Tag Archive for: dermatologist

How a Skin Cancer Expert Empowers Patients

How a Skin Cancer Expert Empowers Patients from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 

Dr. Anna Pavlick is a medical oncologist with over 20 years of experience treating patients with skin cancer and is the founding Director of the Cutaneous Oncology Program at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. To learn more about Dr. Pavlick, visit here.

What are steps does skin cancer expert Dr. Anna Pavlick take to empower her patients? Dr. Pavlick explains how self-education and being comfortable with your healthcare team are key components of patient empowerment.

 

Katherine:

Yeah. Dr. Pavlik, how do you empower patients? 

Dr. Pavlick:

You know, when I talk to patients I really do try to number one: educate them. I am big believer in bad artwork, because I’m a bad artist. And so I really try to draw out schematics to help patients understand how they therapy that I’m proposing is going to work, so they understand the mechanism. Patients will also go home with printed handouts so that they can go back and read about what we talked about, because many times patients absorb maybe one-quarter of what’s been said in a consult. 

I encourage people to bring their family members or friends so that they can hear; two sets of ears is always better than one. And I fully support them; if they want to go get a second opinion, my answer is, “Absolutely.” I do not get offended. I feel that if – because a lot of times the patient’s going to say, “I don’t want a second opinion, but my family does.” You’ve got to live with your family. Go get the second opinion. 99 percent of the time, experts who do this for a living all have the same answers. And so it just is going to solidify for your family that the right thing is being done, and then you can also decide where do you feel most comfortable?  

If Dr. A and Dr. B tell you the same thing, what environment do you feel most comfortable in, so in the event that you had questions, or you didn’t feel well, where do you want to go? So, I strongly encourage that. And if somebody comes back and says, “You know, I really think that this place fits me better,” my answer is, “That’s absolutely fine; thank you for letting me know. If there’s anything I can do, please reach out.” Because, again, bottom line is I just want the best outcome for the patient.  

What Do Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Need to Know About Treatment and Research?

What Do Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Need to Know About Treatment and Research? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What therapies are emerging for advanced non-melanoma skin cancer (ANMSC)? Dr. Anna Pavlick shares the latest in ANMSC research news, including developments in targeted therapy and immunotherapy. 

Dr. Anna Pavlick is a medical oncologist with over 20 years of experience treating patients with skin cancer and is the founding Director of the Cutaneous Oncology Program at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. To learn more about Dr. Pavlick, visit here

Katherine:

Are there developments in advanced non-melanoma skin cancer treatment and research that patients should know about?  

Dr. Pavlick:

Well, I think when it comes to non-melanoma skin cancers, the developments over the last five years have been groundbreaking. 

I think the first major advancement we made was to identify that the hedgehog pathway is a pathway that basal cell cancers follow in order to spread to other parts of the body. And we found out that if we can block that pathway, we can control basal cell cancer very easily because more than 90 percent of basal cell cancers use that pathway to spread. So it’s like a roadblock. If you’re doing construction and you come to point where you’ve got the detour, well, you can’t keep going straight ahead – you get stopped. And that’s what targeted therapies do, and we found that there are hedgehog inhibitors that are these roadblocks for basal cell cancer.  

Dr. Pavlick:

So what has been evolved since then is looking at immunotherapy as a way to control non-melanoma skin cancers because, as you know, melanoma was the first place that immunotherapy really became paramount as the key treatment that makes the hugest impact on patients. And because of what we learned in melanoma, finding out that the number of mutations that melanomas have make it very susceptible to immunotherapy. We then went and looked at, “Well, what does squamous cell cancer have, what does basal cell cancer have?” 

Well, we found out that basal cell, squamous cell and Merkel cell cancer have a very high mutational burden, and translating that, we said, “Well, we now know this: these are cancers that should now response to immunotherapy as well.” And they do. And they do very, very beautifully. Unfortunately, like every story, it’s not 100 percent of the tumors that will respond. It’s basically in the 50 percent range. So although it’s still a very high number, you need to know that going into it when you treat a patient with locally advanced squamous cell cancer, only 50 percent are going to have a response. So, if you don’t see that tumor getting better pretty darn quickly, you better start thinking, “This might be somebody who’s not going to respond to immunotherapy, and what’s going to be my Plan B?”  

Katherine:

Right.  

Dr. Pavlick:

Because squamous cell cancers in general respond very, very quickly to immunotherapy. 

Usually within a matter of four to six weeks, you’re already starting to see improvement. When it comes to basal cell cancer on the other hand, basal cell cancers – because they develop very, very slowly over years – it takes months of immunotherapy to get them to respond. So I tell patients with locally advanced basal cell, “You really have to be patient, because we expect this to take somewhere between three and 6 months for us to start seeing something get better.” It doesn’t mean that it’s not working, it’s just basal cells just respond much slower. I think when patients are prepared and knowing that this is not a quick eight weeks – we’re going to know for sure whether this helps or not – it helps patients to be able to understand that, “I’m in this for at least six months –maybe longer.” 

Expert Advice for Newly Diagnosed Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients

Expert Advice for Newly Diagnosed Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Anna Pavlick provides three key pieces of advice for newly diagnosed advanced non-melanoma skin cancer patients to help them feel empowered in their care and treatment decisions.

Dr. Anna Pavlick is a medical oncologist with over 20 years of experience treating patients with skin cancer and is the founding Director of the Cutaneous Oncology Program at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. To learn more about Dr. Pavlick, visit here
 

 

Related Resources:

What Do Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Need to Know About Treatment and Research?

What Do Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Need to Know About Treatment and Research?

What Are Treatment Goals and Considerations for Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer?

How Is Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Treated?


Transcript:

Katherine:

What three key pieces of advice would you have for a patient who has just been diagnosed with advanced non-melanoma skin cancer?  

Dr. Pavlick:

I think the first one is number one: do your homework. Don’t just take anything for face value. You know, I tell my patients, “This is your life. If you go and do research about what appliance you’re going to put in your kitchen, I think you should also do a little bit of research about what doctor you’re going to allow care for you.” And so I always tell everybody, “Did you do your homework? Are you sure you’re in a place that is going to be able to provide you with the care that you need? Are the physicians that you’re seeing experienced in the disease that you have?” Because they may be brilliant physicians, but they may not have any expertise in that particular area. And so I think it really behooves people to – I tease my patients, I ask them if they go to “Google Medical School.”  

And really, find out a little bit about our backgrounds, find out about the institution that you’re going to, and learn a little bit about the disease. I’m certainly not saying come in and tell us what you want to have done, because I would hope that it takes many years of training and expertise to know how to make a good decision. But I think the more that patients know about the physicians that they’re seeing, and their level of expertise, and their interest, the better the outcome’s going to be. So that’s number one, number two is consider clinical trial. If you are a candidate for a clinical trial, consider it.   

