Tag Archive for: Keytruda

Head and Neck Cancer Treatment and Research Updates

Head and Neck Cancer Treatment and Research Updates from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is the latest head and neck cancer news? Expert Dr. Ezra Cohen discusses research updates in immunotherapy and shares credible resources for staying informed about head and neck cancer treatment and research.

Dr. Ezra Cohen is a medical oncologist, head and neck cancer researcher and Chief Medical Officer of Oncology at Tempus Labs.

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Well, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to join us today. As you know, head and neck cancer research has been progressing quickly. What recent developments do you think patients should know about? 

Dr. Cohen:

Well, there are a lot, really. And I think probably the first and foremost is the impact that immunotherapy is having on treatment for head and neck cancer. And that is mostly in the form of a drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda). It’s an anti-PD1 antibody that really – what it does is stimulate a specific cell type in the immune system called T cells. And now, it’s approved for the treatment of patients with recurrent or metastatic disease.

However, for patients, I think probably the most important development over the last little while is the realization of the important of the multidisciplinary team in the management of patients with head and neck cancer.  

It used to be that the care was driven by a single oncologist or a single individual, but over the last, I would say mostly over the last decade, maybe a little but more than that. There’s becoming this realization more and more and the implementation, of course, of these multidisciplinary approaches involving a surgeon, a radiation oncologist, a medical oncologist, but much more than that. A speech and language pathologist, a swallowing expert, nutritionist, psychologist, pharmacists, dentists, of course oral surgeons.  

With the, now, the prospective data to validate that in a multidisciplinary setting, with a multidisciplinary tumor board where each patient is discussed with all of these individuals providing input. The outcomes are substantially better. And so, for patients, I think that that’s had the greatest impact, because we’re talking about patients who can be cured for the most part.  

And those cure rates increasing just simply by getting the right people involved in their care. 


Yeah. Very important, then. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, patients should be aware of all of their options. How can patients stay informed as the treatment landscape expands and changes?  

Dr. Cohen:

Yeah. It’s challenging because not only are patients and their caregivers grappling with this diagnosis, and it’s a brand-new world for almost all of them. Many patients have never had to deal with cancer ever before. Pile onto that the functional and social aspects of having head and neck cancer. Remember this is a cancer that affects so much of what makes us human – our ability to communicate, to speak, to eat, to swallow. And so, now, patients are flung into this situation, and it is challenging to find good information.  

Having said that, often the oncologists that are involved in the person’s care should be a great source of information, especially if those oncologists have experience treating head and neck cancer. And incidentally, just as an aside, there is also data and mounting data that the more experienced a center is in treating head and neck cancer, the better the outcomes. And so, that’s something that patients may want to think about as they choose their providers.

But then there are also public sources. There are support groups for head and neck cancer. The Head and Neck Cancer Alliance is one of those. SPOHNC is another and they’re excellent sources of information for patients. American Cancer Society is always a very good source of information, mostly for cancer basics but they do have the pages that are dedicated to head and neck cancer.  

And then the American Society of Clinical Oncology, or ASCO, actually does have a patient-facing part of their organization, and that can help not only with information about the disease, but it can also help find providers that have a specific interest in this type of cancer. 

Exploring Renal Cell Carcinoma Research: Expert Insights on Immunotherapy and Targeted Therapy

Exploring Renal Cell Carcinoma Research: Expert Insights on Immunotherapy and Targeted Therapy from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What’s important in renal cell carcinoma research news? Expert Dr. Moshe Ornstein from Cleveland Clinic shares an overview of research updates on immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and combination therapies.

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Lisa Hatfield:

Dr. Ornstein, can you speak to the latest news in renal cell carcinoma?

Dr. Moshe Ornstein:

So just by way of a 30,000 foot view, when it comes to renal cell carcinoma, approximately two-thirds of patients are diagnosed when the cancer is in a localized stage, where the cancer is treated with curative intent, generally with surgery. For patients who present with metastatic kidney cancer, in other words, kidney cancer that has spread beyond the kidney, or for patients who had their kidney removed and then developed a recurrence or the cancer had come back to the lungs or the bones or anywhere beyond the kidney, those patients are treated with what’s called systemic therapy. Those are medicines that really cover head to toe, not a specific area, but head to toe.

