to what’s going on in the rest of the cell. So, they’re sort of what we call regulators. And, one way of thinking about them is like on and off switches. So, normally, their job is to sit and if the right molecule comes around, that turns it on, and then it turns on other proteins in the cell. And if that molecule isn’t there, it’s turned off. So, it’s this on and off switch that does a lot of other aspects of what’s going on in the cell. But, sometimes, a mutation happens. It turns it on all the time. So, it’s like if you leave the light on.

It’s on all the time, that’s using a lot of energy, and that’s actually what’s driving the cell to act like a cancer. And so, we can now look for some of those mutations that turn some of these tyrosine kinases on all the time. But, we’ve also developed drugs that we can use to turn them off. So, if we find this specific gene mutation that’s turning, say, the EGFR protein on all the time, if we find that, we can have the patient take a pill that then turns that off.

And that helps the cancer slow down, some of it die, some of the cancer cells die, but it doesn’t completely wipe it out. It helps the patient for a long time though by shrinking the cancer, helping them feel better because the symptoms are gone, keeping the cancer from growing. But, cancer cells are clever. They continue to divide, they can continue to make new mutations, and eventually, they figure out ways around that. So, when we talk about targeted therapy, it’s a setting where we find the cancer.

In the cancer, we find the gene mutation, it’s in one of these specific types of proteins, genes that make specific protein that turn something on that we can then turn off, and with those pill drugs, we can have a big impact for people.

Katherine:                  

And, what exactly is immunotherapy?

Dr. Wakelee:              

Immunotherapies are treatments that were used to help keep the immune system more active.

So, the immune system is a very complex mechanism. There are cells that their whole job is to figure out and find things that are not us. So, they are looking for bacteria, they’re looking for cells that have a virus in them, and when they find it, they attack. And, that attack can be in the form of antibodies, it can be cells that actually go in and attack other cells directly, and we are all familiar a little bit with the immune system because we know that if we get a cold, our body, we can get a fever, that’s part of our immune response, and we get better. And then, some people know the bad side of the immune system if they have allergies or certain autoimmune diseases where the immune system gets a little bit too revved up and starts to recognize normal things as foreign.

So, in the setting of cancer, normally, the immune system is able to recognize a cancer cell, see that it’s different from the rest, and get rid of it. But, cancer cells are clever and they figure out ways to evade the immune system. And, one of the ways they do this is they put a protein called PD-L1. So, PD-L1 is a protein that a lot of our normal cells use to say, “Just a normal cell. Ignore me.” And so, when an immune cell comes in and sees that, it gets turned off it goes away. So, what our immune therapies do is most of them are blocking that PD-L1 protein. And, when they do that, it’s sort of like taking away the stop sign. So, you’ve got a tumor using a stop sign to say, “Go away, immune cell,” you block it so the immune cells can’t see that stop sign, and so then it kills the cancer cell better. So, that’s how these drugs work, and that’s the immune therapy.

There are some other stop signs besides PD-1 and PD-L1, but that’s the most common. So, when we’re talking about immune therapy, it’s drugs that block that. So, they increase the ability for the immune cell to recognize cancers. The risk from them is that you can get the body to recognize normal tissue as a problem sometimes. So, that’s the toxicity that we watch for.

Katherine:                  

Right. What are the advantages of these new treatment approaches compared to standard chemotherapy?

Dr. Wakelee:              

Well, I think the most exciting news that we’ve seen in lung cancer over the last few years is that we’re actually helping more people live longer. And the way that we’re doing that is through these newer treatments. So, when we can personalize treatment by recognizing that a person’s cancer has a specific gene mutation and we can give them the right targeted pill drug, we can help them live longer and feel better because those often have fewer side effects. Wish I could say they were curing the disease, but they’re helping people live longer.

And, that can be measured in years for some folks, which is fantastic. And then, with immune therapy, again, they’re not working for everybody, but they were for a large number of patients with lung cancer with non-small cell to help them live longer with their cancer controlled. And so, we’ve actually improved the overall survival rates for lung cancer with these new developments. Where we can make even more of an impact is also by finding more of the cancers earlier, and that’s where cancer screening is so important also. So, by having more choices, chemotherapy can still help a lot of people. Targeted therapies can help probably close to 20, 30, 40 percent of people with non-small cell lung cancer that’s the adenocarcinoma type. And then, the immune therapies can help other people living with lung cancer. Usually immune therapies don’t work on the same tumors the way the targeted pills work. So, you’re kind of getting at different groups of people with those different strategies. It’s not completely true, but it’s a kind of general principle about it.

