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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.

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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.

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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.

Key Next Steps After a Lung Cancer Diagnosis: Expert Advice

Key Next Steps After a Lung Cancer Diagnosis: Expert Advice from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Following a lung cancer diagnosis, the actions that a patient takes may impact their long-term care and treatment options. Dr. Erin Schenk, a lung cancer specialist, lists key steps a patient should consider post-diagnosis.

Dr. Erin Schenk is an assistant professor in the division of medical oncology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Schenk and her lung cancer research here.

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

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Diagnosed with Lung Cancer? Why You Should Seek a Second Opinion

Why You Should Consider a Clinical Trial for Lung Cancer Treatment

Diagnosed with Lung Cancer? An Expert Outlines Key Steps


Transcript:

Dr. Erin Schenk:

As a medical oncologist who takes care of lung cancer patients, I would recommend that if you or a loved one are diagnosed with lung cancer, going to your meeting with the cancer doctor report the surgeon or the radiation doctor with a couple of main questions to ask in order to better understand your diagnosis and the treatment options.

So, the first one is what stage and stage is a descriptor that we use that talks about how far the lung cancer has spread if it’s spread at all. And sometimes, this involves additional testing to give you the best, most accurate answer. Oftentimes, patients are diagnosed with scans, but what’s also – excuse me, scans of the chest, but what’s also really important is better understanding whether or not lymph nodes in the middle of the chest are also involved.

This can require either a PET scan or occasionally procedures where tissue, the lymph nodes biopsied, and tissue samples are taken to see if the lung cancer has spread to those lymph nodes. PET scans are also able to better tell us whether or not lung cancer has spread outside of the lungs. And additionally, and MRI of the head can often be a really critical piece of information to better understand whether or not the lung cancer has spread to the brain. Unfortunately, lung cancer is one of those cancers that can spread to the brain tissue.

So, the first piece of information and more tests might be needed, is stage.

The second piece of information that’s very important is what type of lung cancer, and sometimes, this occurs hand-in-hand with better understanding stage. Usually, this involves a biopsy, so a sample of the tissue needs to be taken and then looked at underneath a microscope by a pathologist who are doctors who help us identify which type of lung cancer it is that a patient has. And then the final thing to ask your care team or your doctor is do I need additional molecular testing?

Molecular testing is a critical piece of information in order for doctors like me to help take care of lung cancer patients. Molecular testing lets us know what role immunotherapy might play in your diagnosis. It also lets us know whether or not targeted therapy which are oral pills we sometimes call TKIs are appropriate for your disease and your stage. These pieces of information, so stage, what type of lung cancer, and if molecular testing is necessary, these are, I think, the three critical pieces that you need going forward to help your cancer doctor and team better formulate a plan that is right for you.

Finally, I’d like to add in that if you are in a situation where you would like a second opinion, or you would like to get more thorough answers, I would encourage you to look for an academic center or a large medical center that has specialists who focus in on lung cancer. We are often very happy to see patients and talk with them about their treatment plan if any other tests or evaluations are needed to help you feel confident in the plan that your doctors closer to home have put together. That’s it.

Why You Should Consider a Clinical Trial for Lung Cancer Treatment

Why You Should Consider a Clinical Trial for Lung Cancer Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Erin Schenk, a lung cancer expert and researcher, explains why patients with lung cancer should consider a clinical trial and the role trials plays in clinical care.

Dr. Erin Schenk is an assistant professor in the division of medical oncology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Schenk and her lung cancer research here.

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

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Lung Cancer Treatment: What Is Immunotherapy?

What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer Research

New and Improved Lung Cancer Treatment Options


Transcript:

Dr. Erin Schenk:

We have a very active clinical trial practice in the lung cancer world for one reason alone, and that’s that while our current therapies are good, we can still do better. Lung cancer accounts for significant cancer-related deaths in the United States and the world. And we wanna work to try and improve how well patients do and also improve how many patients we are able to cure. Clinical trials can be at any step of your workup or treatment.

So, even patients with earlier-stage disease meaning lung cancer where we can resect it with surgery, there are a number of clinical trials going on right now to try to better improve the outcomes we see with our normal standards of care. So, whether you are having a lung cancer removed by surgery whether you’re receiving chemotherapy and radiation and immunotherapy whether your lung cancer has happened to spread outside of the lungs, there are clinical trials available at every step in the game.

And I would really encourage you to ask your cancer care team or your doctor about whether or not clinical trials might be available in your area. Because often, they can help identify new targets or other ways of trying to attack the vulnerabilities of your lung cancer.