And when we think about treatment options in kidney cancer, there are two main treatment options. One is immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is generally what’s called checkpoint inhibitors. And these are therapies that “release the brakes” on the immune system, and allow the body’s immune system to be activated to target the cancer.

And the other type of medicine is called targeted therapies. And these for the most part, are vascular targeted therapies, and the way I describe it is they shrink the blood supply to the tumors. So again, you have those tumors that are diagnosed at a local stage. You have those tumors that are metastatic or advanced beyond the kidney. And the main treatment paradigms have to do with immunotherapy and targeted therapy.

So we just had the ASCO GU meeting, and I just want to describe the updates and how they fit into sort of the overall treatment paradigms across the different treatment sections, in other words, localized and metastatic. So for a patient who presents and comes in with just a kidney mass, that’s a kidney cancer, generally that patient’s going to be treated with surgery. In general, there’s no rule for therapy before surgery. For many years, for that patient who had their kidney cancer removed from the kidney, either part of the kidney or the whole kidney removed, we really didn’t know what to do with those patients, and the standard of care was just to watch those patients.

And we’ll get into a discussion about what watching the patient means. But one of the updates from the recent meetings has been that for patients who have their kidney removed because of kidney cancer, there is now a rule in some patients, this has to be a discussion with the doctor, to use immunotherapy to help prevent or delay the cancer from coming back. It’s a personal discussion.

We have a lot of data to support the use of a medicine called pembrolizumab (Keytruda), which is an immunotherapy that patients would get for a year after their kidney surgery. So that’s really the big recent update in the localized kidney cancer world, where the kidney cancer has been removed by surgery, and there’s now a treatment option, a year of immunotherapy after surgery for the right patient. So now, we move to the metastatic patient.

So again, the patient who has metastatic disease, either comes in with metastatic disease upfront, meaning the kidney’s there, the tumor’s in the kidney, and there’s advanced disease. And the other type is the patient who had their kidney removed a year ago, two years ago, sometimes five years ago, and now shows up with new spots in the lungs or the bones or elsewhere in the body. And that is metastatic or advanced kidney cancer.

So by and large, the overwhelming majority, and in my clinical practice, 95 percent of these patients are going to get an immunotherapy-based regimen as the first treatment for advanced kidney cancer. And there are different types of immunotherapy-based regimens. There’s an immunotherapy in combination with immunotherapy, and that’s called ipilimumab (Yervoy) and nivolumab (Opdivo), so double immunotherapy, or an immunotherapy plus a targeted therapy.

Lisa, we spoke about the targeted therapy, cutting the blood supply. So in addition to getting two immunotherapies, some patients won’t get two immunotherapies, they’ll get one immunotherapy in combination with a targeted therapy. And those combinations include axitinib (Inlyta) and pembrolizumab, lenvatinib (Lenvima) and pembrolizumab and cabozantinib (Cabometyx) and nivolumab as the primary combination treatments for the first line of therapy for metastatic kidney cancer.

And the real updates from the recent meetings in this setting is just that with additional follow-up, in other words, we’ve seen follow-up at two years after the trial started, three years, four years, now five years, we’re seeing that there’s a subset of patients that continue to benefit with this combination years down the road. So, encouraging for patients. Again, it’s not every patient, different patients need different things, but just the knowledge that we have long-term follow-up data for patients who have gotten an immunotherapy-based combination for the front-line treatment for their advanced kidney cancer.

And the last update I want to touch on is once we move beyond that first line of immunotherapy-based combinations, we really don’t know exactly what to do beyond that. Meaning, if somebody got an immunotherapy-based combination, and then the kidney cancer got worse, what do we give next? And generally, we’re giving more of these vascular inhibitors, these targeted therapies. And the latest advancement in this area, in the refractory setting, in other words post immunotherapy-based combination is the introduction of a new medicine called belzutifan (Welireg), which is not a classic vascular inhibitor, but is something called the HIF-2α inhibitor.

It’s a very well-tolerated therapy in many of the patients. And it does have activity in the right patient. And it’s now FDA-approved relatively recently for patients who have already had an immunotherapy-based combination. So that’s kind of the major update. The post-surgery treatment with immunotherapy, long-term data for immunotherapy-based combinations in the metastatic setting, and a novel therapy, a new mechanism of action with a pill with a therapy called belzutifan for patients whose kidney cancer is getting worse despite standard treatments upfront.

