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How Can You Advocate for the Best Lung Cancer Care?

How Can You Advocate for the Best Lung Cancer Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is the patient’s role in lung cancer care? Dr. Jessica Bauman discusses the importance of communication with your healthcare team as well as the benefits of taking advantage of supportive care options.

Dr. Jessica Bauman is assistant professor in the department of hematology/oncology and as associate program director of the hematology/oncology fellowship training program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Learn more about Dr. Bauman here.

See More From the The Pro-Active Lung Cancer Patient Toolkit

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What You Should Know When Making a Lung Cancer Treatment Decision

What You Should Know When Making a Lung Cancer Treatment Decision

Navigating Lung Cancer Treatment Decisions

 


Transcript:

Katherine:               

Let’s talk about patient self-advocacy. Patients can sometimes feel like they’re bothering their healthcare team with their comments and questions. But why is it important for patients to speak up when it comes to their symptoms and their side effects?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, this, I would say, it’s a partnership. The bottom line is, and if I don’t know that something is going on, I can’t help to solve the problem. And if I don’t know about something, a new symptom that could be, potentially, majorly concerning, patients can also get really sick or even end up in life-threatening situations. And so, ignoring things or just hoping things will go away is not in a patient’s best interest.

I think that it is critical that patients are their own self-advocate. I think that I say that often, and I’ve already said that a couple of times on this, but we don’t know unless we’re hearing from them what’s going on. And so, it is so important for patients to keep us updated if they’re worried about something. Certainly, we see them very frequently, and so they can often tell us at their visits what’s going on. But overall, the in-between time is just as critical because it is often the treatments that we give can cause side effects at any time. And so, it is really important that we know about anything that’s going on and for patients to always give us a call.

I mean, that’s the bottom line is, is that if they’re worried about something, we need to know about it.

Katherine:                   

What supportive care options are there for patients who may have pain management difficulties or even emotional support? Where do they start?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, there are often many different kinds of supportive care for patients. I would say that oncologists, of course, are one layer of supportive care. We do a lot of help with symptom management and often even pain management as well as coping and emotional support. However, there are also other people often within cancer centers that are also available to help. And this includes social workers. It also includes psychologists and psychiatrists.

And then the other thing that I think is really important to mention is that we know for patients who have lung cancer or an advanced lung cancer diagnosis, that integrating a palliative care team – a supportive and palliative care team – early into their diagnosis actually helps them live longer as well as better.

They have better quality of life, and they have decreased problems with mood.

And so, we know that supportive care and palliative care, specifically in lung cancer, is particularly helpful for both patients and their caregivers. And so, it’s important for patients to also know that there is a whole team, that I think of as, sort of, an extra layer of support, that can help them with symptom management as well as with coping with the day-to-day of what can be a devastating diagnosis.

 

 

How Do I Know If My Lung Cancer Treatment Is Working?

How Do I Know If My Lung Cancer Treatment Is Working? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How is lung cancer treatment monitored? Lung cancer specialist Dr. Jessica Bauman explains how regular imaging is used to gauge treatment effectiveness.

Dr. Jessica Bauman is assistant professor in the department of hematology/oncology and as associate program director of the hematology/oncology fellowship training program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Learn more about Dr. Bauman here.

See More From the The Pro-Active Lung Cancer Patient Toolkit

Related Programs:

How Can You Advocate for the Best Lung Cancer Care?

How Can You Advocate for the Best Lung Cancer Care?

What You Should Know When Making a Lung Cancer Treatment Decision

What You Should Know When Making a Lung Cancer Treatment Decision

Lung Cancer Treatment Approaches: What Are Your Options?

Lung Cancer Treatment Approaches: What Are Your Options?


Transcript:

Katherine:               

Once a patient has started treatment, how do you know if it’s working?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, we do regular imaging. So, once you have a diagnosis of lung cancer, a CAT scanner will become your friend. In general, depending on what stage of lung cancer you have, you will have a bunch of imaging up front, and then once a treatment plan is put into place, after that treatment has either been completed or started, you will be monitored, in general, regularly for the lung cancer diagnosis. Now, after surgery, that will be for more for surveillance to make sure that the lung cancer doesn’t come back. But if it is more in the setting of a stage IV lung cancer, then the imaging really helps us determine, “Is the treatment working or not?”

And so, after we start a treatment, usually anywhere between six and eight weeks, we repeat imaging to see, “Is this working? Is it smaller? Is it the same? Has it grown?”

And based on that imaging, and based on how the patient is doing with the treatment, we then decide, “Do we continue this treatment, or do we need to change to a new treatment?” And so, we regularly monitor the patient’s cancer through regular imaging.

Deciding on a Treatment Plan: Where Do Clinical Trials Fit In?

Lung Cancer Treatment Approaches: What Are Your Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Could a clinical trial be right for your lung cancer? Dr. Jessica Bauman, a specialist in lung cancer, discusses where clinical trials fit into the treatment plan and the role that trials play in the future of lung cancer care. 

Dr. Jessica Bauman is assistant professor in the department of hematology/oncology and as associate program director of the hematology/oncology fellowship training program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Learn more about Dr. Bauman here.

See More From the The Pro-Active Lung Cancer Patient Toolkit

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How Do I Know If My Lung Cancer Treatment Is Working?


Transcript:

Katherine:             

How do clinical trials fit into the treatment plan?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, clinical trials are very important in all of our decision making. So, there are many different kinds of clinical trials, but clinical trials are where we are offering the newest potential treatment options for patients. And there are some clinical trials where it’s a brand-new drug that’s never been in a person before, but there are also clinical trials of drugs that we use from a different disease that has been effective, and now it has good evidence, potentially, in lung cancer, and so it’s being used in lung cancer. There are also trials of new combinations of treatments.

So, for example, one of the most recent, sort of, classic treatment-changing trials was a large trial where everybody who had chemotherapy and radiation for stage III lung cancer, then received a year of immune therapy versus not receiving immune therapy to see if that new treatment would help them live longer or would prolong their survival.

And, in fact, that trial was very positive, and so it changed the way we treat stage III lung cancer. So, again, these are just examples of types of clinical trials. But clinical trials are where we are finding out what may be the next best treatments for patients.

And so, when I’m thinking about a treatment approach to a patient, I’m incorporating all of the things that we talked about, but I’m also then thinking about, “Are there clinical trials that may also be relevant to them for their specific situation?” whether that is a clinical trial that involves surgery in some way, or whether that’s a clinical trial that involves a new drug, whether it’s a clinical trial that’s offering a new kind of supportive care.

So, there are lots of different kinds of clinical trials that may be relevant to patients.

Katherine:                   

Are there emerging approaches for treating lung cancer that patients should know about?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, absolutely. I think that there are so many clinical trials that are going on right now for all sorts of different lung cancers.

I think one of the amazing parts about lung cancer right now is how, as I said before, how personalized it has become, and how each individual, depending all of the different factors we talked about, what treatments are best for them. But it also depends on there also may be clinical trials that are specific for that person. And so, for example, if you have a new diagnosis of stage IV cancer, and you have an EGFR mutation or an ALK mutation, you want to know about clinical trials that are specific to that population because for you, those are what are most relevant for you.

If you have a new diagnosis of a stage III lung cancer, then you want to know, “What are the clinical trial options for patients who have stage III lung cancer?” And so, there are many clinical trials that are asking, sort of, the next best question of, “How can we improve the current standard of care?” And often there really are trials in each of these different areas. So, it’s not just a one-size-fits-all.

Katherine:                   

Some patients can be fearful when it comes to clinical trials. What would you say to someone who might be hesitant in participating in one?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, I very much understand that. I think any kind of treatment can be a scary thing. But I think, as I said before, I think the more that you can understand about your cancer and understand about the science and the research, it helps you then understand where the trial fits in terms of your treatment options.

I think that if you understand what to expect from the treatment that you’re getting, and then what the plan B and plan C could look like, I think that piece of it is also important. And you know, I think that one of the hardest parts about lung cancer right now is even though we have all of these new promising therapies and multiple new approved drugs, with a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, most of the time the cancer learns to grow. And so, even though we have treatments that work really well, there will be a time for most people where the cancer starts to grow, and we need to think about, “Well, why is the cancer growing?”

And often, that is the setting where clinical trials are very relevant because clinical trials are often thinking about just that, “Well, why is the cancer becoming resistant? What is different about the cancer now? And is there some change that would make it relevant for you to do one specific trial over another specific trial?”

Lung Cancer Treatment Approaches: What Are Your Options?

Lung Cancer Treatment Approaches: What Are Your Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How is lung cancer treated? Dr. Jessica Bauman provides an overview of lung cancer treatment modalities, including surgery, radiation and systemic therapies such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy. 

Dr. Jessica Bauman is assistant professor in the department of hematology/oncology and as associate program director of the hematology/oncology fellowship training program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Learn more about Dr. Bauman here.

See More From the The Pro-Active Lung Cancer Patient Toolkit

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Why You Should Consider a Clinical Trial for Lung Cancer Treatment


Transcript:

Katherine:             

Would you walk us through the currently available lung cancer treatment approaches and who they might be right for?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, we talked about this a little bit, but I would say, so, certainly, the different types of lung cancer treatment depends on the stage of the cancer.