If you are considering a clinical trial, there are a number of important questions to find out from the clinical trial team as well as your cancer care team. Some of the things are really practical, logistical questions and one of those is, “How often do I need to come to clinic? How many more schedule visits do I need?”

Usually, with clinical trials, upfront so before you get on the clinical trial or once you start receiving the clinical trial medicine or therapy, often there are more frequent visits in that initial time period. But after things are – after you’ve had several treatments with the trial medicine, often it becomes more standard of care meaning visiting once every three weeks for blood work and a visit with your team and then infusion.

So, it’s often a little more work up front, and then it gets back to the usual expectations of how often you have to be in our offices. So, I think those logistical concerns are very real because especially for larger institutions, sometimes, coming to our campuses can be a bit of a challenge. So, that would be one. I would recommend discussing logistics. Discussing with your team as to why they think this would be a trial for you is important.

Occasionally, we are able to screen for certain markers or certain things that are expressed on the cancer cells and then match you with clinical trials that try to target those specific molecules or proteins or flags that are on the surface of the cancer cell. So, oftentimes, we try to match patients up to a specific clinical trial, so better understanding why that one was recommended. And then I would ask your team to also discuss what are the side effects that have been noticed.

Often with these clinical trial medicines, we don’t have a lot of experience with how well patients do on these therapies. But sometimes, we can give you an idea in terms of what we expect and what we will watch closely for. So, I think logistics are important, why your doctor or your cancer team thinks this is a good trial for you, and then finally, what sort of side effects have been noticed as best we can tell with this new trial medicine.

Lung Cancer Treatment Advances: What are Antibody Drug Conjugates?

Lung Cancer Treatment Advances: What are Antibody Drug Conjugates? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Dr. Erin Schenk, a lung cancer expert, discusses emerging research around antibody drug conjugates (ADC) and how this therapy works to treat patients with lung cancer.

Dr. Erin Schenk is an assistant professor in the division of medical oncology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Schenk and her lung cancer research here.

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

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Lung Cancer Treatment: What Is Immunotherapy?

Why You Should Consider a Clinical Trial for Lung Cancer Treatment

New and Improved Lung Cancer Treatment Options


Transcript:

Dr. Erin Schenk:

Some interesting research that’s coming to the forefront in the lung cancer field are using new medicines called antibody-drug conjugates. And so, these medicines, I think of as another type of targeted therapy. So, what happens is that cancer cells express certain proteins or certain flags on their surface that aren’t often found on other normal cells.

And what these ADC drugs are able to do is that they’re able to seek the cells that express certain flags, and then deliver a chemotherapy payload directly to those cancer cells. One trial from the recent ASCO annual meeting from this year, 2020, was looking at an ADC that targeted HER2 which can sometimes be over-expressed by lung cancer cells.

And they had good initial reports in terms of patients being able to have disease control for some time and minimal side effects.

So, I think in general the idea of ADCs or looking for surface markers on the cancer cells to try to in a more targeted fashion deliver the chemotherapy payload, I think this is a really exciting area of investigation as well as a new potential therapy for our patients with lung cancer.

Lung Cancer Treatment: What Is Immunotherapy?

Lung Cancer Treatment: What Is Immunotherapy? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Erin Schenk, a lung cancer specialist, provides an in-depth explanation of what immunotherapy is, and its role in treating lung cancer.

Dr. Erin Schenk is an assistant professor in the division of medical oncology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Schenk and her lung cancer research here.

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

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Lung Cancer Treatment Advances: What are Antibody Drug Conjugates?

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Transcript:

Dr. Erin Schenk:

Immunotherapies are powerful new medicines that we available to us as medical oncologists and especially within patients with lung cancer. Immunotherapies are medicines that help to activate your body’s own defenses to go seek out and kill the cancer cells.

So, immunotherapies prevent stop signs on the cancer cells.

What happens is that as the cancer cells grow and as they become more resistant to your body’s natural defenses, it puts up certain stop signs. And these stop signs prevent your body’s immune system from attacking them. Immunotherapies, basically, it cuts off that stop sign so that your immune cells can go and attack the cancer cells.

Immunotherapies play a role in the treatment of many lung cancer patients, nearly all. So, immunotherapy has recently found a role in curative-intent therapy meaning we give these treatments to you to try and cure you of your cancer completely. And that’s in patients who have advanced lung cancer that they can’t surgically resect, or it’s not safe or feasible to cut out, but it hasn’t spread to anywhere else in the body.

So, often, those patients receive chemotherapy and radiation together, and then they receive immunotherapy for a year. So, that’s one set of patients we treat with immunotherapy. And then most other patients with lung cancers especially metastatic lung cancer or cancer that’s spread elsewhere in the body, immunotherapy plays a role in treatment regardless of what type of lung cancer that you have with a couple exceptions which I’ll get to.