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Cancer Patient Profile: Linda Ryan

As a survivor of thyroid cancer, adenocarcinoma in situ of the cervix, and seven cancer recurrences, our PEN Gynecological Cancer Empowerment Lead Linda Ryan has learned a lot about cancer treatment and about life. She’s discovered the value of self-education, clinical trials, and friendships among many other things. 

Linda’s first cancer experience occurred in 2002 with her thyroid cancer diagnosis. She received successful treatment and then two years later, as a result of a routine pap exam, she was diagnosed with stage 0 adenocarcinoma in situ of the cervix. Linda had a hysterectomy and no other treatment. And then seven years later, she found a lump on her neck that her doctors diagnosed as thyroid cancer recurrence. She had a radical neck dissection scheduled but found some lymph nodes in her groin area ahead of her surgery date. The sense of urgency for treatment increased considerably after the physician assistant knew Linda didn’t have thyroid cancer.

Linda learned that the standard of care option had a 15 percent response rate for her diagnosis, and the clinical trial was seeing  a 31 percent response rate. She chose the clinical trial since it increased her chances by 16 percent. She traveled from Florida to Houston for treatment, and she did that for eight rounds every three weeks and then had no evidence of disease.

Clinical trial participation wasn’t something that Linda would have known to ask about initially, but she’s participated in a few trials. Patients can find all clinical trials on clinicaltrials.gov. “It’s important for patients to ask their doctors about trials and to do research on trials, knowing that they may not be eligible for certain ones if they don’t have certain cancer mutations or other treatment factors. Trials are available to patients in community settings and not just teaching institutions. I feel like I’m using them and getting the benefit of kind of cutting-edge medicine that isn’t available. So I think it’s important for people to seek out trials and educate themselves if there is something available for them.”

One key piece of advice from Linda is don’t give the cancer any more power than it deserves. “So I think it’s important to always remember you’re in charge, and you’re more powerful than the cancer. The words you use to talk about your cancer are very important. So knowing that when I exercise, I feel stronger than the cancer, even if I’m not lifting weights, but I’m moving.” She also recommends using mental exercises or spiritual practice as a way to keep your personal power during your cancer journey and to keep excessive anxiety at bay. 

At the beginning of her cancer journey, Linda asked her doctor if she could keep running. Her doctor advised her to keep moving as much as she could. A group of Linda’s friends decided to host a 5K in her honor. “The goal was just to get our community moving and to hear that message of the importance of exercise. And it gave me a lot of mental strength.”

Reflecting back on the initial 5K event, Linda and her friends set out with specific goals for the event. They wanted the community to hear their message and wanted 300 people to participate in the first race. They were simply overwhelmed with joy when 900 people registered. They only needed 300 people to register to cover the expenses. The large event turnout meant that they had plenty of money left to donate. 

And we had a small amount of money at that time, but we thought, “Well, we can do something good with this money.” And so we created a 501(c)(3) charity, and it became an annual event and an event for our small town in Florida to land, and Central Florida really embraced it. Fast forward to 2020, right before the pandemic we had 6,000 participants. It was just us five women running it. We all had different talents and decided it was time for someone else to take it over.”

Up until the time that the new organization took over in 2023, Linda’s efforts with her friends gave a little over $2 million. “So many good things came out of it, we’ve touched so many lives of people living with a cancer diagnosis and going through that process. But in addition to what the beneficiary money went to, the event united our community.”

While Linda was enduring her cancer journey, her whole town was looped in on what was happening with her. “When I would have a recurrence, I’d be in the grocery store in tears, because someone would know it was just like everyone knew. And so lightning in a bottle was such a great way to describe it. And then the other thing is because there aren’t a lot of recurrent cervical cancer survivors, especially six, seven-time survivors, I’ve been able to, hopefully, be a voice for other women.”

Linda has formed an educated opinion about cancer information. “Having more information can help all of us patients make better decisions and more informed decisions and talk to the doctors about things that they weren’t necessarily thinking would be specific to you. But getting more information can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes the more information we have, we can fall down rabbit holes and our cancer might not be this exact mutation, and we might read something on the Internet that isn’t necessarily relevant for our own situation. Make sure to talk with your doctor about information that you find.”

As for patients navigating their cancer journeys, Linda feels it’s important for patients to be empowered and to handle their cancer journey how they want to go through it. “Some patients may want someone else directing everything, but that’s their choice. Some people only tell their spouse. I think caregivers need to respect what the patient wants. That doesn’t mean the patient doesn’t need a reminder from time to time that they need to get up and put a smile on once in a while. I wouldn’t want to be the caregiver. It’s so hard for them, since they can fix the cancer.”