But in general, I’m thinking about the broad categories that we have. So, number one being surgery. So, surgery is absolutely one of the most important aspects of lung cancer treatment that we have and is one of the ways in which it is possible to cure lung cancer. So, surgery can happen both as an open surgery, but there are also more minimally invasive surgeries now that have also revolutionized the way they can do surgery in lung cancer. And so, that absolutely plays a very significant role in the treatment of lung cancer.

The second broad approach that I would say is that of radiation.  So, radiation also plays a very critical role in lung cancer, often more in advanced-stage disease for patients who have, for example, stage III disease, where the treatment that we consider is a combination of chemotherapy and radiation also with curative intent.

So, the idea behind this is that it’s cancer that is still in the chest, but it has spread to the lymph nodes in the chest, and a combination of chemotherapy and radiation may still be able to cure patients of this cancer. And so, radiation also can play a critical role. And interestingly, in small cell – which we’ve spoken a little bit less about – radiation and chemotherapy play a very important role in small cell, and often surgery plays less of a roll in small cell. And so, our treatment approach using radiation is in both of these kinds of cancers, and often we’re doing a full course of radiation also in an attempt to cure the cancer for the patient.

The last, sort of, broad category of treatment that I would say is what I call “systemic treatments.” So, that is targeted treatment. That is chemotherapy. And that is immune therapy.

And what we use of those three types of treatments completely depends on the patient’s stage and more information about that patient’s tumor, in particular, the molecular testing as well as what we say is called PD-L1, which is a marker on the tumor that tells me about the responsiveness to immunotherapy.

Often, we use a combination of many of these treatments. So, there are patients who get surgery and then chemotherapy. There are patients who get chemotherapy and radiation and then surgery. And there are patients who get only what we call systemic therapies.

I will also say it’s important to note that for radiation, although there’s a proportion of people that we use radiation with curative intent for a long period of time – so, a six-week course of radiation – we also use radiation to help with symptom management if someone’s having a specific problem that’s causing them a symptom where radiation may help.

The classic example of that is pain. So, if they have a spot in the bone that is causing them a lot of pain, a short course of radiation to shrink that tumor where that is, can be very helpful. And so, radiation we can also use to help with palliation of symptoms. The other things that I’m not getting into significantly today, but are also there, are there are other types of procedures that have become more common where you can go in, for example, with an interventional radiologist and do an ablation of a tumor.

Our interventional pulmonologists also do significant amount of ability to access the lungs and the lymph nodes to be able to help with diagnosis, but they can also do something like a debulking procedure where they can get rid of some of the cancer to stop it from bleeding.

They can also stent open the cancer to help people breathe better. So, there are multiple different other team members who also are really critical to our patient’s care.

 

What You Should Know When Making a Lung Cancer Treatment Decision

What You Should Know When Making a Lung Cancer Treatment Decision from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What should you consider when choosing a lung cancer therapy? Dr. Jessica Bauman, a lung cancer specialist, reviews factors that determine which lung cancer treatment may be most appropriate for your disease. 

Dr. Jessica Bauman is assistant professor in the department of hematology/oncology and as associate program director of the hematology/oncology fellowship training program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Learn more about Dr. Bauman here.

See More From the The Pro-Active Lung Cancer Patient Toolkit

Related Programs:

Navigating Lung Cancer Treatment Decisions

Key Next Steps After a Lung Cancer Diagnosis: Expert Advice

Establishing a Lung Cancer Diagnosis: How Do Subtypes Affect Treatment Choices?

Establishing a Lung Cancer Diagnosis: How Do Subtypes Affect Treatment Choices?


Transcript:

Katherine:               

How can patients advocate for a precise lung cancer diagnosis, and why is that important?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, it’s, of course, important because it changes everything that they would be able to be offered in terms of treatment. And so, I think that it is important to, one, really understand what your lung cancer is, right? What is the stage? What are the treatment options? And if there are treatment options that are not options for you, why is that? And is that because of special testing that has been done? So, I think it’s always important to ask, “Are there other special tests that I need to have on my tumor or on the biopsy?”

And if patients have questions about what options that they have, I think it’s important for them to understand why some options are theirs, and why other options may not be good options for them, and how their physician is making those decisions. Because I do think the more you understand about this, the better you can advocate for the types of treatments you can access.

Katherine:                   

When deciding on a treatment approach with a patient, what do you take into account when making the decision?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, we take into account all of the things that we’ve been talking about. Of course, the number one most important part is the histology, so what the kind of cancer is. Number two is what the stage is. And then number three is the health characteristics of that patient.

Do they have underlying health problems that would impact the types of treatment that we would consider? And then ultimately, what are the goals of the patient? Right? So, of course, we have lots of different options, but it’s going to be important to partner with the patient and their family to understand where they are in their life and what kinds of treatments are feasible and acceptable to them.

Katherine:                   

What about treatment side effects? Do you take that into consideration?

Dr. Bauman:                

Absolutely. So, I always talk about my two primary goals for when I’m treating a patient is 1.) is to help them live as long as they can, and Number two is to help them live as well as they can. And I do think it is critical to understand the side effects of our treatments and how that may impact the patient and what their underlying issues are. So, for example, if I have a patient who comes to me who already has significant neuropathy because of a prior diagnosis of some kind, we need to strongly consider the types of treatments we’re using to consider one that doesn’t cause neuropathy.

Right? And often there are different treatments that we have where we can really consider the side effects and quality of life for patients in terms of what we have. I’ll also say that treatments and the supportive care that we have to offer have become better over time. So, yes, of course, we give toxic treatments, but we definitely are able to support people better with the side effects that they have to try to minimize those and make it as tolerable as we can.

 

Essential Testing for Lung Cancer Patients: How Results Impact Treatment Choices

Essential Testing for Lung Cancer Patients: How Results Impact Treatment Choices from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What testing should take place after a lung cancer diagnosis? Dr. Jessica Bauman discusses the various imaging and molecular tests for lung cancer, and how the results may inform treatment choices. 

Dr. Jessica Bauman is assistant professor in the department of hematology/oncology and as associate program director of the hematology/oncology fellowship training program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Learn more about Dr. Bauman here.

See More From the The Pro-Active Lung Cancer Patient Toolkit

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What You Should Know When Making a Lung Cancer Treatment Decision


Transcript:

Katherine:               

Dr. Bauman, what testing should take place following a lung cancer diagnosis?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, this very much depends on how the cancer was diagnosed initially. So, some cancers are diagnosed on screening – lung cancer CTs right now – but other cancers are found incidentally, for other reasons. Or there are some that are diagnosed with a scan because somebody’s developing a symptom. So, in general, what I would say is that we always need good imaging essentially of the entire body when a lung cancer is suspected. Often this includes CAT scans, but this very commonly also includes a PET scan. And it will often include a brain MRI as well because the best way to the look at the brain is with an MRI.

Obviously, that can vary a little bit depending on what studies people have already had and what radiologic techniques are most accessible.

Katherine:                   

What about molecular testing and biopsies?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, sorry, I was sort of going on the imaging. But so, of course, you need full imaging. But the first thing you need to do that is paramount is establishing a histologic diagnosis, which goes to this initial thought of, “Is this small cell? Is this non-small cell? What is it?” So, if there is a lung mass that is suspected to be lung cancer, the first thing that happens is a biopsy as well as imaging. The imaging helps us establish, “Has this gone anywhere else? Does it involve the lymph nodes?” and helps us with the initial staging workup. Often there is a biopsy of the mass itself.

But there are often biopsies as well as the lymph nodes that are involved, in particular in the center of the chest called the mediastinum, because that also helps us establish the stage of the cancer.

And then if the cancer does look to have spread to somewhere else, we sometimes biopsy only that area or that area in addition to establish that it, in fact, has spread to a different place such as the liver or the bone. Once that biopsy is done, and once we know what type of lung cancer it is, then we also send more studies on the biopsy itself that help us determine what the best treatments are, in particular when we’re talking about what I call “systemic treatments.”

So, treatments that are going into the body and all over the body that involved immune therapies, chemotherapies, or targeted therapies. So, that extra testing that we do is something that’s called molecular testing.

It’s also called next generation sequencing. There are a bunch of different terminology that we use.

Katherine:                

Okay. Dr. Bauman, would you walk us through how lung cancer is staged? And is it different for small cell vs. non-small cell lung cancer?

Dr. Bauman:                

Absolutely. So, as we talked about, the first thing that we do is we do get a biopsy to establish the diagnosis. The second piece is often if it looks to be a cancer that is only limited to the chest – so there is a mass and maybe some activities in lymph nodes that we’re concerned about but nowhere else – not only do we want to biopsy the mass itself, but we also want to know whether those lymph nodes are involved. So, those are biopsied because that will tell us the stage of the cancer. Staging very much depends on the size of the tumor itself, and then it also depends on, “Has it spread to lymph nodes in the center of the chest, and has it spread outside of the chest to other places?”