Because we are taking promising agents and looking for ways to make patients have better outcomes. And so, many times when we talk about clinical trials, we know about the drugs, we know about their side effects, we know their efficacy, but we’re looking to find ways to make those drugs work even better. And sometimes it may be adding radiation to one of the standard drugs we have. It may be adding a different type of targeted therapy to the medicines that we have. Sometimes it’s actually taking a research medicine that looks really, really good and very promising, and adding that extra research drug to a standard drug to see if we can’t do better.  

So that I think is really – my second point of advice is really consider participating in a clinical trial if it’s applicable.  

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. 

Dr. Pavlick:

And so what’s my third one? My third one is to really make sure that you can communicate with your team, that you trust your team, and you feel comfortable with your team. You know, there are many of us who have the expertise, but we all have very different manners in which we communicate and talk to patients and speak with family members. If you’re not comfortable with the person that you’re seeing, there is absolutely nothing wrong with going to get a second opinion to find someone who has the same level of expertise who may just fit your personality better.  

You know, everybody’s different. You have to find the health care team that fits for you. And I think that’s so important, because you’re trusting us with your life. And if you don’t feel comfortable, then we shouldn’t be the ones taking care of you.  

Katherine:

Yeah. This is all about self-advocacy.  

Dr. Pavlick:

That’s right. 

Katherine:

The more you know, the better care you’re going to get, and the more comfortable I think you’ll feel with your treatment.  

Dr. Pavlick:

Correct. 

Katherine:

Yeah.  

Dr. Pavlick:

And again, I think treatment – yes, people come to us for our recommendations, but it really is a team effort. My feeling is the more that patients understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, and are part of that decision-making process, the smoother treatment goes.  

Katherine:

Sure.  

Dr. Pavlick:

I really think education is important – of the patient and the family.  

I think being able to ask your physician questions without feeling that you’re threatening – it’s something you should be able to do. And I think it just provides with better care.  

Katherine:

Dr. Pavlik, how do you empower patients? 

Dr. Pavlick:

You know, when I talk to patients I really do try to number one: educate them. I am big believer in bad artwork, because I’m a bad artist. And so I really try to draw out schematics to help patients understand how they therapy that I’m proposing is going to work, so they understand the mechanism. Patients will also go home with printed handouts so that they can go back and read about what we talked about, because many times patients absorb maybe one-quarter of what’s been said in a consult. 

I encourage people to bring their family members or friends so that they can hear; two sets of ears is always better than one. And I fully support them; if they want to go get a second opinion, my answer is, “Absolutely.” I do not get offended. I feel that if – because a lot of times the patient’s going to say, “I don’t want a second opinion, but my family does.” You’ve got to live with your family. Go get the second opinion. 99 percent of the time, experts who do this for a living all have the same answers. And so it just is going to solidify for your family that the right thing is being done, and then you can also decide where do you feel most comfortable?   

If Dr. A and Dr. B tell you the same thing, what environment do you feel most comfortable in, so in the event that you had questions, or you didn’t feel well, where do you want to go? So, I strongly encourage that. And if somebody comes back and says, “You know, I really think that this place fits me better,” my answer is, “That’s absolutely fine; thank you for letting me know. If there’s anything I can do, please reach out.” Because, again, bottom line is I just want the best outcome for the patient.  

Where Do Clinical Trials Fit Into a Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Treatment Plan?

Where Do Clinical Trials Fit Into a Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Treatment Plan? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

At what point should advanced non-melanoma skin cancer patients consider participating in a clinical trial? Dr. Anna Pavlick discusses the benefits of trial participation and how the eligibility process works.

Dr. Anna Pavlick is a medical oncologist with over 20 years of experience treating patients with skin cancer and is the founding Director of the Cutaneous Oncology Program at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. To learn more about Dr. Pavlick, visit here

 

Katherine:

Where do clinical trials fit into the treatment plan? 

Dr. Pavlick:

You know, for me clinical trials are something that patients need to see as an opportunity. 

It should always be the first question that a patient should say, “Hey doc, what about a clinical trial?” Clinical trials provide patients with such great resources to either get a standard therapy with something extra, or to look at a novel way of using a known therapy. I think it’s something that every patient should ask their physicians about – and not everybody is eligible, or should go on a clinical trial – but it’s certainly worth asking, “Is there a clinical trial that I could participate in?”  

Katherine:

So, who might be eligible? What’s the criteria? 

Dr. Pavlick:

Well, each trial has different criteria. So, depending on the trials that are available at the institution where you’re being seen – for example, if you have, let’s say, basal cell cancer – the clinical trial may be looking at two immunotherapies as opposed to one immunotherapy. So when we do a clinical trial, there are what we call inclusion and exclusion criteria, and those are pre-determined criteria that you have to check those boxes to make sure those patients fit that particular study.  

So it’s not a random, “You can’t participate because you’re wearing a purple shirt today.” It is, “You have basal cell, but you have never had this drug that the study says you have to have been treated with this drug in order to go on to this study.” So you can’t jump from A to Z. You have to go from A to B to get to C. So, it really is just checking the boxes, making sure that patients fit whatever the deemed criteria are, and make sure they also don’t fall into the exclusion criteria. 

You know, trials will also say, “If you have an unstable medical condition –,” you know if I have a patient who’s telling me that they’re in and out of the E.R. with chest pain because the doc thinks that they have unstable angina and may need a stint – well, that’s not a patient that you want to put on a clinical trial at that point in time. Not to say that it can’t be re-explored at a different point, but people with active other medical issues just add to the complexity of being able to determine what are the side effects, and what are the not – what’s related to study drug, and what’s related to underlying problem?  

How Is Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Treated?

How Is Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Treated? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Developments in advanced non-melanoma skin cancer treatment and research continue to evolve. Dr. Anna Pavlick reviews important treatment considerations and discusses targeted therapy options.

Dr. Anna Pavlick is a medical oncologist with over 20 years of experience treating patients with skin cancer and is the founding Director of the Cutaneous Oncology Program at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. To learn more about Dr. Pavlick, visit here

 

Katherine:

How is advanced non-melanoma skin cancer treated? 

Dr. Pavlick:

Everybody’s locally advanced non-melanoma skin cancer really has to be looked at as a personal type of management. 

There is no cookie-cutter answer to say, “Well you just cut it out, or you just radiate it.” Again, it’s going to be contingent upon where is this located, how extensive is it, what is the patient’s preference, what is the patient’s performance status? You know, when you talk about offering radiation, although it’s a very good therapeutic option for many of these tumors, there are some patients who can’t travel hours to get to a radiation facility, and radiation is given every day for several weeks. So that’s an option – though it’s a treatment option, it may not be a feasible option. And so I think there are multiple factors. If you cut it out, is the patient going to be left with a disfiguring outcome? 

I know many times I get sent older patients because this is a disease many times of older patients, where they have these very large lesions and the thought of doing a surgery – not that you can’t – but can the patient withstand such an extensive procedure? What are they going to look like and what kind of functional deficits are you going to leave them with? You know, all of this really has to come into play, and then again, is the patient well enough tolerate a medical therapy that I have to offer? So this is why when you deal with these cancers, it really is a group effort. We all know the patient. We all get to see the patient. 