Katherine:                  

What about side effects for some of these treatment choices?

Dr. Wakelee:               

So, chemotherapy is one people fear the most, but I think it has a bit more of a bad reputation than it needs. A lot of the lung cancer therapies that are chemotherapy can be reasonably tolerated. I mean, I’m not signing up to go get chemotherapy just because. There definitely are side effects. The biggest one is people get fatigue, get really tired. Though, if they’re feeling horrible because of the cancer, a lot of times people feel dramatically better. But, tiredness, it can impact appetite a little bit, though cancer does that also. There can be nausea, vomiting, but we’re much better at controlling that with the newer drugs. Some cancer therapies cause hair loss, but a lot of our non-small cell lung cancer therapies don’t cause hair loss. So, there are a lot of options there you can talk about with your doctor. And then, when the blood counts are low, there can be risk for infection, low red blood cells with anemia.

So, there are a lot of different things. But in general, chemotherapy is better tolerated than people think it’s going to be because in the movies, they make it look horrendous.

With the pill therapies, again, lots of variability depending on the specific pill. Some of them cause rash. Some don’t. Some of them can cause some changes to the heart that we have to monitor with EKGs, electrocardiograms, some don’t. Some cause some changes to labs like for liver tests that we have to monitor. Some don’t. Some cause hair color changes. Some don’t. It’s always to gray, unfortunately.

So, there are a lot of different variations in what different treatments can do. And so, it’s just really important if your doctor is talking with you about starting one of the targeted pill drugs that you really ask what are the side effects I need to be watching for, what are the ones I need to know to call you about, and which are the ones I just know, “Okay, this is happening and it’s okay. It’s going to cause swelling in the ankles,” no, just a huge range of them. And then, with the immune therapy drugs, they tend to be mostly fatigue, just like with chemotherapy, though some people feel fine.

What we have to watch for is that they can cause what we call autoimmunity. So, it’s talking about the fact that the way they work is they help the immune system better recognize the cancer, and they do that by taking away one of the stop signals. But, that stop signal, the PD-1, PD-L1, that stop signal is also used by a lot of normal cells to tell the immune system to back off. So, when you remove it, when you block it, the immune system can get confused and start to attack normal cells. So, you can get a rash, people can end up with gut symptoms like diarrhea, they also can end up with it attacking the lungs and causing what we call a pneumonitis lung inflammation or brain symptoms, so, almost anything. Now, those are rare, and we can treat them with steroids. But, people need to be aware that if something new is happening, they need to alert their doctor. I think sometimes, there’s this false impression that immune therapy is completely safe, but, it’s not. And, all of the treatments that I’m talking about are designed to help people live better and live longer when they’re dealing with lung cancer, but they all also have risk.

And so, it’s just really important to have those discussions with the care team as you’re starting something new about what are the things I need to be watching for and to know how to reach people if you’ve got a new and concerning symptom, especially if you’re starting on something new.

Katherine:                  

That’s all really helpful information. Thank you, Dr. Wakelee. We have a question that we received from an audience member earlier. Jeff asks, “How do you know if your lung cancer treatment is working?”

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, there are a lot of ways of knowing if treatment is helping. So, the one I rely on the most is, “Does the patient overall feel better?” That is difficult to say exactly how. Sometimes people are having breathing problems; they feel that that’s better. Sometimes their energy’s lower. They feel better. It can be vague. We also use scans. So, we tend to get scans, depending on the treatment we’re giving, every couple of months plus or minus, sometimes, every three months to help track what’s actually going on. But occasionally, there are discrepancies.

So, sometimes, the scan, is it better? Is it not better? Can’t really tell. And then, you’re always taking that, “How does the patient feel?” So, usually, if the scans are better, the patient feels better. It’s easy. Usually if the patient’s feeling worse and the scan looks worse, clear decision. Not a good one, but clearly, we need to do something different. But sometimes, you’re left, and especially this happens with the first scan because you get a scan, it takes a little while, you start the new treatment, then you get the next scan, how much of the changes happened before you started the new one and how much didn’t? So, these can be more challenging conversations, but generally if the patient’s feeling a little bit better, the scan’s unclear, we usually say, “You know, let’s give this treatment a little bit more time.” We also, I think your question was specifically around how do we tell if it’s working, but, you also often need to be thinking about, “Well, what’s it doing that’s negative to the person and is that potential, those side effects worth the benefits we are or are not seeing?”