And so, early-stage lung cancers are just the primary cancer itself that has not spread anywhere else. More advanced stage lung cancers – things like stage IIs and stage III lung cancers – are ones that also involve the lymph nodes. And then a stage IV lung cancer involves a lung cancer that has spread to somewhere outside of the body. And depending on the stage is really what determines the way we approach treatment for these patients.

Katherine:                  

And that is actually my next question. What do the results of these tests tell us about prognosis and treatment choices?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, they tell us stage, and, ultimately, prognosis and treatment choices are completely linked to the stage of a cancer. So, an early-stage lung cancer, often a stage I or stage II lung cancer, primarily our first choice of treatment is surgery. And if surgery is feasible for the patient – because, of course, it also depends on their other medical comorbidities and whether they can withstand a surgical resection of the cancer.

But usually, early-stage lung cancers we start with surgery. And then depending on what the pathology shows us, we sometimes include a course of chemotherapy afterwards to decrease the risk of the cancer coming back. More advanced lung cancers, so stage III lung cancers, often involved what we call “multiple modalities.” So, for some patients we do a combination of chemotherapy and radiation in an attempt to cure the cancer. Often that is followed by immunotherapy. There are other patients who have stage III lung cancer where we do chemotherapy and radiation and follow that with surgery.

So, it’s a very case-dependent decision algorithm, where it really depends on where the tumor is, the type of tumor, what the surgery would be, what the patient’s underlying health status is, etc.

And then if it is a stage IV cancer, often we are really approaching this with systemic therapies. So, once a cancer has spread outside the lung, we traditionally think of this often as an incurable cancer. And there is a much more limited role of surgery and radiation, though I wouldn’t say that they’re absolutely off the table. Again, we sometimes think of these in sort of a case-by-case scenario. But in general, our approach for a stage IV cancer is with some kind of systemic therapy. And that completely depends on all those special tests that we do that we were talking about that we send on that initial biopsy.

Katherine:                   

What about the significance of chromosomal abnormalities?

Dr. Bauman:                

So, what I would say is, what we do for, in particular, in the setting of a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis right now, is we send molecular testing on the biopsy samples of these patients, in particular if they have adenocarcinoma.

And the reason we do this, what this gives us, is it tells us about the DNA of the tumor, and whether there are genes in the tumor that are changed in some way that are affecting the cancer’s ability to grow. And the reason that’s so important, is there are new treatments that really capitalize on those changes in the tumor to be able to stop the cancer from growing. The best example of this is for people who have something called an EGFR mutation.

And there are multiple different kinds of mutations. I call it “alphabet soup” because there are so many different letters and numbers.

But if people have an EGFR mutation that we think is one of the primary reasons they have this cancer growing, there are pills that target that EGFR protein that stop the cancer from growing. But if they don’t have that mutation, then those pills are not going to do them any good.

And so, that is really where lung cancer treatment and diagnosis has become so personalized based on, of course the person itself, but also the characteristics of their tumor.

Establishing a Lung Cancer Diagnosis: How Do Subtypes Affect Treatment Choices?

Establishing a Lung Cancer Diagnosis: How Do Subtypes Affect Treatment Choices? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Lung cancer specialist Dr. Jessica Bauman provides an overview of the types of lung cancer and describes how the subtype affects prognosis and treatment choices for patients.

Dr. Jessica Bauman is assistant professor in the department of hematology/oncology and as associate program director of the hematology/oncology fellowship training program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Learn more about Dr. Bauman here.

See More From the The Pro-Active Lung Cancer Patient Toolkit

Related Programs:

Key Next Steps After a Lung Cancer Diagnosis: Expert Advice

What You Should Know When Making a Lung Cancer Treatment Decision

What You Should Know When Making a Lung Cancer Treatment Decision

Lung Cancer Treatment Approaches: What Are Your Options?

Lung Cancer Treatment Approaches: What Are Your Options?


Transcript:

Katherine:               

From my understanding, there are two main types of lung cancer – small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Would you provide a brief overview of how these two types of lung cancer differ?

Dr. Bauman:                

Absolutely. So, I think it’s important for any new patient who’s coming in, to see me or any medical provider. The first thing we need to establish when we are thinking about a lung cancer diagnosis is what the cells look like under the microscope. And the simplest way to think about this is either they look like small cell lung cancer, or they look like non-small cell lung cancer.

And that really can decide what kind of treatment we need to pursue. For small cell lung cancer – small cell lung cancer can be a more aggressive lung cancer that certainly can spread throughout the body and requires more urgent treatment in general when we’re thinking about the speed in which we need to start to treat patients for this cancer. For non-small cell lung cancer, in general, we don’t have to start treatment as quickly as we need to for small cell. And there is a lot more information right now that we need other than just the simple non-small cell lung cancer diagnosis. We need to know whether it is adenocarcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, which are further subdivided.

And then we often need even more information about those subtypes to be able to decide ultimately what the best treatment plan is.

Overall, I would say about 15 percent of lung cancers are small cell. So, they’re more rare. And about 80 percent to 85 percent of lung cancers are non-small cell. And the most frequent kind of non-small cell lung cancer right now is adenocarcinoma.

Lung Cancer Treatment Decisions: What’s Right for You?

Lung Cancer Treatment Decisions: What’s Right for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When choosing an lung cancer treatment, what should be considered? Dr. Jessica Bauman, a lung cancer specialist, reviews treatment types and key decision-making factors, including how test results influence options, and provides advice to help you advocate for better care.

Dr. Jessica Bauman is assistant professor in the department of hematology/oncology and as associate program director of the hematology/oncology fellowship training program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Learn more about Dr. Bauman here.

Download Program Resource Guide

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The Pro-Active Lung Cancer Patient Toolkit


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’ll discuss how you can be proactive in your lung cancer care to partner with your healthcare team to make the best care and treatment decisions for you. Joining us today is Dr. Jessica Bauman. Welcome, Dr. Bauman. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Bauman:              

Absolutely, thank you so much for inviting me here today. My name is Jessica Bauman, and I am a thoracic and head and neck oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Here I am also the associate program director for our hematology/oncology fellowship program as well as one of the disease site leaders of one of our research teams.

Katherine:                  

Excellent, thank you. A reminder that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you.

Dr. Bauman, from my understanding, there are two main types of lung cancer – small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Would you provide a brief overview of how these two types of lung cancer differ?

Dr. Bauman:             

Absolutely. So, I think it’s important for any new patient who’s coming in, to see me or any medical provider. The first thing we need to establish when we are thinking about a lung cancer diagnosis is what the cells look like under the microscope. And the simplest way to think about this is either they look like small cell lung cancer, or they look like non-small cell lung cancer.

And that really can decide what kind of treatment we need to pursue. For small cell lung cancer – small cell lung cancer can be a more aggressive lung cancer that certainly can spread throughout the body and requires more urgent treatment in general when we’re thinking about the speed in which we need to start to treat patients for this cancer. For non-small cell lung cancer, in general, we don’t have to start treatment as quickly as we need to for small cell. And there is a lot more information right now that we need other than just the simple non-small cell lung cancer diagnosis. We need to know whether it is adenocarcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, which are further subdivided.

And then we often need even more information about those subtypes to be able to decide ultimately what the best treatment plan is.

Overall, I would say about 15% of lung cancers are small cell. So, they’re more rare. And about 80% to 85% of lung cancers are non-small cell. And the most frequent kind of non-small cell lung cancer right now is adenocarcinoma. It didn’t used to be that way. Squamous cell carcinoma actually used to be more common, but in more recent years, adenocarcinoma is becoming more common. And interestingly, it’s also becoming more common in women.

Katherine:                  

Why is it becoming more common?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, part of that is we think that the demographics are changing somewhat in terms of lung cancers. So, the traditional risk factor, of course, of lung cancer is smoking, however, not all patients who have lung cancer were smokers. And we are seeing, in fact, more people being diagnosed with lung cancer who have never smoked or, in fact, are light smokers. And so, we think that that is likely playing a role.

Katherine:                  

Before we move into testing and staging, are there any common misconceptions you hear when you see new lung cancer patients for the first time?

Dr. Bauman:              

Sometimes I see people think, “Oh, lung cancer is a death sentence.” I certainly see people say that. But I think that one of the wonderful parts about being a lung cancer oncologist right now is our treatment options have really been revolutionized in the last 10 to 20 years. And we have more options right now, and we have a better understanding of this cancer, then we ever have had.

And so, I do think that I look with more optimism at this diagnosis, obviously, which is still quite devasting to patients and their families.

Katherine:                  

Right. Dr. Bauman, what testing should take place following a lung cancer diagnosis?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, this very much depends on how the cancer was diagnosed initially. So, some cancers are diagnosed on screening – lung cancer CTs right now – but other cancers are found incidentally, for other reasons. Or there are some that are diagnosed with a scan because somebody’s developing a symptom. So, in general, what I would say is that we always need good imaging essentially of the entire body when a lung cancer is suspected. Often this includes CAT scans, but this very commonly also includes a PET scan. And it will often include a brain MRI as well because the best way to the look at the brain is with an MRI.

Obviously, that can vary a little bit depending on what studies people have already had and what radiologic techniques are most accessible.