And then we all get together and say, “Okay, what are the pros and cons, and really what is the optimal way for us to best serve this patient to get rid of their cancer but also preserve their quality of life?”  

Katherine:

So other than surgery what other options are available to patients? 

Dr. Pavlick:

So surgery’s obviously the first and foremost because if you can take it out, it’s a one-and-done, patient can heal, patient can move on. 

But again, depending on location, depending on extent of the disease, sometimes we consider radiation therapy, sometimes we consider medical therapy, which would mean using different types of systemic therapies, whether it be pills – depending upon the type of cancer it is – or even intravenous immunotherapy to help either control this disease and shrink it up, then allowing the surgeon to go in and remove it. Or, best case scenario is that the immunotherapy will completely eradicate the tumor and spare the patient from having to undergo any type of procedure.  

Why Do Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Need a Multidisciplinary Care Team?

Why Do Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Need a Multidisciplinary Care Team? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Skin cancer expert Dr. Anna Pavlick explains what it means to have advanced non-melanoma skin cancer and discusses why patients should seek a multidisciplinary care team.

Dr. Anna Pavlick is a medical oncologist with over 20 years of experience treating patients with skin cancer and is the founding Director of the Cutaneous Oncology Program at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. To learn more about Dr. Pavlick, visit here.

 

Katherine:

Let’s start with some basic information for patients. What is advanced non-melanoma skin cancer? 

Dr. Pavlick:

That’s actually a really good question, because many people think skin cancer is just skin cancer is just skin cancer. But when it comes to non-melanoma skin cancers, those are the types of cancers that are really much more common than melanoma. So we’re talking about your basal cell cancer, your squamous cell cancer, and even a more rare type of cancer called Merkel cell. Locally advanced non-melanoma skin cancers mean that these are lesions that are not easily removed by the dermatologist. So, it’s not a tiny little thing where you go in, you usually have a Mohs procedure for most of these types of cutaneous malignancies.  

And a Mohs procedure is where a dermatologic surgeon will go and take thin layers – layer by layer – and look at it with a pathologist in order to determine if they’ve successfully cleared out the cancer. It allows for us to be very meticulous in how we take things out, but it also allows us to have a nice, clean, smaller resection area, so healing is also much nicer than if you had to cut out a big chunk of tissue.  

But when you have locally advanced disease, sometimes that includes having such extensive disease that maybe cutting the lesion out is going to cause disfigurement, or they may be involved lymph nodes, and so we’re afraid that maybe this cancer can now go to other parts of the body. You know, it is just not a simple cut it out and you’re done kind of cancer. 

It’s a kind of cancer that really requires a multidisciplinary team to really think about what are the best ways to manage this for the patient that’s going to provide the patient with the best cosmetic outcome, and long-term outcome control as well.  

Katherine:

Who’s on that team?   

Dr. Pavlick:

So in our academic center that team, or even in a community setting, that team should include a dermatologist, a medical oncologist, a surgeon – depending on where that cancer is located – many times it’s on the head and neck, so it would be a head and neck surgeon. If it’s an extremity or a trunk lesion, then it may be an oncologic general surgeon. Radiation oncology is also important to include because sometimes these are very radiation-sensitive tumors, and radiation may be a part of the whole treatment plan.  

How Can Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Participate in Their Care?

How Can Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Participate in Their Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Vernon Sondak shares encouraging advice for patients to speak up and be active participants in their advanced non-melanoma skin cancer care and treatment decisions.

Dr. Vernon Sondak is the Chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Learn more about Dr. Sondak, here.
 

Katherine:                  

Dr. Sondak, do you think a patient should consider a second opinion or consulting a specialist? If so, what would you say to them, to make them feel comfortable to do that?

Dr. Sondak:                

So, I would remind everyone – as we said earlier – advanced skin cancer is not something you can pass off. “Oh, it’s just skin cancer. Everybody gets skin cancer. It’s just minor. Just put a band aid on it.” I’ve seen people who’ve neglected these cancers for a long time, thinking they weren’t serious, or thinking that the treatments were gonna be too awful, too disfiguring, or too toxic. That’s just not the case anymore.

Everyone with advanced skin cancers should have cutting edge appropriate treatment. Cutting edge doesn’t always mean brand new. It might mean the same surgery we’ve been doing for many years. Just done properly and appropriately for that patient.

So, this is a kind of cancer that usually should be treated by very experienced teams. Especially when drug treatment is needed, often when radiation is needed, and certainly when major surgery is needed. Not just the use of the drugs, but the sequence. Which drug first? Which drug second? When is surgery appropriate? When do we do the radiation?

These are sophisticated decisions, and every patient is different. So, we strongly encourage people to go to a center that has a whole panel of different specialists. And they work and talk to each other. They work with each other, work together, talk to each other, and come up with a plan for each patient. If you just go to one doctor, sometimes – an old saying – when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. There are times when somebody says, “Well, I can do radiation.” Surgeon says, “I can do surgery.” Oncologist says, “I can do chemo, or targeted therapy, or immunotherapy.”

We want them all together, saying “Yeah, but what should we do for this patient?” That’s the goal that we’re striving for. That’s when you’re gonna be the most likely to get the most successful outcome.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Sondak, what would you like to leave patients with? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Sondak:                

We have seen the most dramatic progress in the treatment of these forms of cancer of the skin – melanoma, merkel cell cancer. basal and squamous cell cancers – in my lifetime. Progress I never ever thought I would see. We are not curing everybody, but we are curing a lot more people than we used to.

Yet I still see things about these forms of cancer on the internet that say, “Oh, this is really aggressive. This needs to be treated right away. Don’t wait. Don’t make me go get a second opinion. Have somebody deal with it.”

No. Time out. First thing, it’s better to do it right than to do it right away. Second thing, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and if you go down the wrong treatment path, sometimes you can’t undo that. There is always time to stop and ask, “Am I doing the right thing? Is there somebody who really specializes in this that I should be seeing?”

But the most important advice at all, of course, is you’ve got to get the diagnosis made in the first place. So, that means you have to be willing to go to the doctor, to the dermatologist, to say, “Hey, this doesn’t seem right. It’s just not healing. It just keeps getting worse. What’s going on?”, and then have to be willing to follow up and go through treatments.

If you do, we are extremely optimistic. We are seeing progress, responses, cures that we never thought possible. So, there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic. It’s not always easy. There are plenty of side effects of all the treatments that we talked about. Including surgery, radiation, and all the drugs. But it’s not like it was even 10 years ago. Huge progress for people at any age. So, really, we really are optimistic.

A Review of Current Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Treatment Options

A Review of Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Treatment Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How is advanced non-melanoma skin cancer currently treated? Skin cancer expert Dr. Vernon Sondak reviews advanced non-melanoma skin cancer treatment approaches.