So, first, if patients have small cell lung cancer that has spread in other parts of the body, immunotherapy’s an important part of the initial treatment regimen combined with chemotherapy. That’s one of the first advances in decades for patients with small-cell lung cancer. The other situation where we use immunotherapy in metastatic disease is with non-small cell lung cancer. And here we have data and studies to support the use of immunotherapy either alone or in combination with chemotherapy medicines.

And the determinate, there’s a number of factors we use to help determine whether a patient can get immunotherapy alone or immunotherapy in combination with chemotherapy, that’s based on PD-L1 status. So, that’s the immunotherapy marker that we look for on cancer cells. If the PD-L1 status is high enough on the cancer cells, we can discuss with our patients using immunotherapy alone.

If that PD-L1 marker on the cancer cells is not high, then we can use immunotherapy plus chemotherapy in our patients. One area where we’re still not quite sure how to best use immunotherapy are in patients with driver mutations or some of these mutations that we look for with special molecular testing like EGFR, ALK fusions, ROS1 fusions.

What we’ve been learning over time is that immunotherapy alone does not appear to help patients do better for longer. We’ve also been learning through clinical trials that immunotherapy combined with TKIs which is the targeted therapy patients receive if they have one of these driver mutations, that does not appear to be effective or safe from some of these early clinical trials.

There’s some debate right now amongst my national/international colleagues as to whether or not giving immunotherapy plus chemotherapy is the right choice for these patients after TKIs or targeted therapies stop working. It’s really up to the discussions that you have with your doctor and whether or not they think immunotherapy and chemotherapy could be right in that situation.

Notable News August 2020

Just when you think science can’t get any cooler, researchers figure out a way to learn more about cancer from dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs! Researchers have also found that fewer people are dying from lung cancer, and that the more they learn about immunotherapy the better. There is also a new study warning of a potential cancer risk for older adults.

The study pertains to adults 65 and older and indicates that taking aspirin every day could make cancer worse for older adults, reports medicalnewstoday.com. While past studies have shown that a daily dose of aspirin could protect older adults from cardiovascular issues, and clinical trials have shown that aspirin may reduce the risk of developing cancer in middle-aged adults, a recent study showed that daily aspirin intake may actually increase the risk of being diagnosed with advanced cancer in older adults. There was a 19 percent higher risk of metastatic cancer and a 22 percent higher risk of an advanced cancer diagnosis. People who are already taking a daily dose of aspirin should not stop doing so and should consult their healthcare providers with any concerns about the study before making any changes to their daily aspirin regimen. Learn more about the results of the study here.

Researchers may have discovered why immunotherapy isn’t effective for some patients, says sciencedaily.com. The treatment, which uses a person’s own immune systems to target cancer cells, doesn’t seem to work so well for young and female patients. A study shows that immunotherapy is less effective in young and female patients because they tend to have strong immune systems that are better at getting rid of tumor cells. That sounds like a good thing, but cancer cells that the immune system can’t easily recognize and get rid of often remain in the body, so immunotherapies are less effective at targeting those cells. Now that researchers know why immunotherapy doesn’t work for some patients, they can use the information to determine how to make treatments more effective for every patient. Find more information about the study here.

Researchers have also been looking for ways to increase the effectiveness of immunotherapies to treat blood cancers, says technologynetworks.com. By combining two types of immunotherapies, researchers found that they become more effective in treating blood cancers such as leukemia. There is also evidence that the new combination of therapies could be a safer option. The researchers are using similar technology used in the immunotherapy known as CAR-T therapy in which T cells are modified. In the new combined therapy, instead of modifying T cells, cells known as natural killer (NK) cells are modified. The CAR cells are also modified to help the NK cells find the tumor cells. The process utilizes the benefits of modifying both types of cells and may reduce the potentially life-threatening side effects of the CAR-T cell therapy which would greatly improve immunotherapy treatments. Read more about the combination of the two immunotherapies here.

Improved therapies are also having an impact on lung cancer mortality rates, reports cancer.gov. A new study by researchers at the National Cancer Institute shows that deaths from non-small cell lung cancer, the most common type of lung cancer, have dropped in the United States. The death rates are dropping faster than the cancer is occurring and the extra decline is attributed to therapies, approved in the last ten years, that target the cancer. Find out more about the NSCLC mortality rates here.