Last November, Linda had a scan that showed no evidence of disease, but she remained on pembrolizumab (Keytruda) as a precaution. “I receive it every three weeks through my port, but it’s super easy. I don’t have side effects. It’s 30 minutes. It’s not life-changing at all. So I hope to be on it for a really long long time, and I get scans every three months. I feel great.”

Though she never could have imagined enduring two types of cancer and seven cancer recurrences, Linda remains grateful for the good things that have come from her journey. “My prayer the last two years was, ‘Please let me live and use me as however I need to be used to help other people.’”

Evolving Research | Advanced Prostate Cancer Treatment

Evolving Research | Advanced Prostate Cancer Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Prostate cancer research continues to evolve, but what’s important for patients to know? Expert Dr. Xin Gao shares updates about recent clinical trial developments, where research stands, and the outlook for future prostate cancer treatments.

Dr. Xin Gao is a Medical Oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Learn more about this expert Dr. Gao.

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This actually leads me to my next question which is about research news. 

Prostate cancer research is evolving quickly, like so many other cancers. And it’s important for patients to stay up to date on developing news. So, are there research advances that patients should be aware of? 

Dr. Gao:

Yeah, I mean some of the treatments that I just mentioned, PARP inhibitors, pembrolizumab (Keytruda) for MSI higher and mismatch repair deficient tumors and lutetium. Those have come out of recent major clinical trials and have become the standard of care in a lot of different…in various different settings for patients. And there are always new research trials, clinical trials, that are going to either move some of these established treatments to earlier lines of setting, earlier lines of treatment, or using them in maybe combination with other drugs where we might learn that they’re more useful if we combine it with another drug or maybe combine it with hormone treatments earlier rather than later. 

So, there are always clinical trials for advanced prostate cancer. There are even newer trials, novel therapies, completely new treatments that have been studied in the laboratory in say petri dish models of cancer or animal, mouse models of prostate cancer, but have shown enough early exciting data to try to move them into human beings and hopefully help advanced prostate cancer patients.  


As we wrap up, Dr. Gao, I’d like to get your thoughts. How do you feel about where we stand with advanced prostate cancer care? 

Dr. Gao:

Yeah. I think there have been a lot of advances in advanced prostate cancer care in recent years. Newer and better treatment strategies seem to come along every couple of years, and I think what we’ve seen for advanced prostate cancer patients over the past, really, since probably 2015 or so, is a significant improvement in outcomes, long-term outcomes like survival and slowing down of the cancer. 

And it’s…I think it’s important to acknowledge that and to acknowledge that the clinical trials in recent years have really led to a lot of improvements and really the hope that in the coming years, there’s going to be additional research, additional clinical trials, newer treatments hopefully, that will continue to improve outcomes for advanced prostate cancer patients. I also think that it’s really critical to evaluate the specific patients’ cancer characteristics, things like the genetic testing that I mentioned earlier, as well as their sort of life situations and other medical comorbidities to come to a shared decision about what makes the most sense in terms of their cancer management.  

Genetic testing might open up the option for certain FDA-approved therapies or consideration of certain targeted therapies that still might be in clinical trials. And clinical trials, again, are also an option for additional treatment strategies that otherwise would not be available. 

What Is the Role of Immunotherapy for Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers?

What is the Role of Immunotherapy for Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What should non-melanoma skin cancer patients know about immunotherapy? Expert Dr. Silvina Pugliese explains common situations when immunotherapy is used and updates about immunotherapy treatment and research.

Silvina Pugliese, M.D., is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology and Attending Physician at the Stanford Medicine Outpatient Center and Stanford Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Pugliese.


“…recognizing that immunotherapy can be utilized in certain cases when we consider a systemic treatment of cutaneous squamous cancer and basal cell cancer. As a whole, immunotherapy is not currently first line treatment, but utilized when there is a high risk tumor or whether it’s metastatic disease or where there is locally advanced disease.”

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Mary Leer: 

Dr. Pugliese, what is the role of immunotherapy in patients with non-melanoma skin cancers, specifically those whose cancer is in an advanced stage or in their first line of treatment?