Dr. Vernon Sondak is the Chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Learn more about Dr. Sondak, here.
 

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Let’s turn now to the treatment options for advanced disease. What approaches are currently available to treat advanced non-melanoma skin cancer?           

First and foremost, we always think about, can this thing be entirely removed? Can we get the cancer out and cure the patient once and for all with an operation?

Most skin cancers have not yet spread to the lymph nodes or beyond, even when they’re advanced. So, it follows that if we can remove every last cancer cell from that site, we can cure that patient. That is obviously a worthwhile goal.

But these skin cancers occur in places where a big enough surgery to remove all the cancer can be a pretty deforming surgery. It’s why plastic surgeons get involved a lot. But it’s also why we try combinations of therapy to see if we can get by with less surgery, less radical surgery. Perhaps by adding radiation or adding drug treatments to shrink the cancer.

So, surgery first. Can we do it? Can we just fix this once and for all with surgery and get it done? Whether it’s Mohs, for more advanced cases, usually a general anesthesia type surgery. Often with a skin graft or other kind of plastic surgery reconstruction. Could we just get it all out and have the pathologist tell us, “This is done. This is taken care of”? It’s not a guarantee. There’s no guarantees in this business. Only in the muffler business.

But the odds are good if the pathologist tells us the margins are completely negative. If the pathologist tells us the margins are close here, or positive there, and we don’t think removal of additional tissue is wise, then we may call in the radiation oncologist and say, “Let’s give radiation.” Kill that area where there was a positive margin and give us a margin of safety around the surgery.

In the minority of cases, we say, “This is too big to even tackle with surgery – at least at first – or two widespread. So, we’re gonna use drug treatments. If it shrinks, we may use radiation for surgery later. But first, drugs and let’s see what happens after that.”

So, today we have really three main categories of drug therapy. In the old days we had – and it wasn’t that long ago – we had really one category. I’d say that’s only been in the last – not even – ten years that we’ve had multiple options. But let’s go back 10 years.

Chemotherapy. Standard chemotherapy that people think about with cancer. Hair falls out, nausea as a prominent side effect, suppressing of your immune system, suppressing of your blood counts. That form of chemotherapy was really the only drug therapy we had for advanced melanoma. I mean, advanced non-melanoma skin cancer. Advanced melanoma too could years or more ago.

Now, through progress with melanoma, we have drugs that work in the other kinds of skin cancer. Immunotherapy took the world by storm. It worked so well for melanoma that we tried it in squamous, and merkel cell, and even basal cell cancers, and also saw great results. Now immune therapy is approved in all three of those types of non-melanoma skin cancer.

But there are problems with immune therapy if you have an altered immune system. Especially if you have a kidney transplant, or liver transplant, heart transplant, and we boost your immune system, we run a serious risk of rejection. It isn’t a guarantee, and it can sometimes be managed with additional medications. But it’s something that we have to be very, very, very cautious about, is using immune therapy in someone with a transplant.

So, targeted therapy works when we have a genetic abnormality in a cancer, that we know is only in the cancer, and that we have a drug that can block. For melanoma, if it has a BRAF mutation, we have targeted therapy drugs that target the BRAF mutation.

But non-melanoma skin cancers don’t have BRAF mutations. Squamous cell cancers don’t have mutations that today we can target. Only basal cell cancer, along with melanoma, has a mutation that we can target.

But unlike melanoma – where only some melanomas have the gene mutation in BRAF – basal cells, all the cancers have a mutation in the hedgehog pathway. You can’t pretty much have a basal cell cancer without having a mutation in the hedgehog pathway. Fortunately, we have pills that inhibit that pathway that we call hedgehog inhibitors. Vismodegib, sonidegib, and these drugs are very effective at shrinking even gigantic basal cell cancers.

But the problem with targeted therapy in general, compared to immune therapy, is that the responses don’t tend to last as long. The tumor will shrink very rapidly. But some of those cancer cells figure out a way to mutate further and avoid the drugs that we were using to treat them, and eventually grow back.          

Let me just correct one thing I said about targeted therapy, so I don’t leave the wrong impression. I said there’s not really mutations in squamous cell cancer that can be targeted. There is one called the EGF receptor, or EGFR, that we sometimes target with a drug called cetuximab.

It’s not used as much now with immunotherapy. But it turns out there is some targeted therapy, even for squamous cell cancers. But for basal cell, is where the hedgehog inhibitors are used much more effectively than targeted therapy in most other forms of skin cancer.

What Are Treatment Goals and Considerations for Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer?

What Are Treatment Goals and Considerations for Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Skin cancer expert Dr. Vernon Sondak reviews current treatment goals for advanced non-melanoma skin cancer patients. Dr. Sondak discusses factors to consider when making treatment decisions, including age, lifestyle factors, and potential treatment side effects.

Dr. Vernon Sondak is the Chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Learn more about Dr. Sondak, here.
 

Katherine:                          

There are so many factors that come into play when making a treatment decision, including a patient’s age and overall health. So, let’s walk through the considerations when choosing therapy for advanced disease. What are the treatment goals? What does that mean and what are the goals?

Dr. Sondak:                

It’s actually really important and somewhat underrated to think about, “What’s the goal of the treatment?” I think even doctors sometimes, certainly medical students and trainees, it’s something they have to learn a lot about. Because it’s easy to memorize all the names of all the drugs and all the muscles in the body. But thinking about, “What are we really trying to accomplish here?”

The first thing we would like to accomplish, when we can, is cure the cancer. Most of the advanced skin cancers we’re talking about are still curable. We can’t say all, but most. Even in the high stages they are still potentially curable with treatment.

So, of course, if we can cure someone, we might be more aggressive with our treatment plan. More intensive with our treatment than if we’re not intending to cure them. Why wouldn’t we want to cure them? Why would we have a different intention? We’d always want to, but there are times when we say, “Gee, the standard treatments haven’t worked. Now we have to think about what other goals? We can’t cure you anymore.”

It’s pretty rare with skin cancer. But it happens. It happens with melanoma, and it happens with basal, and squamous cell cancers, but rarely.

We can’t cure you. We can help you feel better because the symptoms that this large skin cancer – this advanced skin cancer – is causing. Whether they might be bleeding, or pain, or pressure on a nerve, or whatever it might be. If we can relieve that, that’s palliation. That’s relieving symptoms. There are times we say, “We want to prevent that symptom from happening in the first place. If we don’t remove this, this is gonna start bleeding, or it’s gonna press on the nerves.”

So, even if we can’t cure you, we might want to treat one or more spots to prevent symptoms from occurring. Only in the most extreme, end of the line, kind of situations would we say now our goal is just comfort. We can no longer do anything to really alter the disease. When and how we make those decisions, obviously, they are challenging. But if you don’t start with that point, then you can’t get to the right treatment decision.

If you’ve got a patient who’s not curable, you want to do the least treatment to make them feel better or prevent them from feeling bad. Whereas if you’ve got a patient who is curable, you may be willing to justify much more aggressive treatment, if that’s what’s needed to cure them. 