We are learning more and more about treating cancer all the time, and sometimes information comes from the most unlikely places, such as dinosaurs, says technologynetworks.com. Researchers have found the malignant bone cancer, osteosarcoma, in the lower leg bone of a Centrosaurus apertus, a plant eating, horned dinosaur that lived in large herds approximately 76 million years ago. The damage to the dinosaur’s bone was first thought to be a fracture, but upon further examination, the cancer was found. Using similar methods to diagnose cancer in humans, researchers discovered that the adult dinosaur had an advanced stage of the cancer and that it may have spread to other parts of the body. However, it is not believed that the cancer is what killed the dinosaur, as evidence showed it died as part of a herd in a flood. Researchers hope that they will be able to better understand diseases today if they are able to understand how they have evolved from the past. Learn more about how the dinosaur’s cancer was diagnosed here. You can even watch a short video about it. It’s super cool!

Fact or Fiction? Myeloma Treatment & Side Effects

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

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

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

See More From Fact of Fiction? Myeloma

Related Resources

Key Considerations When Choosing Myeloma Treatment: What’s Available?

Evolving Approaches to Myeloma Treatment: Staying Up-to-Date

Discussing Treatment with Your Doctor: Key Questions to Ask

Transcript:

Patricia:

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

Dr. Ghobrial:

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

Patricia:

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

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

Dr. Ghobrial:

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

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

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

Patricia:

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

Dr. Ghobrial:

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

Patricia:

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

Dr. Ghobrial:

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

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

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

Patricia:

Let’s get an overview of available myeloma treatments.

Dr. Ghobrial:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patricia:

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

Dr. Ghobrial:

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

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

Patricia:

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

Dr. Ghobrial:

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

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

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

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

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

Patricia:

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Oh, absolutely.

Patricia:                      

What are the common myeloma misconceptions about treatment side effects?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

31:59

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:     

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

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

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

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

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

Patricia:                      

Tell me what an M spike is.

Dr. Ghobrial:    

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

Patricia:

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

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

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

Patricia:                      

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

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Absolutely. Thank you.

Patricia:                      

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

Notable News: December 2019

While 2019 is nearing its end, there are all kinds of new beginnings in cancer research. Scientists are finding new and exciting discoveries that could lead to fine-tuned cancer treatments specific to each person, each type of cancer, and each response the body has to treatment. Using tropical flowers, mitochondria, and an off switch for cells, researchers keep finding new paths to treatment for even the most difficult and deadly cancers. Of course, that doesn’t mean we need to forget about prevention; there continues to be new information about how our lifestyles could affect our cancer risk, right down to our hair color.

A trip to the hair salon might mean an increased cancer risk, reports ecowatch.com. A study by the National Institutes of Health shows that permanent hair dyes and chemical hair straighteners might put women at an increased risk for cancer. The study found that women who used permanent hair color were nine percent more likely to get breast cancer. Black women, though less likely to use hair dye, had the most notable risk. They showed a 45 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer. Women who used hair straighteners had an 18 percent higher risk of breast cancer. Frequency of use posed a problem, too. Hair products can contain more than 5,000 chemicals, including formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. This study’s findings aren’t enough to draw a definitive link between the hair products and breast cancer, and no warnings have been issued about using hair products, but the findings do indicate that more research needs to be done to determine whether or not there is a connection. Read more about this study here.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just switch off a cell to prevent tumors from growing and spreading? It might be possible, reports medicalxpress.com. Researchers have discovered what could be a new cancer immunotherapy treatment for patients who haven’t responded to other types of immunotherapy. The study, done on mice, shows that many tumors display the molecule MR1, which keeps the body from fighting the cancer cells. Researchers found that when they gave the mice an antibody that blocked the MR1 cell, cancer fighting cells could come in to slow cancer growth and prevent it from spreading. With this new information, doctors would be able to screen patients to see if they have the MR1 cell, and determine if they would respond to the potential new immunotherapy. Researchers now want to apply what they’ve learned to human tumors. You can learn more about the findings here.

Another treatment-related discovery is that there might be an alarm at the molecular level that serves as an alert when cancers have become resistant to treatment, reports sciencedaily.com. Mitochondria, which are present in most cells, can sense DNA stress which can indicate when cancer cells have developed resistance to chemotherapy, researchers found. The findings could lead to new cancer treatments that would prevent chemotherapy resistance, making it more effective. See the details about this discovery here.

Also from sciencedaily.com, we’ve learned that a tropical flower might hold the answer to treating pancreatic cancer. The plant, Uvaria Grandiflora, grows in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, and its flower contains a chemical that researchers have used as a model to create three new molecules which they hope could treat pancreatic cancer. All three of the molecules have shown that they kill pancreatic cancer cells in a Petri dish, and while the potential drug trials are more than five years away, these molecules could become new drugs for treating pancreatic cancer that would be more effective and less toxic than current treatments. You can find more information here.