Katherine:                  

What about molecular testing and biopsies?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, sorry, I was sort of going on the imaging. But so, of course, you need full imaging. But the first thing you need to do that is paramount is establishing a histologic diagnosis, which goes to this initial thought of, “Is this small cell? Is this non-small cell? What is it?” So, if there is a lung mass that is suspected to be lung cancer, the first thing that happens is a biopsy as well as imaging. The imaging helps us establish, “Has this gone anywhere else? Does it involve the lymph nodes?” and helps us with the initial staging workup. Often there is a biopsy of the mass itself.

But there are often biopsies as well as the lymph nodes that are involved, in particular in the center of the chest called the mediastinum, because that also helps us establish the stage of the cancer.

And then if the cancer does look to have spread to somewhere else, we sometimes biopsy only that area or that area in addition to establish that it, in fact, has spread to a different place such as the liver or the bone. Once that biopsy is done, and once we know what type of lung cancer it is, then we also send more studies on the biopsy itself that help us determine what the best treatments are, in particular when we’re talking about what I call “systemic treatments.”

So, treatments that are going into the body and all over the body that involved immune therapies, chemotherapies, or targeted therapies. So, that extra testing that we do is something that’s called molecular testing.

It’s also called next generation sequencing. There are a bunch of different terminology that we use.

Katherine:                  

Okay. Dr. Bauman, would you walk us through how lung cancer is staged? And is it different for small cell vs. non-small cell lung cancer?

Dr. Bauman:              

Absolutely. So, as we talked about, the first thing that we do is we do get a biopsy to establish the diagnosis. The second piece is often if it looks to be a cancer that is only limited to the chest – so there is a mass and maybe some activities in lymph nodes that we’re concerned about but nowhere else – not only do we want to biopsy the mass itself, but we also want to know whether those lymph nodes are involved. So, those are biopsied because that will tell us the stage of the cancer. Staging very much depends on the size of the tumor itself, and then it also depends on, “Has it spread to lymph nodes in the center of the chest, and has it spread outside of the chest to other places?”

And so, early-stage lung cancers are just the primary cancer itself that has not spread anywhere else. More advanced stage lung cancers – things like Stage IIs and Stage III lung cancers – are ones that also involve the lymph nodes. And then a Stage IV lung cancer involves a lung cancer that has spread to somewhere outside of the body. And depending on the stage is really what determines the way we approach treatment for these patients.

Katherine:                  

And that is actually my next question. What do the results of these tests tell us about prognosis and treatment choices?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, they tell us stage, and, ultimately, prognosis and treatment choices are completely linked to the stage of a cancer. So, an early-stage lung cancer, often a Stage I or Stage II lung cancer, primarily our first choice of treatment is surgery. And if surgery is feasible for the patient – because, of course, it also depends on their other medical comorbidities and whether they can withstand a surgical resection of the cancer.

But usually, early-stage lung cancers we start with surgery. And then depending on what the pathology shows us, we sometimes include a course of chemotherapy afterwards to decrease the risk of the cancer coming back. More advanced lung cancers, so Stage III lung cancers, often involved what we call “multiple modalities.” So, for some patients we do a combination of chemotherapy and radiation in an attempt to cure the cancer. Often that is followed by immunotherapy. There are other patients who have Stage III lung cancer where we do chemotherapy and radiation and follow that with surgery.

So, it’s a very case-dependent decision algorithm, where it really depends on where the tumor is, the type of tumor, what the surgery would be, what the patient’s underlying health status is, etc.

And then if it is a Stage IV cancer, often we are really approaching this with systemic therapies. So, once a cancer has spread outside the lung, we traditionally think of this often as an incurable cancer. And there is a much more limited role of surgery and radiation, though I wouldn’t say that they’re absolutely off the table. Again, we sometimes think of these in sort of a case-by-case scenario. But in general, our approach for a Stage IV cancer is with some kind of systemic therapy. And that completely depends on all those special tests that we do that we were talking about that we send on that initial biopsy.

Katherine:                  

What about the significance of chromosomal abnormalities?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, what I would say is, what we do for, in particular, in the setting of a Stage IV lung cancer diagnosis right now, is we send molecular testing on the biopsy samples of these patients, in particular if they have adenocarcinoma.

And the reason we do this, what this gives us, is it tells us about the DNA of the tumor, and whether there are genes in the tumor that are changed in some way that are affecting the cancer’s ability to grow. And the reason that’s so important, is there are new treatments that really capitalize on those changes in the tumor to be able to stop the cancer from growing. The best example of this is for people who have something called an EGFR mutation.

And there are multiple different kinds of mutations. I call it “alphabet soup” because there are so many different letters and numbers.

But if people have an EGFR mutation that we think is one of the primary reasons they have this cancer growing, there are pills that target that EGFR protein that stop the cancer from growing. But if they don’t have that mutation, then those pills are not gonna do them any good.

And so, that is really where lung cancer treatment and diagnosis has become so personalized based on, of course the person itself, but also the characteristics of their tumor.

Katherine:                  

How can patients advocate for a precise lung cancer diagnosis, and why is that important?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, it’s, of course, important because it changes everything that they would be able to be offered in terms of treatment. And so, I think that it is important to, one, really understand what your lung cancer is. Right? What is the stage? What are the treatment options? And if there are treatment options that are not options for you, why is that? And is that because of special testing that has been done? So, I think it’s always important to ask, “Are there other special tests that I need to have on my tumor or on the biopsy?”

And if patients have questions about what options that they have, I think it’s important for them to understand why some options are theirs, and why other options may not be good options for them, and how their physician is making those decisions. Because I do think the more you understand about this, the better you can advocate for the types of treatments you can access.

Katherine:                  

Absolutely. We just covered some of this, but when deciding on a treatment approach with a patient, what do you take into account when making the decision?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, we take into account all of the things that we’ve been talking about. Of course, the No. 1 most important part is the histology, so what the kind of cancer is. No. 2 is what the stage is. And then No. 3 is the health characteristics of that patient.

Do they have underlying health problems that would impact the types of treatment that we would consider? And then ultimately, what are the goals of the patient? Right? So, of course, we have lots of different options, but it’s going to be important to partner with the patient and their family to understand where they are in their life and what kinds of treatments are feasible and acceptable to them.

Katherine:

What about treatment side effects? Do you take that into consideration?

Dr. Bauman:              

Absolutely. So, I always talk about my two primary goals for when I’m treating a patient is 1.) is to help them live as long as they can, and No. 2 is to help them live as well as they can. And I do think it is critical to understand the side effects of our treatments and how that may impact the patient and what their underlying issues are. So, for example, if I have a patient who comes to me who already has significant neuropathy because of a prior diagnosis of some kind, we need to strongly consider the types of treatments we’re using to consider one that doesn’t cause neuropathy.

Right? And often there are different treatments that we have where we can really consider the side effects and quality of life for patients in terms of what we have. I’ll also say that treatments and the supportive care that we have to offer have become better over time. So, yes, of course, we give toxic treatments, but we definitely are able to support people better with the side effects that they have to try to minimize those and make it as tolerable as we can.

Katherine:                  

What do you feel is the patient’s role in this decision, and how does shared decision making come into play?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, I think the patient’s role is, of course, this is their body and their lives. Right? I think that it very much is a decision that we make together. And of course, as a lung cancer expert, yes, we’re gonna talk about what we recommend as what we think is, sort of, the gold standard treatment.

But you can’t make anybody do anything. Right? You want people to be their own advocate in terms of their health. And so, I need to know how someone is feeling. I need to know if they’re having significant side effects from treatment. And so, I think the more they can tell me, the more they can ask questions, the more they can understand their illness, the better we can partner to be able to face it together.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Bauman, now that we’ve discussed factors that go into the treatment choice, would you walk us through the currently available lung cancer treatment approaches and who they might be right for?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, we talked about this a little bit, but I would say, so, certainly, the different types of lung cancer treatment depends on the stage of the cancer.

But in general, I’m thinking about the broad categories that we have. So, number 1 being surgery. So, surgery is absolutely one of the most important aspects of lung cancer treatment that we have and is one of the ways in which it is possible to cure lung cancer. So, surgery can happen both as an open surgery, but there are also more minimally invasive surgeries now that have also revolutionized the way they can do surgery in lung cancer. And so, that absolutely plays a very significant role in the treatment of lung cancer.

The second broad approach that I would say is that of radiation.  So, radiation also plays a very critical role in lung cancer, often more in advanced-stage disease for patients who have, for example, Stage III disease, where the treatment that we consider is a combination of chemotherapy and radiation also with curative intent.

So, the idea behind this is that it’s cancer that is still in the chest, but it has spread to the lymph nodes in the chest, and a combination of chemotherapy and radiation may still be able to cure patients of this cancer. And so, radiation also can play a critical role. And interestingly, in small cell – which we’ve spoken a little bit less about – radiation and chemotherapy play a very important role in small cell, and often surgery plays less of a roll in small cell. And so, our treatment approach using radiation is in both of these kinds of cancers, and often we’re doing a full course of radiation also in an attempt to cure the cancer for the patient.

The last, sort of, broad category of treatment that I would say is what I call “systemic treatments.” So, that is targeted treatment. That is chemotherapy. And that is immune therapy.