Katherine:                  

How do patient specific factors, like lifestyle and pre-existing conditions, impact treatment choices?

Dr. Sondak:                

It really depends, but in skin cancer it can affect them a lot.

Number one: Lifestyle. Well, how did we get skin cancers in the first place? Whether they’re melanoma, basal, squamous? Usually, the one common denominator is ultraviolet light. Got it from being out in the sun or occasionally from being in a tanning bed. Something like that. Melanomas, and to a small extent basal cell cancers, tend to be associated with brief intermittent heavy exposure, meaning sunburns. Squamous cell cancer tends to be associated with chronic cumulative years of sun exposure. I was out in the sun all my life, I fished all the time, I was a lifeguard, what have you. That’s generalization.

A lot of overlap. But the common denominator, the common theme, is ultraviolet exposure. One thing about the sun, it doesn’t just shine on one spot all the time. It shines on lots of places. So, you may have a skin cancer here, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t get sun exposure there, or here, or anywhere else.

So, lifestyle factors. One: We can’t undo the ultraviolet exposure you already had. But we can prevent it from accumulating further. So, once a person is diagnosed with skin cancer, they really need to think about protecting themselves from the sun, avoiding sun exposure, and covering their skin, and protecting their skin when they’re in the sun. Ideally, they think about it before they got skin cancer. So, they don’t get skin cancer. Or if they get it, they get a mild, minimal, non-advanced, and easily treatable case.

But we want to make sure that once a person has skin cancer, that they recognize that their lifestyle needs to change. Cigarette smoking, unbeknownst to a lot of people, is also associated to some degree with skin cancers and a lot of other big and bad medical problems. So, we would love to alter people’s lifestyle as far as smoking is concerned. Those are the couple of key lifestyle factors that we always think about.

I think the other area that is so important in deciding about treatment is the overall health of the patient, other medical conditions that they might have, and then lastly, what the patient’s own specific concerns and considerations are.

How Is Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Staged?

How Is Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Staged? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Skin cancer expert Dr. Vernon Sondak describes how advanced non-melanoma skin cancer is staged and explains which factors are taken into consideration to understand an individual’s diagnosis.

Dr. Vernon Sondak is the Chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Learn more about Dr. Sondak, here.
 

Katherine:                  

And we are going to focus today on advanced disease. So, what makes this type of cancer considered advanced?

Dr. Sondak:                

So, this also is somewhat – I won’t say controversial. I’ll just say it’s not uniformly agreed on by everybody. Not everyone means the exact same thing or has the exact same definition in their mind when they say advanced.

It’s a little different than the stage. The staging of skin cancer is mostly based on the size. So, a small skin cancer is almost never an advanced skin cancer. By small I mean less than 2 centimeters, sometimes. Depending where. Two centimeters is just under an inch.

But 2 centimeters in the middle of your face or on the tip of your nose. That’s already a pretty big problem. So, somebody might say, “Well, that’s kind of advanced.” Yes it is. But that’s not what we’re really talking about here. We’re talking about larger tumors. Tumors that have spread deeply into the tissues, or tumors that have spread and gotten to the next stages. Stage III, meaning in the lymph nodes. Or stage IV, meaning it’s spread beyond the lymph nodes, to the lungs and beyond.  

In terms of stages, in terms of stage III and stage IV, basal and squamous cell cancers, we are talking about much fewer than 2 percent of all those skin cancers. For basal cell, way fewer. For squamous cell, slightly fewer than 2 percent of all cases ever getting to a higher stage, like stage III and stage IV.

Sometimes they can be very advanced without ever spreading to the lymph nodes or beyond because they invade down into the bone. Could be on the top your scalp and invade down into your skull bone. Can be on the cheek, and invade, and follow the track along the nerves of the face. A lot of ways that the skin cancer can become advanced without spreading. But cancers that have spread are automatically considered advanced.

Katherine:                  

Right. That helps us understand the disease and how it progresses.

Is the COVID Vaccine Safe and Effective for Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients?

Is the COVID Vaccine Safe and Effective for Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Vernon Sondak discusses the safety and efficacy of the COVID vaccine for advanced non-melanoma skin cancer patients.

Dr. Vernon Sondak is the Chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Learn more about Dr. Sondak, here.
 

Katherine:                  

Is the COVID vaccine safe and effective for advanced non-melanoma skin cancer patients?

Dr. Sondak:                

I’ve spent my entire career studying the human immune system and vaccines for cancer. The COVID vaccine is the safest, most effective vaccine we have ever seen. It is like the difference between the Wright brothers airplane and the Apollo spaceships in terms of sophistication.

It is a vaccine that has gotten politicized and has gotten tangled up in all kinds of stuff. But again, it is the safest, most effective vaccine we’ve ever seen. I highly recommend it for all of our patients. I believe that all of our patients with cancer, and their family members, and their children of appropriate age should be vaccinated and boosted.

Even if you do that, as I have done, I go vaccinated, I got boosted, and I got COVID. It was milder than the usual cold I get every year before COVID. If I hadn’t been tested, I wouldn’t have even known I had it. I only get tested to avoid spreading it to family members and especially to vulnerable patients. If your immune system is weakened and it’s even more important to be vaccinated.

So, the only advice I give to my patients about the vaccine, and the vaccination specifically, is think about which arm to have it in. If you’ve got an active cancer, say in the left arm, have it in the right arm. Not because it will hurt the cancer, but because in the early days after the vaccine, you may get a little bit of swelling of the lymph nodes. We don’t want your doctor or anybody doing a CAT scan, or ultrasound, or mammogram, or any other test to accidentally think that those enlarged lymph nodes are from the cancer.

If you had the vaccine recently and are getting any type of diagnostic procedure, like a CAT scan mammogram or ultrasound of those lymph nodes, tell the team that you had a recent COVID vaccine.

Katherine:                  

That’s excellent advice. Thank you. Good to know.

What Is Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer?

What Is Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Vernon Sondak provides an overview of the types of skin cancer and defines non-melanoma skin cancer.

Dr. Vernon Sondak is the Chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Learn more about Dr. Sondak, here.
 

Katherine:                  

Let’s start with the basics Dr. Sondak. What exactly is non-melanoma skin cancer?

Dr. Sondak:                

Well, it’s a great question. Sometimes we wish there was a better term, because it obviously is defining this by what it’s not, not by what it is.

Katherine:                  

Right.

Dr. Sondak:                

Melanoma is the most prevalent of the really severe skin cancers. By severe, I mean the ones with the highest chance of spreading and dying. Each year in the United States, there are close to 10,000 deaths from melanoma every year, and about 100,000 cases of invasive melanoma.

But the other forms of skin cancer, and the most common two forms of skin cancer, are basal cell and squamous cell cancers. These two cancers alone, they are about two to three million cases a year, compared to 100,000 melanoma cases.

Katherine:                  

Wow.