Dr. Silvina Pugliese:  

Immunotherapy is used in non-melanoma skin cancers in certain specific scenarios. First, PD-1 is a receptor that inhibits the activity of a sub-type of T-cells, this inhibition inhibits the, controls I could say the immune response, which is helpful because in exuberant and immune response can sometimes contribute to auto-immunity. However, cancer cells can unfortunately hijack this mechanism to suppress an anti-tumor response. So the immunotherapy we will be discussing today are monoclonal antibodies against PD1, and they work by encouraging and an anti-tumor response. And before diving into immunotherapy and when it is used, I first want to say that for most cutaneous squamous cell cancers and most cutaneous basal cell cancers, which are very different entities, but most of them can be treated by surgical excision or mohs micrographic surgery. In certain subtypes of both types of tumors, they can even be treated by topical medications, including topical chemotherapy and topical immunotherapy, so the cases where we think about more aggressive treatments are usually higher risk and more advanced and also unable to be treated with surgery or the other modalities mentioned. So in the case of cutaneous squamous cell cancer, the two FDA-approved PD-1 inhibitors that are used for treatment of continuous squamous cell cancer are pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and cemiplimab (Libtayo), some scenarios in which these PD1 inhibitors can be used are in the treatment of locally advanced cutaneous squamous cell cancer, not curable by surgery or radiation, as well as metastatic cutaneous squamous cell cancer.

For basal cell cancer, the FDA-approved treatment is cemiplimab. This is utilized for patients who have locally advanced or metastatic basal cell cancer that was previously treated with a hedgehog inhibitor or whom a hedgehog inhibitor is not appropriate. I should mention that immunotherapy is currently not first-line treated for either cutaneous squamous cell cancer or cutaneous basal cell cancer. Now because I mentioned hedgehog inhibitors, I wanted to say that this is another systemic treatment option that is utilized for more aggressive, locally advanced or metastatic high-risk basal cell cancer. Hedgehog inhibitors work by inhibiting a receptor called smoothened, and this inhibition also inhibits tumor growth. And again, these hedgehog inhibitors are utilized for local high-risk basal cell cancer, there’s a positive margin after mohs micrographic surgery, residual cancer after multiple excisions and can be primary treatment if radiation or surgery is not possible due to the size of the tumor, these can also be utilized for locally advanced or metastatic basal cell cancer, which can’t be treated topically, surgically or with radiation, because those treatments would not be curative in those cases. The two FDA-approved hedgehog inhibitors are vismodegib and sonidegib, my activation tip for this section is recognizing that immunotherapy can be utilized in certain cases when we consider a systemic treatment of cutaneous squamous cancer and basal cell cancer. As a whole, immunotherapy is not currently first line treatment, but utilized when there is a high risk tumor or whether it’s metastatic disease or where there is locally advanced disease. 

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What Prostate Cancer Research Is Showing Promise?

What Prostate Cancer Research Is Showing Promise? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What areas of prostate cancer research are showing promise? Expert Dr. Sumit Subudhi explains ongoing research and shares an overview of prostate cancer treatment classes in development.

Dr. Sumit Subudhi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Genitourinary Medical Oncology, Division of Cancer Medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Subudhi.

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I’d like to begin with an update on prostate cancer research. Would you walk us through the newer classes of treatments that are showing promise?  

Dr. Subudhi:

Yeah, in clinical trials, there are classes of drugs known as androgen receptor degraders. And so, the androgen receptor is a protein that basically is the mouth of the prostate cancer. That’s how I like to describe it. And it actually allows testosterone, which is the food, to be eaten by the mouth, and it actually helps the cancer grow. 

And what these drugs do is they actually degrade or break down the mouth of the cancer. And, therefore, it starves the cancer to death, and that’s actually the concept. And they seem to be showing some exciting activity in clinical trials, especially in those patients who are resistant to the second-generation hormonal drug that you may have heard of already, such as enzalutamide (Xtandi), apalutamide (Erleada), and darolutamide (Nubeqa). So, I think is something that we’re looking forward to seeing more data on. 

Another class of drugs are antibody drug conjugates or ADCs.  

And these are what I think of as heat-seeking missiles. So, one part of the drug actually recognizes the cancer, and the other part of the drug actually has a payload that sort of releases a bomb or sort of like chemotherapy-type agent right where the cancer’s located and kills the cancer in that way. And we’re seeing some great clinical activity in prostate cancer with this class of drugs. 