As you say goodbye to 2019, we hope you will continue to say hello to Patient Empowerment Network. We will continue to provide you the latest in cancer research news as we continue in our mission to empower patients, family members, and caregivers in innovative ways. We’re particularly proud of our digital sherpa™ program, which you can learn more about at voice.ons.org. Learn how the sherpas are used to enhance the experience of patients and nurses as told by Regina White, RN, MS, OCN at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. Check it out here.

Happy, Healthy, New Year to all!

What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer Research

What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer Research from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

As a lung cancer patient, why should you stay informed about research? Expert Dr. Heather Wakelee reviews what patients need to know.

Heather Wakelee, MD is Professor of Medicine in the Division of Oncology at Stanford University. More about this expert here.

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

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

So, there’s so much happening in lung cancer research now, it is hard to really narrow it down to one thing to be specifically excited about. Where we have made so much progress in particular is with target treatments, and also with immune therapy. So, when we think about the targeted treatments, it’s only been about 15 years since we first learned about drugs that would specifically target the EGFR gene mutations.

And when we found a tumor with an EGFR gene mutation, we then had a medication we could give that would work better than chemo. And now we have five EGFR drugs available in the US. And then we found out about this ALK gene mutation that happen in some tumors. Now we have five drugs that work there. And the with ROS1, that was found, and now we’ve got four drugs that work there that are approved.

And it seems that we keep learning about more and more mutations, so those are mutations called NTRK and BRAF. And with all of those, we now have drug treatments, so it’s been very, very rapid discovery of specific gene mutations and drugs that work for that. And I think we’re continuing to see new targets being identified and new drugs being found.

And also, when those drugs stop working, better understanding why and what we can do to help them work longer, or what we can give next. So, that’s a very active area of research that’s exciting. And then we have the immune therapy. So, the ones that are available so far are drugs that block either PD-1 or PD-L1, and that's one of the really important stop signals for the immune system.

And tumors can use that stop signal to block an immune reaction to a tumor. But if you block that stop signal then the immune system can attack the cancer. So, that's really important, these PD-1, PD-L1 drugs.

We also know about another stop signal called CTLA-4, and there’re drugs that block that as well. And now, where there’s a ton of research is in trying to work with other parts of the immune system, other either pro-immune or anti-immune signals, and changing those in a way where we can improve the ability of the immune system to find the cancer cells and attack the cancer cells.

So, there are many, many studies being done with drugs, and especially in combinations, trying to get that response against the cancer from the immune system to be even stronger. And that’s, I think, where we’re making the most exciting headway now.

New and Improved Lung Cancer Treatment Options

New and Improved Lung Cancer Treatment Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Are there new lung cancer treatment options that you should know about? Expert Dr. Heather Wakelee reviews the latest research. Looking for more information? Download the Find Your Voice Resource Guide here.

Heather Wakelee, MD is Professor of Medicine in the Division of Oncology at Stanford University. More about this expert here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

So, the treatment of lung cancer has been changing very, very quickly. We’ve had a lot of new options that have become available in the last few years, and there’re new ones coming along all the time. When I started treating lung cancer, which was a number of years ago, we were able to treat and help people.

But our only real option when the cancer was metastatic was chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is still an important part of treatment for many people, but now we have other options. So, starting about 15 years ago, people were able to identify that some tumors had specific genetic changes. We also call these molecular changes, or gene mutations, or just mutations in the tumor. They have a lot of different names.

But when we do find them, these are things like EGFR or ALK or ROS or BRAF or MET, we actually have different treatment options that only work for tumors that have those specific genetic changes, and don’t work in tumors that don’t have those. So, when we talk about genetic changes a lot of people think, “Oh, that’s something that I’ve inherited.”

These are not things that are inherited. This is not something that’s in the whole person. It’s just in the tumor. So, it’s a mutation that happened in the DNA of the cell, and that cell then became the cancer. And depending on what that mutation or mutations are, we still can have chemotherapy, and that can work.

But for specific ones, and specifically EGFR, ALK, ROS, BRAF, we know that there are pill drugs and oral medication that actually is gonna be better than chemo, at least for a period of time, if a cancer has that specific mutation.

So, it’s really, really important to figure that out. It’s not something a doctor can sort out just by looking at the patient or looking at the tumor under the microscope. We have to do special testing, looking at the tumor DNA.

And we now have ways of looking for those mutations, not just in the tumor tissue, but also sometimes with blood. So, we can draw a blood test and look for those as well when there’s a tumor that’s shedding the DNA. So, it’s really important to think about that. And we now have a whole host of medications that we can offer people when we the find these mutations that we didn’t used to have, even a few years ago.