Dr. Sondak:                

But probably causing fewer deaths than those 100,000 melanomas. So, there are many, many more of the skin cancers that aren’t melanoma, then there are of the skin cancers that are melanoma.

In fact, there are probably more skin cancers – just if we took basal and squamous cell cancer – there are probably more of those diagnosed every year in the United States than all other forms of cancer put together.

Katherine:                  

Wow. Wow.

Dr. Sondak:                

Now in general, these skin cancers – besides melanoma – are at a low risk of spreading, and metastasizing, and killing the person if their immune system is normal. So, they have almost gotten passed off as, “Oh, it’s just the skin cancer. It’s nothing to worry about.” But when they reach a certain size, when they get to a point where we call them advanced, then now the stakes are higher. It’s not millions of advanced cases, but it’s many tens of thousands of advanced cases in the United States. Some of them do spread and some of them can be life threatening, or even lethal.

Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Treatment Decisions: What’s Right for You?

Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Treatment Decisions: What’s Right for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When considering an advanced non-melanoma skin cancer treatment approach, what helps determine the best treatment for YOU? Dr. Vernon Sondak discusses key treatment decision factors, emerging research, and shares tips for collaborating with your healthcare team.

Dr. Vernon Sondak is the Chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Learn more about Dr. Sondak, here.
 

Katherine:                  

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s webinar. In this program we’re going to help you learn more about advanced non-melanoma skin cancer, what it is, and how it’s treated. And we’ll share tools to help you work with your health care team, to access the best care.

Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during this webinar. At the end of this program, you’ll receive a link to a program survey. Please take a moment to provide feedback about your experience today, in order to help us plan future webinars.

And finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your health care team about what might be best for you.

Joining us today is Dr. Vernon Sondak. Dr. Sondak, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Sondak:                

Thank you and I’m glad to be here. I’m Vern Sondak. I’m the chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. Cutaneous oncology is, of course, the diagnosis and treatment of all forms of cancer that start on the skin. I am a cancer surgeon by training, but pretty much do only skin cancers, melanoma, and all the other types of skin cancer that we’re going to be talking about today.

Katherine:                  

Excellent. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us. Before we learn more about advanced non-melanoma skin cancer, let’s start with the question that’s on the minds of many patients. Is the COVID vaccine safe and effective for advanced non-melanoma skin cancer patients?

Dr. Sondak:                

I’ve spent my entire career studying the human immune system and vaccines for cancer. The COVID vaccine is the safest, most effective vaccine we have ever seen. It is like the difference between the Wright brothers airplane and the Apollo spaceships in terms of sophistication.

It is a vaccine that has gotten politicized and has gotten tangled up in all kinds of stuff. But again, it is the safest, most effective vaccine we’ve ever seen. I highly recommend it for all of our patients. I believe that all of our patients with cancer, and their family members, and their children of appropriate age should be vaccinated and boosted.

Even if you do that, as I have done, I go vaccinated, I got boosted, and I got COVID. It was milder than the usual cold I get every year before COVID. If I hadn’t been tested, I wouldn’t have even known I had it. I only get tested to avoid spreading it to family members and especially to vulnerable patients. If your immune system is weakened and it’s even more important to be vaccinated.

So, the only advice I give to my patients about the vaccine, and the vaccination specifically, is think about which arm to have it in. If you’ve got an active cancer, say in the left arm, have it in the right arm. Not because it will hurt the cancer, but because in the early days after the vaccine, you may get a little bit of swelling of the lymph nodes. We don’t want your doctor or anybody doing a CAT scan, or ultrasound, or mammogram, or any other test to accidentally think that those enlarged lymph nodes are from the cancer.

If you had the vaccine recently and are getting any type of diagnostic procedure, like a CAT scan mammogram or ultrasound of those lymph nodes, tell the team that you had a recent COVID vaccine.

Katherine:                  

That’s excellent advice. Thank you. Good to know. Let’s start with the basics Dr. Sondak. What exactly is non-melanoma skin cancer?

Dr. Sondak:                

Well, it’s a great question. Sometimes we wish there was a better term, because it obviously is defining this by what it’s not, not by what it is.

Katherine:                  

Right.

Dr. Sondak:                

Melanoma is the most prevalent of the really severe skin cancers. By severe, I mean the ones with the highest chance of spreading and dying. Each year in the United States, there are close to 10,000 deaths from melanoma every year, and about 100,000 cases of invasive melanoma.

But the other forms of skin cancer, and the most common two forms of skin cancer, are basal cell and squamous cell cancers. These two cancers alone, they are about two to three million cases a year, compared to 100,000 melanoma cases.

Katherine:                  

Wow.

Dr. Sondak:                

But probably causing fewer deaths than those 100,000 melanomas. So, there are many, many more of the skin cancers that aren’t melanoma, then there are of the skin cancers that are melanoma.

In fact, there are probably more skin cancers – just if we took basal and squamous cell cancer – there are probably more of those diagnosed every year in the United States than all other forms of cancer put together.

Katherine:                  

Wow. Wow.

Dr. Sondak:                

Now in general, these skin cancers – besides melanoma – are at a low risk of spreading, and metastasizing, and killing the person if their immune system is normal. So, they have almost gotten passed off as, “Oh, it’s just the skin cancer. It’s nothing to worry about.” But when they reach a certain size, when they get to a point where we call them advanced, then now the stakes are higher. It’s not millions of advanced cases, but it’s many tens of thousands of advanced cases in the United States. Some of them do spread and some of them can be life threatening, or even lethal.

Katherine:                  

And we are going to focus today on advanced disease. So, what makes this type of cancer considered advanced?

Dr. Sondak:                

So, this also is somewhat – I won’t say controversial. I’ll just say it’s not uniformly agreed on by everybody. Not everyone means the exact same thing or has the exact same definition in their mind when they say advanced.

It’s a little different than the stage. The staging of skin cancer is mostly based on the size. So, a small skin cancer is almost never an advanced skin cancer. By small I mean less than 2 centimeters, sometimes. Depending where. Two centimeters is just under an inch.

But 2 centimeters in the middle of your face or on the tip of your nose. That’s already a pretty big problem. So, somebody might say, “Well, that’s kind of advanced.” Yes it is. But that’s not what we’re really talking about here. We’re talking about larger tumors. Tumors that have spread deeply into the tissues, or tumors that have spread and gotten to the next stages. Stage III, meaning in the lymph nodes. Or stage IV, meaning it’s spread beyond the lymph nodes, to the lungs and beyond.  

In terms of stages, in terms of stage III and stage IV, basal and squamous cell cancers, we are talking about much fewer than 2 percent of all those skin cancers. For basal cell, way fewer. For squamous cell, slightly fewer than 2 percent of all cases ever getting to a higher stage, like stage III and stage IV.

Sometimes they can be very advanced without ever spreading to the lymph nodes or beyond because they invade down into the bone. Could be on the top your scalp and invade down into your skull bone. Can be on the cheek, and invade, and follow the track along the nerves of the face. A lot of ways that the skin cancer can become advanced without spreading. But cancers that have spread are automatically considered advanced.