And then the final one is bispecifics, and in particular T-cell bispecifics. So, T cells are part of the immune system that actually help kill the cancer.  

And, unfortunately, prostate cancer, like some other cancers like pancreatic and glioblastoma, have few T cells inside it. And, therefore, a lot of the immunotherapies that many people have heard about, such as ipilimumab (Yervoy) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda), they’re not very responsive in patients with prostate cancer. And it’s because there’s few T cells in prostate cancer. 

What the T-cell bispecifics do is they actually have one part of the drug that actually recognizes the cancer and the other part that recognizes T-cells. So, like a bulldozer, it brings T cells right into the prostate cancer and helps kill the cancer that way.  


Now there are some inhibitors as well. Is that correct? 

Dr. Subudhi:

Yeah. So, the immune checkpoint inhibitors have been around for a while. And, basically, in combination, they seem to be more effective in prostate cancer. But when given alone as monotherapy, they’re less effective. 


Are these treatments specifically for patients with advanced prostate cancer? 

Dr. Subudhi:

All of them are actually in trials in patients with advanced prostate cancer. And I define advanced prostate cancer as either having metastatic disease, meaning the cancer has spread to other parts of the body outside of the prostate. 

Examples include lymph node, the bone, the lung, the liver. But there are so few trials in patients with locally advanced prostate cancer. What I mean by that is they have high-grade prostate cancer, but it’s local, or it’s just in regional lymph nodes. And some of these classes of drugs are being evaluated in that setting as well.  


Let’s shift to talk about your research. What are you excited about right now? 

Dr. Subudhi:

So, my research focuses on immune checkpoint therapies, which are the inhibitors that you were referring to and understanding how to make them work better in prostate cancer. 

And we’re finding out that in prostate cancer there’s about 20 to 25 percent of patients that appear to respond to this type of treatment. But these are patients that don’t have a lot of bone metastases. And these immune checkpoint inhibitors are given in combination. So, they’re not given alone. They’re given with either a combination of anti-CD34 and anti-PD-1 or some other form of that. 

What Are the Treatment Options for Early Stage Breast Cancer?

What Are the Treatment Options for Early Stage Breast Cancer? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Breast cancer expert Dr. Adrienne Waks reviews available treatment approaches for patients with early stage breast cancer and explains the role of sub types when choosing a treatment plan.

Dr. Adrienne Waks is the Associate Director of Clinical Research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. To learn more about Dr. Waks click, here.

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Well, let’s get into the specific treatment options that are available for breast cancer patients. Could you tell us about those?  

Dr. Waks:

So, fortunately, the answer to that question is enormous, because we have so many effective treatment options in breast cancer and generally our patients do very well in the long term when they are diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, so stage I or II or III breast cancer.  

That might involve the breast, it might involve the lymph nodes under the arm, but it hasn’t traveled anywhere else in the body. So I’ll set aside metastatic breast cancer and just talk about stage I, II, and III. 

So, as you may know, we think about as medical oncologists we completely separate treatment considerations for three different subtypes of breast cancer. Those are hormone receptor-positive, HER2-positive and then triple-negative. So, again, highlighting just important developments and not really the overall treatment planning for each of those subtypes, in ER-positive disease or estrogen receptor-positive disease hormonally-driven, estrogen-driven breast cancer – those are all sort of terms for the same thing, I think there have been a couple of important developments over the last few years.  

Probably the most important recent one is the new understanding and demonstration that the CDK4/6 inhibitor abemaciclib, the brand name of that drug is Verzenio. 

That drug when we administer it for two years after a patient has had their surgery and in conjunction with alongside the antiestrogen medicines; the antiestrogen medicines are usually done for a minimum of five years, when we add on to that the CDK4/6 inhibitor abemaciclib, we see that for women with higher risk disease, so maybe some lymph node involvement or a large tumor in the breast or both that the addition of the Verzenio, the abemaciclib seems to decrease their risk of recurrence of breast cancer a couple of years out. So, that’s been an important exciting development. 

Again, not for all women within early stage estrogen-driven breast cancer, but for a little bit more advanced early stage disease like lymph node involvement. You know, we’re obviously always looking for ways to reduce that risk of recurrence for women who have a little bit more risk at diagnosis and the addition of abemaciclib was an exciting and welcome addition to our toolkit there. 