So, it’s kind of all of those things together. It can be a bit complex.

Katherine:                  

What goes into the decision to change therapies if it becomes necessary?

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, when we’re thinking about making a change, the way I always look at it is, is where we are today still okay or not? And, if it’s not, that would be because clearly the cancer’s growing or clearly the side effects are just not tolerable. Then, we decide together with the patient we need to do something different. And, when we think about what do we do next, we look at what have we’ve already done, did it work or not, if not, let’s do something more different. And so, let’s think about something that might be somewhat similar. When we’re dealing with targeted therapies, we have ways to try to figure out what changed in the tumor that made it now resistant or not working with that treatment. And so, with some of the pill drugs, there’s been a lot of research and understanding how does the tumor change that helps it evade, get away from, be resistant to whatever treatment you’re on.

And then, sometimes, we have other pill drugs that work in that particular setting, not always. With immune therapy, we’re trying to better understand why does the immune therapy stop working? Sometimes you can add back to it, like, you can add chemotherapy back to immune therapy alone or sometimes you can do radiation with immune therapy to get that response back. Or, add other combinations to it. So, that’s another thing that we’re working on. And then, like I said, if someone hasn’t ever had chemotherapy and the tumor’s become resistant, we’re going to be thinking a lot about chemo because that can play a role against so many different reasons that the cancer might not be responding to whatever treatments someone’s on. And then also, looking at how the patient’s feeling and doing, what their overall what we call “performance status, ” their sort of overall health, and how well do we feel with them that they’re going to be able to tolerate the next treatment because, you’re always having to weigh how much is this likely to help, and how might this harm in finding the right balance.

Katherine:                  

I’d be remiss if I did not bring up COVID-19, and, I’m sure a lot of patients are curious whether the vaccine is safe and effective.

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, we do believe the vaccine is safe and effective for patients living with lung cancer, and really important to be protected as much as possible. I was part of a group of other physicians around the world looking at the impact of COVID-19 on patients living with lung cancer. And, we collaborated with a group of physicians, Rayna Garcina was the lead. She was living in northern Italy at the time of the first wave, and so, was really face-to-face with it early on when there was so much we didn’t know. And, she gathered a group of us to watch and see, and what we were able to figure out before the vaccine was available was that people living with lung cancer who were overall healthy still except for their cancer were perhaps on a pill, targeted therapy, or immune therapy seemed to really not have that different of an impact compared to people who didn’t have lung cancer.

Chemotherapy was a little bit harder to see that, but didn’t seem to be such a big issue. It’s different than people living with, say, leukemias or lymphomas where the treatments are impacting their immune systems even more. They seem to have worse outcomes. A lot of lung cancer patients were okay, but still, it’s a higher risk. And so, we want to protect our patients as much as possible.

So, we are, now that we have the vaccines, strongly advocating vaccines for any patient who was living with cancer really for almost anybody because as a physician, we really think that makes a big impact. We have not seen any negative impacts of the vaccine on any aspect of cancer treatment. It does not have a negative impact on how well the cancer is treated by the therapies. We did notice that when someone gets the vaccine, they can get some enlargement of the lymph nodes. That’s part of having an immune response is your lymph nodes get enlarged. And so, we did get a bunch of scans that the vaccines came out showing, “Well, this person has some lymph nodes in the axilla, which is the armpit.”

And it seemed to be correlating with the side that someone had a vaccine. And then, those go away. And, this was actually an interesting medical literature thing because for people getting screened with mammograms for breast cancer, there were suddenly all these lymph nodes showing up. But that was actually a sign that the person was responding to the vaccine and it went away over time. And, it was a fine thing. It was just – I remember the first patient I had where that happened, we’re like, “Oh, well, that makes sense. Okay.” So, it’s okay. So, it was not cancer. It was just the immune response. But, yeah, so, we are recommending vaccines. There’s no data showing it is not working for lung cancer patients. The vaccines are less effective in people getting certain types of cancer treatment that are really suppressing the immune system. But even some response is better than none, and we’re still recommending the patients really do their best to stay safe with masks and things like that.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Wakelee, what are you excited about in lung cancer research right now? And, what do you want to leave the audience with? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Wakelee:              