And, actually, if you think back over the last five years, we’ve had new drugs approved, a few of them every year, for these specific gene mutation tumors, so that’s really, really exciting. The other thing that’s changed dramatically just in the last five years is what we call immune therapy.

So, when we think about the different types of treatment, chemotherapy works by poisoning DNA. And in order to make a new cell, you have to make new DNA. Tumors are doing that more than a lot of normal tissue, and so we’re able to give chemotherapy and specifically hurt tumors and not the rest of the person very much.

With the targeted treatments where we find a gene target and where there’s a gene mutation in a tumor, those are medications that specifically hit that altered gene, that altered protein made by the gene. And then they work really, really well. What immune therapy does is it actually changes the way your body’s own immune system interacts with the tumor. So, we have a lot of types of immune cells, but the ones that are involved in really fighting the cancer directly are called T cells.

And so, normally, a T cell would recognize something that’s foreign like an abnormal-looking cell that’s a cancer, and attack it. But we have a lot of different systems in our body that stop the T cells from recognizing normal tissue and attacking it.

And one of the best systems for that is something called PD-1 and PD-L1. And so, if you have a T cell and it sees a PD-L1 signal on tissue, it assumes that that tissue was normal tissue and it doesn’t attack. But if you can hide that PD-L1 signal, then if it’s a T cell, a part of the immune system comes in and doesn’t see the PD-L1, it doesn’t get the stop signal. It’s not told to not attack. So, it could attack the tumor better.

And I’m not describing it well because it’s so complicated. There are a lot of different factors that help a T cell know whether to attack or not to attack. But, again, one of these key stop signals is the PD-1, PD-L1 interaction. And so, scientists were able to develop medications that can block PD-1 or PD-L1. And when those medications are in the body, if a tumor is using that particular stop signal as a way to hide from the immune system, when you give the medication that blocks it then the tumor is no longer hiding.

And then the immune system, those T cells, can come in and attack. So, these immune treatments, and there are now a lot, and so these are drugs, like pembrolizumab, also called Keytruda; nivolumab, which also called Opdivo; durvalumab, which is called IMFINZI. And there are many, many others. Those medications have now been shown to really, really help to fight cancer, particularly when the tumor is using that PD-L1 signal. But they can also be combined with chemotherapy and then they work even if there’s not a lot of PD-L1 in the tumor. So, again, it’s a very complex story.

But where we’ve seen dramatic improvements in treatment is we have targeted treatments when the genes are – there are specific genes mutating in tumors. We have immune therapy, which worked for a lot of other people. And sometimes when there’s also gene mutation, but not always, we still have chemotherapy. And then there’s ongoing research with a lot of different medications. Many of them are focusing on better ways to get the immune system to work against cancers beyond what we can already do.

Being Empowered: The Benefits of Learning About Your Lung Cancer

The Benefits of Learning About Your Lung Cancer from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

As a lung cancer patient, why should you stay informed about research? Expert Dr. Heather Wakelee provides her advice. Find your voice with the Pro-Active Patient Toolkit Resource Guide, available here.

Heather Wakelee, MD is Professor of Medicine in the Division of Oncology at Stanford University. More about this expert here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

So, as a patient living with lung cancer, you have many options today that you wouldn’t have had 5, 10, 15 years ago, which is wonderful.

Because things are changing so quickly, it’s very hard for physicians and other care providers to keep up with all of the latest information. It’s especially hard if you are seeing an oncologist who not only has to keep up with everything that’s happening in lung cancer, but also everything that’s happening in breast cancer, and colon cancer, and melanoma, and so many other diseases.

And so, while everybody does their best to know the latest and greatest in research, and all of the new drug approvals, sometime that’s just possible. So, as a patient, you wanna make sure that you, focused on your particular disease, are up-to-date on what you can possibly know about the best ways to treat your disease, so you can talk to your physician and make sure that he or she also knows about those, and is using that latest information to help you get the best possible care.

There’s also a lot of ongoing clinical trials. And being able to ask about those and know what may or may not make sense for you, is also a reasonable thing to be able to talk with your doctor about.

And sometimes that involves continuing your care with your doctor, but also getting another opinion, particularly at a research center where they might have access to more trials, new drugs, some of which might be better than what’s available, and some of which might not be. But without talking to people about that, you’re not gonna be able to know that.

And that’s why it’s really important to do what you can or your family can do to be educated and know what is going on in the field of lung cancer, so you can get the best possible care.

Diagnosed with Lung Cancer? Why You Should Seek a Second Opinion

Diagnosed with Lung Cancer? Why You Should Seek a Second Opinion from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Should you seek a second opinion? Lung cancer expert Dr. Heather Wakelee explains when to consider seeing a specialist. Looking for more information? Download the Find Your Voice Resource Guide here.