Katherine:                  

Right. That helps us understand the disease and how it progresses.           

There are so many factors that come into play when making a treatment decision, including a patient’s age and overall health. So, let’s walk through the considerations when choosing therapy for advanced disease. What are the treatment goals? What does that mean and what are the goals?

Dr. Sondak:                

It’s actually really important and somewhat underrated to think about, “What’s the goal of the treatment?” I think even doctors sometimes, certainly medical students and trainees, it’s something they have to learn a lot about. Because it’s easy to memorize all the names of all the drugs and all the muscles in the body. But thinking about, “What are we really trying to accomplish here?”

The first thing we would like to accomplish, when we can, is cure the cancer. Most of the advanced skin cancers we’re talking about are still curable. We can’t say all, but most. Even in the high stages they are still potentially curable with treatment.

So, of course, if we can cure someone, we might be more aggressive with our treatment plan. More intensive with our treatment than if we’re not intending to cure them. Why wouldn’t we want to cure them? Why would we have a different intention? We’d always want to, but there are times when we say, “Gee, the standard treatments haven’t worked. Now we have to think about what other goals? We can’t cure you anymore.”

It’s pretty rare with skin cancer. But it happens. It happens with melanoma, and it happens with basal, and squamous cell cancers, but rarely.

We can’t cure you. We can help you feel better because the symptoms that this large skin cancer – this advanced skin cancer – is causing. Whether they might be bleeding, or pain, or pressure on a nerve, or whatever it might be. If we can relieve that, that’s palliation. That’s relieving symptoms. There are times we say, “We want to prevent that symptom from happening in the first place. If we don’t remove this, this is going to start bleeding, or it’s going to press on the nerves.”

So, even if we can’t cure you, we might want to treat one or more spots to prevent symptoms from occurring. Only in the most extreme, end of the line, kind of situations would we say now our goal is just comfort. We can no longer do anything to really alter the disease. When and how we make those decisions, obviously, they are challenging. But if you don’t start with that point, then you can’t get to the right treatment decision.

If you’ve got a patient who’s not curable, you want to do the least treatment to make them feel better or prevent them from feeling bad. Whereas if you’ve got a patient who is curable, you may be willing to justify much more aggressive treatment, if that’s what’s needed to cure them. 

Katherine:                  

How do patient-specific factors, like lifestyle and pre-existing conditions, impact treatment choices?

Dr. Sondak:                

It really depends, but in skin cancer it can affect them a lot.

Number one: Lifestyle. Well, how did we get skin cancers in the first place? Whether they’re melanoma, basal, squamous? Usually, the one common denominator is ultraviolet light. Got it from being out in the sun or occasionally from being in a tanning bed. Something like that. Melanomas, and to a small extent basal cell cancers, tend to be associated with brief intermittent heavy exposure, meaning sunburns. Squamous cell cancer tends to be associated with chronic cumulative years of sun exposure. I was out in the sun all my life, I fished all the time, I was a lifeguard, what have you. That’s generalization.

A lot of overlap. But the common denominator, the common theme, is ultraviolet exposure. One thing about the sun, it doesn’t just shine on one spot all the time. It shines on lots of places. So, you may have a skin cancer here, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t get sun exposure there, or here, or anywhere else.

So, lifestyle factors. One: We can’t undo the ultraviolet exposure you already had. But we can prevent it from accumulating further. So, once a person is diagnosed with skin cancer, they really need to think about protecting themselves from the sun, avoiding sun exposure, and covering their skin, and protecting their skin when they’re in the sun. Ideally, they think about it before they got skin cancer. So, they don’t get skin cancer. Or if they get it, they get a mild, minimal, non-advanced, and easily treatable case.

But we want to make sure that once a person has skin cancer, that they recognize that their lifestyle needs to change. Cigarette smoking, unbeknownst to a lot of people, is also associated to some degree with skin cancers and a lot of other big and bad medical problems. So, we would love to alter people’s lifestyle as far as smoking is concerned. Those are the couple of key lifestyle factors that we always think about.

I think the other area that is so important in deciding about treatment is the overall health of the patient, other medical conditions that they might have, and then lastly, what the patient’s own specific concerns and considerations are.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Let’s turn now to the treatment options for advanced disease. What approaches are currently available to treat advanced non-melanoma skin cancer?

Dr. Sondak:                

First and foremost, we always think about, can this thing be entirely removed? Can we get the cancer out and cure the patient once and for all with an operation?

Most skin cancers have not yet spread to the lymph nodes or beyond, even when they’re advanced. So, it follows that if we can remove every last cancer cell from that site, we can cure that patient. That is obviously a worthwhile goal.

But these skin cancers occur in places where a big enough surgery to remove all the cancer can be a pretty deforming surgery. It’s why plastic surgeons get involved a lot. But it’s also why we try combinations of therapy to see if we can get by with less surgery, less radical surgery. Perhaps by adding radiation or adding drug treatments to shrink the cancer.

So, surgery first. Can we do it? Can we just fix this once and for all with surgery and get it done? Whether it’s Mohs, for more advanced cases, usually a general anesthesia type surgery. Often with a skin graft or other kind of plastic surgery reconstruction. Could we just get it all out and have the pathologist tell us, “This is done. This is taken care of”? It’s not a guarantee. There’s no guarantees in this business. Only in the muffler business.

But the odds are good if the pathologist tells us the margins are completely negative. If the pathologist tells us the margins are close here, or positive there, and we don’t think removal of additional tissue is wise, then we may call in the radiation oncologist and say, “Let’s give radiation.” Kill that area where there was a positive margin and give us a margin of safety around the surgery.

In the minority of cases, we say, “This is too big to even tackle with surgery – at least at first – or too widespread. So, we’re going to use drug treatments. If it shrinks, we may use radiation for surgery later. But first, drugs and let’s see what happens after that.”

So, today we have really three main categories of drug therapy. In the old days we had – and it wasn’t that long ago – we had really one category. I’d say that’s only been in the last – not even – 10 years that we’ve had multiple options. But let’s go back 10 years.

Chemotherapy. Standard chemotherapy that people think about with cancer. Hair falls out, nausea as a prominent side effect, suppressing of your immune system, suppressing of your blood counts. That form of chemotherapy was really the only drug therapy we had for advanced melanoma. I mean, advanced non-melanoma skin cancer. Advanced melanoma too could years or more ago.

Now, through progress with melanoma, we have drugs that work in the other kinds of skin cancer. Immunotherapy took the world by storm. It worked so well for melanoma that we tried it in squamous, and merkel cell, and even basal cell cancers, and also saw great results. Now immune therapy is approved in all three of those types of non-melanoma skin cancer.

But there are problems with immune therapy if you have an altered immune system. Especially if you have a kidney transplant, or liver transplant, heart transplant, and we boost your immune system, we run a serious risk of rejection. It isn’t a guarantee, and it can sometimes be managed with additional medications. But it’s something that we have to be very, very, very cautious about, is using immune therapy in someone with a transplant.