And what we use of those three types of treatments completely depends on the patient’s stage and more information about that patient’s tumor, in particular, the molecular testing as well as what we say is called PD-L1, which is a marker on the tumor that tells me about the responsiveness to immunotherapy.

Often, we use a combination of many of these treatments. So, there are patients who get surgery and then chemotherapy. There are patients who get chemotherapy and radiation and then surgery. And there are patients who get only what we call systemic therapies.

I will also say it’s important to note that for radiation, although there’s a proportion of people that we use radiation with curative intent for a long period of time – so, a six-week course of radiation – we also use radiation to help with symptom management if someone’s having a specific problem that’s causing them a symptom where radiation may help.

The classic example of that is pain. So, if they have a spot in the bone that is causing them a lot of pain, a short course of radiation to shrink that tumor where that is, can be very helpful. And so, radiation we can also use to help with palliation of symptoms. The other things that I’m not getting into significantly today, but are also there, are there are other types of procedures that have become more common where you can go in, for example, with an interventional radiologist and do an ablation of a tumor.

Our interventional pulmonologists also do significant amount of ability to access the lungs and the lymph nodes to be able to help with diagnosis, but they can also do something like a debulking procedure where they can get rid of some of the cancer to stop it from bleeding.

They can also stent open the cancer to help people breathe better. So, there are multiple different other team members who also are really critical to our patient’s care.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. How do clinical trials fit into the treatment plan?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, clinical trials are very important in all of our decision making. So, there are many different kinds of clinical trials, but clinical trials are where we are offering the newest potential treatment options for patients. And there are some clinical trials where it’s a brand-new drug that’s never been in a person before, but there are also clinical trials of drugs that we use from a different disease that has been effective, and now it has good evidence, potentially, in lung cancer, and so it’s being used in lung cancer. There are also trials of new combinations of treatments.

So, for example, one of the most recent, sort of, classic treatment-changing trials was a large trial where everybody who had chemotherapy and radiation for Stage III lung cancer, then received a year of immune therapy vs. not receiving immune therapy to see if that new treatment would help them live longer or would prolong their survival.

And in fact, that trial was very positive, and so it changed the way we treat Stage III lung cancer. So, again, these are just examples of types of clinical trials. But clinical trials are where we are finding out what may be the next best treatments for patients.

And so, when I’m thinking about a treatment approach to a patient, I’m incorporating all of the things that we talked about, but I’m also then thinking about, “Are there clinical trials that may also be relevant to them for their specific situation?” whether that is a clinical trial that involves surgery in some way, or whether that’s a clinical trial that involves a new drug, whether it’s a clinical trial that’s offering a new kind of supportive care.

So, there are lots of different kinds of clinical trials that may be relevant to patients.

Katherine:                  

Are there emerging approaches for treating lung cancer that patients should know about?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, absolutely. I think that there are so many clinical trials that are going on right now for all sorts of different lung cancers.

I think one of the amazing parts about lung cancer right now is how, as I said before, how personalized it has become, and how each individual, depending all of the different factors we talked about, what treatments are best for them. But it also depends on there also may be clinical trials that are specific for that person. And so, for example, if you have a new diagnosis of Stage IV cancer, and you have an EGFR mutation or an ALK mutation, you want to know about clinical trials that are specific to that population because for you, those are what are most relevant for you.

If you have a new diagnosis of a Stage III lung cancer, then you wanna know, “What are the clinical trial options for patients who have Stage III lung cancer?” And so, there are many clinical trials that are asking, sort of, the next best question of, “How can we improve the current standard of care?” And often there really are trials in each of these different areas. So, it’s not just a one-size-fits-all.

Katherine:                  

Some patients can be fearful when it comes to clinical trials. What would you say to someone who might be hesitant in participating in one?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, I very much understand that. I think any kind of treatment can be a scary thing. But I think, as I said before, I think the more that you can understand about your cancer and understand about the science and the research, it helps you then understand where the trial fits in terms of your treatment options.

I think that if you understand what to expect from the treatment that you’re getting, and then what the plan B and plan C could look like, I think that piece of it is also important. And you know, I think that one of the hardest parts about lung cancer right now is even though we have all of these new promising therapies and multiple new approved drugs, with a diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer, most of the time the cancer learns to grow. And so, even though we have treatments that work really well, there will be a time for most people where the cancer starts to grow, and we need to think about, “Well, why is the cancer growing?”

And often, that is the setting where clinical trials are very relevant because clinical trials are often thinking about just that, “Well, why is the cancer becoming resistant? What is different about the cancer now? And is there some change that would make it relevant for you to do one specific trial over another specific trial?”

Katherine:                  

Well, and that leads us to treatment monitoring. Once a patient has started treatment, how do you know if it’s working?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, we do regular imaging. So, once you have a diagnosis of lung cancer, a CAT scanner will become your friend. In general, depending on what stage of lung cancer you have, you will have a bunch of imaging up front, and then once a treatment plan is put into place, after that treatment has either been completed or started, you will be monitored, in general, regularly for the lung cancer diagnosis. Now, after surgery, that will be for more for surveillance to make sure that the lung cancer doesn’t come back. But if it is more in the setting of a Stage IV lung cancer, then the imaging really helps us determine, “Is the treatment working or not?”

And so, after we start a treatment, usually anywhere between six and eight weeks, we repeat imaging to see, “Is this working? Is it smaller? Is it the same? Has it grown?”

And based on that imaging, and based on how the patient is doing with the treatment, we then decide, “Do we continue this treatment, or do we need to change to a new treatment?” And so, we regularly monitor the patient’s cancer through regular imaging.

Katherine:                  

Let’s talk about patient self-advocacy. Patients can sometimes feel like they’re bothering their healthcare team with their comments and questions. But why is it important for patients to speak up when it comes to their symptoms and their side effects?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, this, I would say, it’s a partnership. The bottom line is, and if I don’t know that something is going on, I can’t help to solve the problem. And if I don’t know about something, a new symptom that could be, potentially, majorly concerning, patients can also get really sick or even end up in life-threatening situations. And so, ignoring things or just hoping things will go away is not in a patient’s best interest.

I think that it is critical that patients are their own self-advocate. I think that I say that often, and I’ve already said that a couple of times on this, but we don’t know unless we’re hearing from them what’s going on. And so, it is so important for patients to keep us updated if they’re worried about something. Certainly, we see them very frequently, and so they can often tell us at their visits what’s going on. But overall, the in-between time is just as critical because it is often the treatments that we give can cause side effects at any time. And so, it is really important that we know about anything that’s going on and for patients to always give us a call.

I mean, that’s the bottom line is, is that if they’re worried about something, we need to know about it.

Katherine:                 

What supportive care options are there for patients who may have pain management difficulties or even emotional support?  Where do they start?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, there are often many different kinds of supportive care for patients. I would say that oncologists, of course, are one layer of supportive care. We do a lot of help with symptom management and often even pain management as well as coping and emotional support. However, there are also other people often within cancer centers that are also available to help. And this includes social workers. It also includes psychologists and psychiatrists.

And then the other thing that I think is really important to mention is that we know for patients who have lung cancer or an advanced lung cancer diagnosis, that integrating a palliative care team – a supportive and palliative care team – early into their diagnosis actually helps them live longer as well as better. They have better quality of life, and they have decreased problems with mood.

And so, we know that supportive care and palliative care, specifically in lung cancer, is particularly helpful for both patients and their caregivers. And so, it’s important for patients to also know that there is a whole team, that I think of as, sort of, an extra layer of support, that can help them with symptom management as well as with coping with the day-to-day of what can be a devastating diagnosis.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. That’s really great advice. To close, what would you like to leave patients with? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Bauman:              

So, I would say I am absolutely hopeful. I think that it is so important to know how many changes have happened in lung cancer in the last decades and how much more research is going on everyday to try to improve the care that we can deliver. And so, it’s a great time to be a lung cancer oncologist.

But we also have so much more work to be done.

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Bauman:              

Absolutely, my pleasure.

Katherine:                  

And thank you to our audience for joining us as well. Please fill out the survey that you’ll receive following the program. It helps us to plan future lung cancer programming. And thank you to all of our partners.

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

 

When Is a Full Mastectomy Appropriate for Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients?

When Is a Full Mastectomy Appropriate for Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Dr. Stephanie Valente discusses mastectomy for metastatic breast cancer patients, including common misconceptions around breast cancer surgery.

Dr. Stephanie Valente is the Director of the Breast Surgery Fellowship Program at Cleveland Clinic. More about this expert here.

See More From INSIST! Metastatic Breast Cancer


Transcript:

Dr. Valente:                

So, there are a lot of reasons that a woman undergoes a mastectomy. The first one is choice. So, anytime somebody is diagnosed with breast cancer, they actually have the choice of whether or not they want to remove their whole breast. So, even if their cancer is small, they do have the option of removing the whole breast. If the cancer is smaller, they might have the option to save the breast, which is called a lumpectomy.