I’m very hopeful. When I started treating lung cancer patients 20 years ago, we only had chemotherapy. And now, for metastatic disease, with using the right biomarkers, we can figure out so much more about the cancer to be able to personalize the treatment, for many patients, being able to offer pill therapies that are somewhat less toxic and highly active and give people more time. And now, we’re in the immune therapy revolution, which is helping a whole other group of patients living with lung cancer to be able to live with quality life for much longer. And the pace of discovery is just going up so quickly. And, I think that’s what I’m most hopeful about is just how much attention is being paid on lung cancer and finding better therapies that are going to help more people for a longer period of time. And again, I’m going to emphasize the screening is making a big difference also. If we can find the disease early, we can have an even bigger impact on people.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Wakelee, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Wakelee:              

Thank you. Really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you.

Katherine:                   

And thank you to all of our partners.

To learn more about lung cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us today.

How Can You Ensure You’ve Had Essential Metastatic Breast Cancer Testing?

How Can You Ensure You’ve Had Essential Metastatic Breast Cancer Testing? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can metastatic breast cancer patient ensure they receive essential testing? Dr. Jane Lowe Meisel explains how tests can vary by patient and shares advice for key questions to ask to help ensure optimal care.

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.

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Transcript:

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. 

Is Your Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Effective?

Is Your Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Effective? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can metastatic breast cancer treatment effectiveness be gauged? Dr. Jane Lowe Meisel shares important indicators, including symptom improvement, and discusses periodic testing that can help track a patient’s treatment results.

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.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

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 less 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. 

What Are Biomarkers and How Do They Impact Lung Cancer Treatment Options?

What Are Biomarkers and How Do They Impact Lung Cancer Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are lung cancer biomarkers, and how do they impact treatment options? Dr. Isabel Preeshagul defines biomarkers and explains how different biomarkers may help determine treatment options and aid in predicting treatment response. 

Dr. Isabel Preeshagul is a thoracic medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Preeshagul here.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Well, let’s define a few terms that are often confusing for patients. What are biomarkers?

Dr. Preeshagul:

Those are somatic alterations in the tumor just like EGFR, or ALK fusions, or MET exon 14, or MET amplification, or KRAS G12C.

These are all genes that are altered in the tumor. And these are genes that drive the tumor to grow. There are also other markers like PD-L1, which is a marker for response to immunotherapy. And there are various markers.

I could go on and talk about it for hours, but those are the more common ones that we know how to treat and how to handle and prognosticate.

Katherine Banwell:

And another term that’s sometimes confusing, what is a genetic mutation?

Dr. Preeshagul:

So, for genetic mutations, you have germline, and you have somatic. So, a germline mutation may be something like a BRCA1 or a BRCA2 that we see in patients with breast cancer or prostate cancer versus a somatic mutation which would be EGFR that I had mentioned or ALK fusion. So, germline mutations are the ones that we worry about being heritable.

And somatic mutations are those that are not thought to be heritable but thought to happen spontaneously within the tumor itself and cause the tumor to grow. We are constantly learning more about these though, however. But it’s really important to talk with your doctor to see if you have a germline mutation or a somatic mutation or if you have both.

And it is never wrong to seek an opinion with a genetic counselor to make sure that everyone in your family is safe, that you’re up to date on age-appropriate cancer screening, and that your family gets screened appropriately as well if indicated.

Katherine Banwell:

Are there specific biomarkers that affect lung cancer treatment choices?

Dr. Preeshagul:

Oh, definitely. One that I had mentioned is PD-L1. And this is a marker that we look for expression. So, based on FDA approval for pembrolizumab, if you have an expression of 50 percent or more, you are able to get immunotherapy alone in the upfront setting. If you have less than 50 percent, we often give you chemotherapy plus immunotherapy. And that’s based on a clinical trial known as KEYNOTE-189.

Other markers such as EGFR, as I had mentioned, ALK fusions, RET, NTRK, MET exon 14, ROS1, KRAS, HER2, you name it, those are alterations that we look for ideally in the upfront setting as well and can really affect treatment planning.

And those patients that harbor mutations like EGFR and ALK and ROS1 or MET exon 14, we know that these patients do better with targeted therapy upfront, not standard-of-care chemo. So, it’s really important to know about the presence of these alterations before you start treatment if possible.