So, targeted therapy works when we have a genetic abnormality in a cancer, that we know is only in the cancer, and that we have a drug that can block. For melanoma, if it has a BRAF mutation, we have targeted therapy drugs that target the BRAF mutation.

But non-melanoma skin cancers don’t have BRAF mutations. Squamous cell cancers don’t have mutations that today we can target. Only basal cell cancer, along with melanoma, has a mutation that we can target.

But unlike melanoma – where only some melanomas have the gene mutation in BRAF – basal cells, all the cancers have a mutation in the hedgehog pathway. You can’t pretty much have a basal cell cancer without having a mutation in the hedgehog pathway. Fortunately, we have pills that inhibit that pathway that we call hedgehog inhibitors. Vismodegib, sonidegib, and these drugs are very effective at shrinking even gigantic basal cell cancers.

But the problem with targeted therapy in general, compared to immune therapy, is that the responses don’t tend to last as long. The tumor will shrink very rapidly. But some of those cancer cells figure out a way to mutate further and avoid the drugs that we were using to treat them, and eventually grow back.

Dr. Sondak:                

Let me just correct one thing I said about targeted therapy, so I don’t leave the wrong impression. I said there’s not really mutations in squamous cell cancer that can be targeted. There is one called the EGF receptor, or EGFR, that we sometimes target with a drug called cetuximab.

It’s not used as much now with immunotherapy. But it turns out there is some targeted therapy, even for squamous cell cancers. But for basal cell, is where the hedgehog inhibitors are used much more effectively than targeted therapy in most other forms of skin cancer.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Sondak, do you think a patient should consider a second opinion or consulting a specialist? If so, what would you say to them, to make them feel comfortable to do that?

Dr. Sondak:                

So, I would remind everyone – as we said earlier – advanced skin cancer is not something you can pass off. “Oh, it’s just skin cancer. Everybody gets skin cancer. It’s just minor. Just put a band aid on it.” I’ve seen people who’ve neglected these cancers for a long time, thinking they weren’t serious, or thinking that the treatments were going to be too awful, too disfiguring, or too toxic. That’s just not the case anymore.

Everyone with advanced skin cancers should have cutting edge appropriate treatment. Cutting edge doesn’t always mean brand new. It might mean the same surgery we’ve been doing for many years. Just done properly and appropriately for that patient.

So, this is a kind of cancer that usually should be treated by very experienced teams. Especially when drug treatment is needed, often when radiation is needed, and certainly when major surgery is needed. Not just the use of the drugs, but the sequence. Which drug first? Which drug second? When is surgery appropriate? When do we do the radiation?

These are sophisticated decisions, and every patient is different. So, we strongly encourage people to go to a center that has a whole panel of different specialists. And they work and talk to each other. They work with each other, work together, talk to each other, and come up with a plan for each patient. If you just go to one doctor, sometimes – an old saying – when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. There are times when somebody says, “Well, I can do radiation.” Surgeon says, “I can do surgery.” Oncologist says, “I can do chemo, or targeted therapy, or immunotherapy.”

We want them all together, saying “Yeah, but what should we do for this patient?” That’s the goal that we’re striving for. That’s when you’re going to be the most likely to get the most successful outcome.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Sondak, what would you like to leave patients with? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Sondak:                

We have seen the most dramatic progress in the treatment of these forms of cancer of the skin – melanoma, merkel cell cancer. basal and squamous cell cancers – in my lifetime. Progress I never ever thought I would see. We are not curing everybody, but we are curing a lot more people than we used to.

Yet I still see things about these forms of cancer on the internet that say, “Oh, this is really aggressive. This needs to be treated right away. Don’t wait. Don’t make me go get a second opinion. Have somebody deal with it.”

No. Time out. First thing, it’s better to do it right than to do it right away. Second thing, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and if you go down the wrong treatment path, sometimes you can’t undo that. There is always time to stop and ask, “Am I doing the right thing? Is there somebody who really specializes in this that I should be seeing?”

But the most important advice at all, of course, is you’ve got to get the diagnosis made in the first place. So, that means you have to be willing to go to the doctor, to the dermatologist, to say, “Hey, this doesn’t seem right. It’s just not healing. It just keeps getting worse. What’s going on?”, and then have to be willing to follow up and go through treatments.

If you do, we are extremely optimistic. We are seeing progress, responses, cures that we never thought possible. So, there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic. It’s not always easy. There are plenty of side effects of all the treatments that we talked about. Including surgery, radiation, and all the drugs. But it’s not like it was even 10 years ago. Huge progress for people at any age. So, really, we really are optimistic.

Katherine:                  

Thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Dr. Sondak:                

Thank you for having me. Good luck with all your efforts.

Katherine:                  

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

To learn more about advanced non-melanoma skin cancer, and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for being with us today.

Surviving Melanoma

I discovered my Melanoma 14 years ago in a hotel mirror. It was at a Courtyard by Marriott where the closet doors were mirrored behind the vanity. I was getting ready for a day filled with important meetings and my back was readily visible in the reflection of the mirror. It was a black pin sized marking. So, small but so obvious. I made a mental note to deal with it when I returned from travel, but one day bled into the next and I never made it a priority. I didn’t think much of it, only that it was black in color and something I had not noticed before.

It was several months later as I sat on the beach enjoingy the warm sun (how ironic since it almost killed me) when a friend mentioned it to me.  She thought I really needed to get it checked out. She said it was really black and concerning…. mental note #2 in the books.  Vacation ended and we headed home.  I made a few calls and since I had never been to a dermatologist I felt it was a daunting task.  I was embarrassed to admit my concern and lack of knowledge…I mean really…it’s just a dark freckle.

But it wasn’t!  Turned out to be a serious case of melanoma – stage 2. I googled it and it scared me even more.  Was I seriously going to die from this pen mark size of a mole?  It seemed impossible.  Denial was my first defense and only strategy. I had pre-op, counseling, operations and treatment and many, many sleepless nights, I’ll be sure to share even more in my future diaries – this is just the cliff notes.  So many emotions to share and victories to celebrate.  I think this will be a learning place.  A place to support and to be inspired.

Yesterday, I found myself in a similar setting (a Courtyard as a matter of fact) and it reminded me of my experience. It was a bit unnerving and while I am thankful to be here to talk about it today – I was filled with uncontrollable anxiety as I witnessed the view of my back…afraid I might see something new. Something so simple yet so impactful.

We live to tell! Sharing my story is therapeutic and my feelings are real.  All of you who read my tale and scribble in my diary make my fears more tolerable and I appreciate each and every one of you every day!

 

Real patient experiences shared privately at www.TreatmentDiaries.com.  Read more, share if you like or join in the conversation.  Making sure you feel less alone navigating a diagnosis is important.  Connecting you to those who can relate and provide support is what we do.