Sometimes cancer is found, and it’s a little bit more advanced where saving the breast is not an option. So, the cancer is larger than a lumpectomy would allow. And sometimes that’s what’s called the extent of disease. So, the amount of breast tissue that’s involved requires a majority of the portion of the breast to be removed.

So, just because a woman has breast cancer that’s made its way out of the breast, into the lymph nodes, or beyond – so, metastatic cancer – doesn’t necessarily mean that she needs a mastectomy. So, just because you’ve got metastatic cancer doesn’t necessarily mean that the breast needs to be completely removed.

So, I think that one of the biggest misconceptions is that the more aggressive somebody is with their surgery, the better their chances with survival.

And again, taking a step back and saying you can choose a more aggressive surgery, but a more aggressive surgery doesn’t necessarily mean it gets you out of chemotherapy or it gets you out of radiation therapy. Those things are recommended, independent of a woman’s choice for the type of surgery that she may or may not pick.

Metastatic Breast Cancer: Accessing the Best Treatment For YOU

Metastatic Breast Cancer: Accessing the Best Treatment For YOU from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How could genetic testing results impact your metastatic breast cancer treatment options? In this INSIST! Breast Cancer webinar, Dr. Julie Gralow discusses essential testing, the latest targeted therapies and emerging breast cancer research.

Dr. Julie Gralow is the Jill Bennett Endowed Professor of Breast Medical Oncology at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Download Program Resource Guide


Transcript:

Katherine:

Welcome to Insist Breast Cancer, a program focused on empowering patients to take an active role and insist on better care. Today, we’ll discuss the latest advances in metastatic breast cancer, including the role of genetic testing and how this may affect treatment options. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program, and joining me is Dr. Julie Gralow. Welcome, Dr. Gralow. Would you introduce yourself?

Dr. Gralow:   

Hi, thanks, Katherine. I’m Dr. Julie Gralow. I’m the Jill Bennett Endowed Professor of Breast Medical Oncology at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Katherine:    

Excellent, thank you. Before we begin the discussion, a reminder that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your own healthcare team. Well, Dr. Gralow, let’s start by helping people understand how breast cancer is staged. Could we go through those stages?

Dr. Gralow:     

The staging of breast cancer has traditionally been by something we call anatomic staging, which has the tumor size, the number of local lymph nodes involved, and whether it has metastasized beyond the lymph nodes. So, that’s TNM – tumor, nodes, metastases. And so, that’s the classic staging, and based on combinations of those things, you can be a Stage 0 through Stage 4. Stage 0 is reserved for ductal carcinoma in situ, which is a noninvasive breast cancer that can’t generally spread beyond the breast, so that’s Stage 0, and then we go up for invasive cancer.

Interestingly, just a couple years ago, the big group that oversees the staging of cancers decided that in breast cancer, that TNM – the size, the lymph nodes, and the location beyond the lymph nodes – is not good enough anymore, so they came up with a proposal for what we call a clinical prognostic stage, which is a companion to the traditional TNM staging.

What they were getting at here was it’s not just how big your cancer is, how many lymph nodes, or whatever, it’s also at the biology of your cancer. So, this new clinical prognostic stage takes into account the estrogen and progesterone receptor of your cancer, the HER2 receptor at the grade, which is a degree of aggressiveness, and then, if your tumor qualifies, one of the newer genomic testing profiles that we use in earlier-stage breast cancer, such as the Oncotype DX 21-gene recurrence score or the MammaPrint 70-gene assay.

So, all of that goes into account now, and the whole point here is that the estrogen receptor, the HER2, the grade, and some of these genomics may actually make more difference than how many lymph nodes you have, where the cancer is, and how big it is, so it’s not just the size, but also the biology of the cancer that we’re trying to include in the new staging systems.

Katherine:    

In this program, Dr. Gralow, we ’re focusing on metastatic breast cancer. Would you explain when breast cancer is considered to have metastasized?

Dr. Gralow:  

That’s a great question because technically, if the lymph nodes in the armpit – the axillary area – are involved, that does represent spread beyond the breast, but if it stays in the local lymph node areas, it’s not technically called a metastatic or Stage 4 breast cancer. So, metastatic breast cancer would have traveled beyond the breast and those local lymph nodes, and some common sites would be to the bone, to the lungs, to the liver, less commonly – at least, up front – to the brain, and it could also travel to other lymph node groups beyond those just in the armpit and the local chest wall area as well.

Katherine:   

What about subtypes? How are they determined?

Dr. Gralow:   

The main way that we subtype breast cancer right now is based on the expression of estrogen and progesterone receptor, the two hormone receptors, and the HER2 receptor, the human epidermal growth factor receptor. So, to date, those are the most important features when we subtype, and so, a tumor can either express estrogen and progesterone receptor or not, and it can overexpress or amplify HER2 or not, and if you think that through, you can come up with four different major subtypes, in a way, based on estrogen receptor positive or negative and HER2 positive or negative.

When all three of those are negative, we call that triple negative breast cancer, and that’s about 18-20% of all breast cancers as diagnosed in the U.S. And then, when all three are positive, we sometimes call it triple positive, and the reason that we subtype is because we know that those different subsets act differently and that we have different drugs to treat them with, and we’ve got great drugs in the categories of hormone receptor positive and HER2 positive, and increasingly, some recently hope in a new drug approval or two in triple negative breast cancer as well.

Katherine:     

For a patient to get diagnosed, what are the essential tests?

Dr. Gralow:  

So, we’re talking about metastatic breast cancer here, and in the U.S., maybe up to 10% or slightly less of breast cancer is technically Stage 4 or metastatic at diagnosis. That means at the time we first found it in the breast, it had already spread beyond. So, an important thing that we’ll do with a newly diagnosed breast cancer is especially if there are a lot of lymph nodes are involved or the patient has symptoms that might say there’s something in the bone, liver, or lung is staging.

So, we’ll use scans – maybe a CAT scan, bone scan, or PET scan – and we will look at whether the disease has gone beyond the breast and the lymph nodes, and if so, where. So, maybe 8-10% of breast cancer diagnosed in the U.S. already has some evidence that it has spread beyond the breast, but the most common way that metastatic breast cancer happens is that a patient was diagnosed possibly years and years ago, treated in the early-stage setting, and now it comes back, and that is the most common presentation for metastatic breast cancer, and sometimes that can be due to symptoms.

As I said, if it comes back in the bone, maybe that’s bone pain. If it’s in the lung, it’s a cough. There are symptoms. Sometimes, it’s because we’ve done a blood test or something and we find some changes there.

And so, when a breast cancer has recurred, it’s really important to document that it’s really breast cancer coming back, first of all, and so, if we can, we generally want a biopsy, and we want to stick a needle in it if it’s safe to do, and look and verify that it looks like breast cancer, and also, it’s really important that we repeat all those receptors that we talked about from the beginning because it can change.

So, a cancer up front 10 years ago could have been positive for estrogen receptor, but the only cells that survived – mutated, changed – were estrogen receptor negative, so what comes back could be different. So, it’s really critical to get that biopsy, repeat the estrogen/progesterone receptor and HER2, and also, in an ideal world, now that it’s 2020 and we’re moving more toward genomics, to do a full genomic profile and look for other changes and mutations that could drive our therapeutic options.

So, staging, knowing where the cancer is, getting a good baseline by understanding where it is and how big it is so that we can follow it and hopefully see that it’s responding to treatment, and then, repeating all of the biology components so that we know what the best options are for treatment are really critical.

Katherine:  

Right. How can patients advocate for a precise breast cancer diagnosis, and why is that important?

Dr. Gralow:    

Well, all those things I just mentioned are key. Knowing exactly where it is so that we can monitor it – for example, if the cancer has come back in the bones, we would add what we call a bone modifying agent, a drug like zoledronic acid or denosumab – Zometa or – which can suppress bone destruction from the cancer, but if it’s not in the bone, we wouldn’t add that.

And, we want to have a good look everywhere so that we can see if it’s responding because sometimes, the tumor can respond differently in one area than another. Also, I think it’s really important to know what your treatment options are by doing that biopsy, getting a full panel, and looking at potentially hundreds of genes that could be mutated, deleted, or amplified so that we know what our treatment options are.

And, we’re not going to use all the treatment options up front, so it’s helpful for knowing that if this treatment doesn’t work or is too toxic, what are the second-line or third-line options? So, we make sure that there’s what we call good staging up front so we know where the cancer is, and then we make sure that we’ve looked at it as best we can in 2020 with all the genomics.

That would give us the best chance of being tailored – individualized – to the tumor. Sometimes, if we can’t biopsy it, like with a needle that would go into a liver spot, then increasingly, we’re looking at what we call liquid biopsies, and that can be drawing the blood and seeing if we can find parts of the tumor, whether it be the DNA or the RNA that’s floating around in the blood, and sometimes we can get that information out of the blood as well.

Katherine: 

All right. Dr. Gralow, when you meet with patients, what are some of the more common misconceptions that you hear related to diagnosis?

Dr. Gralow:  

Well, I think people do confuse – especially at an early diagnosis – that the metastases, the travel to the local lymph nodes, is not the same as a metastatic breast cancer, so we spend some time talking about how it’s still curable and not considered a distant metastasis if the lymph nodes are in the armpit or up above the collarbone, and so, that’s something that we spend some time talking about.