Heather Wakelee, MD is Professor of Medicine in the Division of Oncology at Stanford University. More about this expert here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

So, when facing a new diagnosis of lung cancer, one of the questions that often comes up is whether one should go get a second opinion or see a lung cancer specialist. And that is a question that obviously is gonna vary quite a bit by where a person is, where they’re getting seen, and what they’re facing.

I think a time that it’s really critical would be if someone has a Stage III lung cancer or told it might be Stage III. That’s a really good time to get a second opinion and make sure that the group that is taking care of you has had a multidisciplinary discussion. And when I say multidisciplinary, I mean, a thoracic surgeon, a radiation oncologist, and a medical oncologist have altogether looked at what’s going on with the particular case of that patient to decide up front what’s gonna be the best approach.

Because sometimes surgery is the right first approach. And sometimes it’s not. And sometimes radiation’s important, and sometimes it’s not.

So, it’s really critical to have a big team looking at what’s going on for Stage III. And if you’re in a hospital that really doesn’t see a lot of Stages III lung cancer that might be a good time to think about getting a second opinion outside of where you’re being treated.

I think, otherwise, if someone is newly diagnosed and we know the cancer is early stage where surgery might be involved, it’s good to check in that the surgeons who would be doing your operation are surgeons who know about lung cancer and have done lung cancer surgeries frequently. Sometimes in smaller hospitals there are surgeons who do both heart and lung surgery. And we know that the outcomes are not always quite as good in that setting.

Sometimes there’s no choice, and that’s okay. But if there is an opportunity to talk to a dedicated thoracic surgeon who’s used to doing lung cancer surgery, that’s another good time to get a second opinion. When we’re dealing with a more advanced stage of metastatic lung cancer, if someone is newly diagnosed and their tumor ends up having an unusual gene mutation or translocation.

And the molecular changes in lung cancer are really important to know about. And things like EGFR and ALK and RAS, where most medical oncologists will be familiar. But there’re others, like BRAF and RET and MET, and those can really change treatment outcomes as well, but not everybody who sees lots of different kinds of cancer as an oncologist will know everything there is to know about those.

So, if you have an unusual gene mutation, that’s another good time to get a second opinion with someone who’s a dedicated lung cancer expert. And usually those folks are at the larger academic medical centers, so oftentimes in cities, or affiliated with universities.

Another time is if someone does have a tumor with an EGFR, ALK, or one of the more common mutations, but the main drugs have stopped working, that’s often a time where someone who has specialized just in lung cancer might have some other options.

It’s also something to think through when someone’s newly diagnosed, if they know that their doctor has looked at the immune markers like PD-L1, and looked at the genetic changes in the tumor, and has a clear plan that’s gonna involve chemotherapy, or chemotherapy plus radiation, or chemotherapy plus immune therapy.

Then there might not be something that’s gonna be different in an academic center. But before you start treatment, if you’re still feeling okay, don’t have to start treatment tomorrow, and wanna know maybe that there’re clinical trial options, that’s another time to think about getting a second opinion. And a lot of academic centers will work to get people in very, very quickly if they knew they’ve just been diagnosed and they really need to get started on treatment right away.

Diagnosed with Lung Cancer? An Expert Outlines Key Steps

Diagnosed with Lung Cancer? An Expert Outlines Key Steps from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Heather Wakelee outlines key steps that patients should consider taking following a lung cancer diagnosis. Find your voice with the Pro-Active Patient Toolkit Resource Guide, available here.

Heather Wakelee, MD is Professor of Medicine in the Division of Oncology at Stanford University. More about this expert here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

For a patient who is facing a new diagnosis of lung cancer, there are a lot of really important things to keep in mind. But really thinking about top three of them, the first one is that you wanna know what stage the cancer is. And when we talk about stage, we’re talking about how far the caner has spread. So, sometimes a cancer is found at Stage I when it’s still just a mass, a tumor in the lung.

Stage II means that it’s spread into some of the lymph nodes that are still in the lung. And for Stage I and II, for most people, we know that that means surgery is the treatment option. The next stage is Stage III, and that means that the cancer has started to spread into these lymph nodes.

And lymph nodes are just normal part of the body, but it’s a place cancer often will go. And if it goes into the lymph nodes in the center of the chest, called the mediastinum, then it becomes Stage III. And that changes the treatment. It’s usually more complicated. You wouldn’t normally just have surgery. There’s still sometimes surgery, and sometimes radiation, and almost always some sort of treatment like chemotherapy.