This whole term of “metastatic recurrence” – unfortunately, when you start looking online and get your information from Dr. Google, you read right away that it’s no longer curable, and in 2020, yes, that’s true. That’s probably the most specific statement that we can make. We are not going with curative intent, which means we treat for a defined amount of time, and then all the disease goes away, and we stop treatment, and then you go on with your life, and it never comes back. That would be cure.

But, I think it’s really important to point out that much of metastatic breast cancer can be highly treatable, and what we hope to do – and certainly, at least a subset of metastatic breast cancer – we want to convert it more to what we would call a chronic disease, and so, think of it more like hypertension, high blood pressure, or diabetes. These are diseases that we generally don’t cure with treatment, but that we can control with drug therapy, which sometimes has to be adjusted, and if we don’t control it, we can get some bad complications.

So, that’s not all metastatic breast cancer, unfortunately – we can’t convert all of it do something where we can use a therapy for a long time that keeps it in check and where you have a pretty good quality of life – but we’re hoping that more and more, we’re getting targeted therapies and more specific treatments to patients so that we can convert more patients to a more chronic kind of situation.

Katherine:

So, it’s something that patients live with.

Dr. Gralow:  

Right.

Katherine:  

Many people are confused about genetic testing. They often think that it relates to ancestry or physical traits like hair and eye color. What’s the role of genetic testing in breast cancer?

Dr. Gralow:    

Well, you can do genetic testing of the patient’s inheritance, which is how most people think of genetic testing, and that’s actually really important and increasingly important in metastatic breast cancer to do your own inheritance. Have you inherited a gene that was associated with how your cancer developed? Because now, we actually have a class of drugs called PARP inhibitors that are approved for tumors that have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation with them. Most of those mutations were inherited, but not all. Sometimes they can develop as well.

So, now, when my patient – if she didn’t previously have genetic testing for an inherited risk for breast cancer either coming from mom or dad’s side of the family, a lot of people do have that up front, especially if they’re younger at diagnosis or they have a lot of family members with breast cancer. If she didn’t have that genetic testing done previously, at the time of the metastatic occurrence, I’m going to recommend that that be done because knowing if the cancer is associated with one of these DNA repair genes – BRCA1, BRCA2, some other genes – we have a new treatment option, which is an oral pill that actually is highly effective if the tumor has a mutation in one of these.

But, we can also – so, that’s genetic testing of the patient’s own DNA, but we can also do what we call genetic testing – or genomic testing, if you will – of the genes of the cancer. What were the changes in the DNA at the gene level that caused a normal breast cell over time to develop into a cancer cell that’s now growing without responding to our body’s checks and balances? So, what were those mutations, deletions, or amplifications in the tumor itself?

So, we’ve got the patient’s genetics, we’ve got the tumor’s genetics, and both of those come into play when we’re making our best treatment recommendations and trying to understand what the right approach is.

Katherine:       

How is testing administered?

Dr. Gralow: 

So, for our inherited testing, those gene changes can be found in every cell in the body, so we can do that from a simple blood test where we just look at the blood cells. We can actually do it with our sputum and with a cheek swab, even. You can get enough of the DNA from the inside of the mouth to do that.

For a tumor’s genetics, we need some of the tumor, so that’s either done with a biopsy into the metastatic site or, as I mentioned before, increasingly, we’re exploring the potential for a liquid biopsy – so, drawing some blood and then trying to find pieces of the tumor that are shed into the blood.

Katherine:      

What advances have there been in testing?

Dr. Gralow: 

Well, it used to be – just going back a couple of years ago – that we didn’t do a lot of this genetic testing or genomic profiling of the tumor because we didn’t have many – the term is an “actionable mutation.” So, if we found something, would we do something with it? Did we have a drug we could use to do it? But, more and more and more, even in breast cancer, we’re finding actionable mutations that would drive therapy.

For example, in estrogen receptor positive breast cancer, we have a new class of targeted therapies called PI 3-kinase inhibitors – a drug called alpelisib or Piqray was approved in the last couple of years in that category – and it only is effective in estrogen receptor positive breast cancer that has a mutation in the PI 3-kinase gene. So, that would be something we’re looking for in the tumor’s genes, and actually, we need to know that there’s a mutation to even get the drug approved for treatment because it doesn’t work if you don’t have that mutation.

Increasingly, we’re finding some changes that can happen in the estrogen receptor gene and the HER2 gene, interestingly, so that you can have estrogen receptor expressed on your tumor, but over time, that tumor might develop an estrogen receptor mutation so that it stops responding to certain drugs that target the estrogen receptor.

And so, that’s called an ESR1. That’s the name of the estrogen receptor gene – an ESR1 mutation – and that would tell me probably not going to respond as well to a drug in the class we call aromatase inhibitors, but might respond better to a drug in the class that we call the selective estrogen receptor degraders like fulvestrant or Faslodex, is the name of a drug in that class.

We’re also finding that you can have what we call activating mutations in HER2, and they can be present whether the tumor overexpresses HER2 or not, and we’ve got some ongoing clinical trials looking at if the tumor doesn’t have extra HER2 on its surface – so, it doesn’t have extra HER2 protein, but at the gene level, it’s got an activated HER2 gene – we can use certain types of HER2 therapy to treat it, and we’re testing that right now in clinical trials.

So, could we even use some HER2 drugs even though technically, the tumor would be classified as HER2 negative? So, fascinating increasing information that we’re understanding, and I also mentioned before we can inherit mutations in genes such as BRCA1 and 2, but fascinatingly, the tumor can acquire those mutations. Even if we didn’t inherit a mutation, we can see mutations in the BRCA1 and 2 gene – we call those somatic as opposed to germline mutations. So, “germline” means it’s in every cell in your body, but “somatic” means the tumor somehow acquired this over time.

And so, we’ve done – we just presented some very early results of a trial, and we’re expanding this trial, looking at if you didn’t inherit a BRCA1 or 2 mutation, so technically, you don’t qualify for a PARP inhibitor, but if the tumor acquired a mutation and we can prove that with testing the tumor’s DNA, then we have seen responses from these PARP inhibitors, so that opens up another whole class of treatments, and there are other DNA repair genes that actually may be qualified as well that we can inherit or that can be acquired by the tumor.

So, more and more, we’re doing this genomic profiling, and it is leading to results that would give us possible treatment options.

Katherine:  

Dr. Gralow, the goal of this program is to provide the confidence and tool for patients to advocate for the essential tests to get best care personalized to them. Are there specific tests that patients should make sure they have?

Dr. Gralow:  

Well, there are a lot of assays out there to do this genomic profiling or genetic testing of the tumor, so I don’t promote any one. Various institutions do it and do it well, various companies do it, but I think every metastatic patient should have the tumor looked at in this kind of profiling.

I also think every metastatic patient should advocate for having a biopsy of their cancer, and if a biopsy cannot be done safely in the recurrence, then see if they could get a liquid biopsy – have blood drawn to find it. So, I think that patients should be asking about this. Sometimes, insurance won’t always cover it, and so, my job as a treating physician is to advocate for that, to do an appeal.

More and more, because we have so many actionable mutations in breast cancer now, I’m not having insurance decline, but occasionally, it does, and then it’s our job as the healthcare providers to make the case that yes, this will impact the patient, and yes, it should be covered by insurance.

Katherine:  

You’ve been referring to a number of terms. Patients may have heard the BRCA or “braca” that relate to breast cancer in genetics. Would you give us an overview of common mutations in breast cancer?

Dr. Gralow:    

So, of the mutations that we can inherit, the first two that were discovered were BRCA1 and BRCA2, and for all breast cancer – not just metastatic, but all breast cancer – we think that maybe 5-10% of breast cancer is the direct result of the inheritance of a strong gene that gives you a high – not 100%, but a high likelihood of developing breast cancer.

So, for BRCA1 and 2, these two genes are associated predominantly with breast and ovarian cancer, and if you live out your normal lifespan, you could have up to a 75-80% chance of getting one of those two cancers, and breast cancer being more common. Also, some association with some other cancers including, interestingly, prostate cancer, which we’re learning more about.

So, BRCA1 and 2 are the most common, and they tend to be found – because they have such a high association with the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, they tend to be found in families that have a lot of other breast cancers, and also breast and ovarian cancer presenting at a younger age. So, you’ve inherited a gene that leads to a high predisposition, and the cancer occurs earlier.

So, whereas the average age of diagnosis of breast cancer in the U.S. is 61-62 most commonly, in a patient who’s inherited a BRCA1 or 2 gene mutation, it’s closer to 40-42 – so, a lot younger. And then, there are a variety of other genes that can be inherited that are either much less common or have a weaker link. So, for example, there are genes called CHEK2 or PALB2, ATM, P53 – I just mention that because some of the listeners will potentially have one of those mutations or have heard it. Those are either rarer or they’re associated with a weaker chance of getting cancer.

So, those might be more commonly found in a family that doesn’t have a lot of cancer in it because a carrier – the mother or the father – and their other relatives would have maybe only a 30% chance of getting breast cancer in some cases. So, there would be a lot of carriers who don’t get cancer.

So, as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s really important – especially right now in metastatic breast cancer – that pretty much everybody, even if you didn’t have a strong family history, even if you weren’t diagnosed at a young age, get tested because if we find one of these inherited mutations, we now have some additional treatment options, especially right now, approved for BRCA1 or 2, but clinical trials going on for many of these other genes.

Katherine: 

How do these mutations affect disease progression and prognosis?

Dr. Gralow:          

So, most of the genes I’ve mentioned – in their normal state, they’re critical, actually. They’re called DNA repair genes, and their job in our life is when we accidentally make a mistake when we’re replicating our DNA and two cells are dividing, if there’s a mistake in the DNA, they go in and repair it. And, we’ve got all kinds of mechanisms to try to prevent mutations from happening as cells divide, and BRCA1 and 2 are a key part of that, and so, they’re fixing it.

So, if you inherit a mutation in one of those genes, you still have some ability to repair any routine mistakes that are being made, but over time, you have less ability, and then, if you get a cancer that has a deficiency in BRCA1 or 2, those cancers can be more sensitive to certain kinds of chemotherapy that affects DNA repair.

So, for example a class of chemotherapy agents called the platinum drugs – carboplatin and cisplatin – may be more effective in BRCA1- or 2-mutated cancers, also more generally in triple negative breast cancer because they can be more similar to BRCA1-mutated cancers in a lot of ways.

So, to go back to your original question, once a cancer has developed in a patient who has a BRCA1 or 2 mutation, we treat that cancer for what it is. So, it might have developed estrogen – have estrogen receptor on the surface or HER2, so we treat it as the subtype that developed, and actually, the chance of cure is just the same for BRCA1-associated breast cancer as it would be for one that doesn’t have a BRCA.

But, the chance of getting a second breast cancer – a totally new breast cancer – would be higher unless you chose to remove both of your breasts and the bulk of your breast tissue. So, decisions like surgery – if you had a known BRCA1 mutation, we’d treat the cancer you have now aggressively and for cure, but when you talk about your surgery options, we’d say doing more aggressive surgery, like removing both of your breasts – that’s not gonna improve your chance of surviving the cancer you have now, but it will markedly reduce the chance of getting a second breast cancer.

So, you could consider that as an option for surgery – not to improve your chance of this cancer, but to reduce the chance of another breast cancer. So, your surgery decisions might be impacted by knowing your BRCA1 or 2 mutation. And then, clearly, if you had metastatic breast cancer, knowing if you had the option of a PARP inhibitor, one of the drugs in that class could be – you could have a different treatment option for drug therapy.

Katherine: 

Well, Dr. Gralow, what other factors should be taken into consideration with a treatment route?

Dr. Gralow:   

I always like to think of the treatment decision as relying on three factors, and the first relates to the tumor factor, the cancer factor.

So, we talked a lot about the biology, the estrogen receptor, the HER2, the genomic profiling. So, that’s critical, but there are two other components that we need to really strongly consider when trying to devise the right treatment regimen. One of those is patient factors, and not just the patient’s genetics, but are they pre- or post-menopausal?

What is the age? Where are they in life? Are they young with young kids? Are they working, and is that an important priority for them? Are they older and with grandchildren, and they don’t need to work? What is it that would be critical? What are the patient’s priorities here, and what are their fears, what are the things they would – what would be really important as we plan a regimen? And so, the patient factors which would be patient priorities and where they are in life right now.

And then, there’s factors related to the treatment itself, which would include not just how effective it is, but – and, this is really important when trying to decide regimens – what are the side effects of a regimen? For some patients, hair loss is a big deal, and we can put it off as long as possible – maybe choosing the first couple regimens don’t cause hair loss sometimes.

But, for other people, that doesn’t matter to them. For some, we have oral – some regimens, and that could keep them out of the infusion room, and others actually – I’ve had patients who actually like coming into the infusion room regularly so that they can review the side effects and get the reassurance provided by it. So, we’ve got different route of administration of the drugs, different side effects. If you already had, for example, a neuropathy – a numbness/tingling of fingers and toes – from treatment that you might have gotten for early-stage disease, we’d probably want to avoid drugs where that’s their major side effect in the metastatic setting and that would increase that even further.

We’ve got some drugs that cause a lot of toxicity to our GI system – nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea – and other drugs that don’t. And so, understanding what symptoms the patient already has and actually tailoring the treatment based on some of the side effects of the drug could also be done, as well as how they’re administered. So, again, patient factors, tumor factors, and then, factors related to the treatment itself all come into play when we make decisions.

Katherine:    

There have been so many advances in breast cancer research. What are you excited about in research right now?

Dr. Gralow: 

Well, every single drug that’s been approved, every single new regimen that’s been approved in breast cancer is the direct result of clinical trials, and this is a major part of my career, is to help patients get access to clinical trials and run important clinical trials that could lead to new discoveries – is this regimen better? What’s the toxicity?

Because until we have a cure for breast cancer, we need to do better, and we need to research better treatment options. So, doing trials, having access to clinical trials where you can participate, help move the science forward is key.

I think where we’re moving with breast cancer is the more we’re understanding the patient and the tumor, the more we’re realizing every single breast cancer is different, actually, and whereas when I started my training 20-plus years ago, breast cancer was breast cancer – we weren’t even using HER2 yet, we were just learning how to use estrogen receptor, and we kind of treated everything the same – now, we’re subsetting, and subsetting, and subsetting. Even in triple negative breast cancer now, which is about 18-20% of breast cancer, we’re subsetting.

Does that triple negative breast cancer have PD-L1, which is associated with being able to get immunotherapy drugs? Does it express androgen receptor? Because sometimes, even a breast cancer that doesn’t have estrogen or progesterone receptor can express the androgen receptor, like prostate cancer, and we can use some prostate cancer drugs. So, even triple negative breast cancer we’re subsetting and subsetting, and could that triple negative breast cancer be associated with a BRCA1 or 2 mutation, and then we can use the PARP inhibitors?

So, I’m actually really excited about that we’re learning more and more, and subsetting, and not treating breast cancer as one size fits all, and if we can better tailor the treatments to the patient and the tumor, that we are going to get to the point where I can tell my patients yes, we can get cures in metastatic breast cancer.

Katherine:    

For patients who may be hesitant to speak up – to advocate for themselves in the process – I’m gonna start again. For patients who may be hesitant to speak out for themselves and advocate for their own care and treatment, what advice do you have?

Dr. Gralow:   

You have a whole team who’s behind you, and I’m the MD on the team, but I’ve got a nurse practitioner, and a nurse, and a scheduler, and a social worker, and a nutritionist, and a physical therapy team, and financial counselors. I’ve got a whole team who works with me. And so, a patient might be hesitant to speak up during the actual appointment with their physician. It’s a short amount of time. I would recommend come into it with written-down questions because things go fast. You don’t get a lot of time with your doctor.

Things go fast, but don’t come in with 25 questions, either. Pick your top few that you want to get taken care of this visit because if you come in with 25 or 30, you’re gonna lose the answers to most of them. Maybe bring somebody with you who’s an advocate and a listener for you who could be taking notes, so you can process and you don’t have to write it down, or ask if you can record it. It’s really important if you’re newly diagnosed or maybe there’s a progression and you’re going on a new treatment. That’s okay too.

But, I would also say you have a whole team behind you, so sometimes, if you don’t have time or if you’re hesitant to speak up in your doctor’s visit, you can ask the nurse, or maybe you can ask the social worker for help, even. See if there’s support groups around.

Interestingly, we’ve got a peer-to-peer network where patients can request to talk to somebody else who’s matched to them by some tumor features, and their stage, and things like that. Maybe finding somebody else who’s gone through something similar, and somebody independent to talk to instead of relying on your family.

It can also be really helpful to talk to a therapist or a psychologist about your fears, and sometimes, you want to be strong for your family, strong for your children and all, but you need a safe space with somebody that you can just express your fears and your anger if that’s what’s going on, or your depression or anxiety to while you’re trying to hold a strong face for others in your family. So, I would encourage patients to look at who is the whole team and talk to the other members of the team as well, and sometimes, they can help advocate.

Also, find somebody who might be able to come to your appointments with you, somebody who will help you advocate or remind you – “Didn’t you want to ask this question?” – or be another set of ears that you can process it with afterwards.

Katherine:     

Dr. Gralow, we’ve covered a lot of useful information today for patients. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Gralow:    

Thank you, Katherine.

Katherine:       

And, thank you to all of our partners. To learn more about breast cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell.

Fact or Fiction? AML Causes & Symptoms


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

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

See More From the Fact or Fiction? AML Series

Related Resources

 

How is an AML Treatment Approach Determined?

 

Addressing Common Myths About AML Treatment

 

Fact or Fiction? AML Research and Internet Claims


Transcript:

Ross:

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

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

 

Ross:

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

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah.

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

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

So, that’s the challenging balance.

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

Is formaldehyde exposure another risk factor for AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:                          

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

How easy is it to diagnose AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

 

Ross:

How important is early diagnosis?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

What are the best ways to manage those symptoms?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

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

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