But it’s very complex. And usually we recommend that if you know it’s Stage III that you have a team that’s surgeons and radiation oncologists and medical oncologists to think about it. And then Stage IV means that’s it’s spread. So, knowing – meaning that it’s spread in a way where treatments are gonna involve chemotherapy or targeted treatment or immune therapy, and sometimes radiation, but not normally surgery.

And so, because it’s such a big difference in how things are treated based on stage, that’s the most important question to talk to your treating team about. The next most important question, assuming that it’s metastatic or Stage IV because that’s the most common way that we find lung cancer.

If it is metastatic or Stage IV then you wanna find out well, are there any markers, any tumor markers or cancer genetic changes, that are gonna help pick the treatment. And when I say that, I’m talking about gene changes in specific genes. The ones we think about a lot is something called EGFR, or epidermal growth factor receptor; or ALK, which is A-L-K; KRAS. There’s a whole list of them. But the most important are EGFR, ALK, and ROS, and BRAF.

And why that’s so critical is that if you have metastatic cancer and the tumor has one of those mutations then instead of chemotherapy, the best treatments are gonna be pill drugs, so basically, medications that you take my mouth. And we know that when the tumor has one of those specific mutations, the pill drugs are gonna be more likely to shrink the tumor and have that last longer. So, that’s why it’s so important to know about that. And then the other thing that we look at a lot is something called PD-L1, and that helps us determine about the immune therapy.

So, there’s been a lot on the news about this new class of treatments called immune therapy. And those can work for a lot of different people with a lot of different kinds of cancers. But they don’t always work. And this PD-L1 test can help us know a little bit more about when it might be the best choice, or when it might be something we can add to chemotherapy. And so, getting that information back is important, too.

And I’m gonna add a little bit extra to that. A lot of times that PD-L1 result will come back faster than the gene changes of the tumor, the molecular changes to the tumor. And it’s important to have the whole picture, so you wanna know not just what stage, not just the PD-L1, but also if there are any gene changes in the tumor, so that the best treatment choice can be talked about with the care team.

Are Clinical Trials Too Risky? A Lung Cancer Expert Reviews the Facts.

Are Clinical Trials Too Risky? A Lung Cancer Expert Reviews the Facts. from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Some patients fear that clinical trials may be too experimental and risky. Dr. Martin Edelman outlines the clinical trial process and addresses myths surrounding trials. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

Dr. Martin J. Edelman is Chair of the Department of Hematology/Oncology and Deputy Director for Clinical Research at Fox Chase Cancer Center. More about this expert here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:

Here’s the last one that I have on my list here. Clinical trials are experimental and risky.

Dr. Edelman:

Yeah. Well, so is the rest of life. So, there generally – is there risk? Yes. Essentially, every patient is always a trial because we for the most part don’t – even in the disease states where we have very active treatment – so, let’s say – for example, we were talking about the EGFR mutation. So, we have excellent drugs. We have a drug now, osimertinib – outstanding drug, easy to take, low risk of side effects.

The earlier generations – there was a lot of rash, diarrhea. That’s been pretty much done away with. But on average, patients benefit from this drug for about a year and a half.

So, that’s not great if you’re 40 or 50 years old. You want to do better. So, what are our current studies? Well, we’re looking – we’re re-addressing a question that we thought had been answered, but really it wasn’t – about, well, what’s the value of chemotherapy plus this drug? What about the value of other drugs?

So, we can’t promise anybody anything, but our current treatments are still not good enough. There are certain diseases, let’s say Hodgkin’s disease, where you know you’re gonna cure almost all the patients up front or testicular cancer, etcetera, where – again, but thanks to trials, clinical trials, we now are at that stage. We’re not there yet in lung cancer, and the reality is is every patient should really be on a study. I think it’s – and we have this problem now in that our studies have also become far more complicated to enter people in because there are many more variables one has to look at it. What’s the molecular background of the tumor? How many prior therapies?

The condition of the patient, their organ function, etcetera – and the regulatory burden has become much, much greater. But clinical patients are in clinical trials. Let’s look at the question. Are they risky? Well, everything is risky, but we do a lot to manage that risk. Patients who are in studies are observed more closely. We have to. It’s the law. There’s frequently additional personnel assigned. They’re usually getting standard of care plus a new treatment or a new treatment followed by the standard of care or some variation of that.

They’re observed, like I said, much more carefully than we would otherwise. And so, I think actually patients on trials generally will do better, and we actually have evidence. Multiple individuals have looked at this – everything from first-in-man trials or early dose escalation studies, controlled studies – that show that patients, even those on the control arm, generally do better than similar types of patients who are not treated on studies because we just are more careful.

And the physician who participates in trials is generally someone who has a greater knowledge of the disease.