In HER2-positive disease, which is about 20 percent of breast cancers overall, I think what the recent years have brought us is increasing understanding that in many cases we give women too much chemotherapy and that we need to be – so, here it’s less about adding on. Like the Verzenio example I was just talking about and more about individualizing and figuring out in whom and how we can pull back from sort of the kitchen sink approach that we take often to treating a HER2-positive early stage breast cancer and be more thoughtful and more personalized in the amount of treatment that we give women with HER2-positive breast cancer. 

The reason for that is that we’re basically 20 years into understanding that for HER2-positive breast cancers we can treat those cancers very effectively with anti-HER2 antibody drugs like trastuzumab or Herceptin. We didn’t even know that until 20 years ago. And so, Herceptin, trastuzumab and similar drugs have really revolutionized how effectively we can treat women with HER2-positive breast cancers. And so, at this point, it’s becoming more and more clear that we can really lean more on our arsenal of anti-HER2 targeted therapies like Trastuzumab. Pertuzumab (Perjeta) is another one and trastuzumab MTNC and TDM1 is another one. 

So, we have all these excellent smart targeted treatments for women with HER2-positive disease, but yet the standard of care is still to give all those good rational targeted treatments with a whole bunch of chemotherapy that comes with a lot of side effects. 

I think more and more we’re figuring out that we can lean more on our anti-HER2 treatments and require less of the really side effect heavy chemotherapy, but how do we do that thoughtfully? We obviously don’t want to undertreat anybody, so how do we do that thoughtfully? How do we pick out the women who only need the anti-HER2 treatment and can get away with less chemotherapy. I think that’s really what’s exciting in HER2-positive early stage breast cancer right is how do we individualize and take advantage of targeted agents that we have? 

And then finally, in the third subtype of breast cancer which is triple-negative breast cancer which accounts for about 10 percent of breast cancers, the most exciting development there clearly in the last year or so is the realization and the demonstration in randomized clinical trial that we can improve outcomes for those women if we give them not just chemotherapy but also chemotherapy combined with immunotherapy and specifically the immunotherapy agent called pembrolizumab or Keytruda. 

So, up until a year or two ago, the standard for a stage I or II or III triple-negative breast cancer was to get a multiagent chemo regimen and chemo was really the only type of option we had to treat those triple-negative breast cancer patients and now we know from a major important clinical trial called Keynote 522, that if we take a standard chemo backbone and add Pembrolizumab immunotherapy onto it, that we can help those women do better in the long term. So, that’s really a pretty new in the last one or two years standard of care for triple-negative breast cancer. 

And I guess the last thing I’ll say is not about one of those three subtypes of breast cancer but specifically for women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation associated with their breast cancer, which is a minority. It’s about 5 percent of breast cancer patients. Obviously, the proportion changes depending on your subtype of breast cancer and your age when you’re diagnosed, but for women who have a breast cancer associated with BRCA1 or 2 mutation and have a higher risk or early stage breast cancer. 

So, again, they have a number of lymph nodes involved or a big tumor in the breast or something like that, we now know that we can add on one year of the PARP inhibitor medication called olaparib or Lynparza to the postoperative treatment of those breast cancer patients in addition to whatever other treatment they got; the antiestrogen pills, the chemotherapy, or a combination of those two, and with the addition of olaparib or Lynparza for a year that we can again see better long-term outcomes for those patients and help them avoid recurrences. 

So, that’s not a majority of breast cancer patients but is a targeted treatment that we’re very excited about that definitely makes an important contribution to reducing risk for women with a BRCA1- or BRCA2-associated cancer or men for that matter. I’m saying women, but it could absolutely apply to men. 

Managing the Side Effects of Advanced Prostate Cancer Treatment

Managing the Side Effects of Advanced Prostate Cancer Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Prostate cancer expert Dr. Rana McKay reviews potential prostate cancer treatment side effects and discusses strategies for managing these issues.

Dr. Rana McKay is a medical oncologist at UC San Diego Health and an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. Learn more about Dr. McKay, here.

Related Resources:

What Is Personalized Prostate Cancer Medicine?

When Should Advanced Prostate Cancer Patients Consider a Clinical Trial?

Tools for Choosing the Right Prostate Cancer Treatment Approach


Katherine Banwell:

Dr. McKay, for these treatment classes, what can patients expect as far as side effects? 

Dr. Rana McKay:

Absolutely. So, I think side effects – discussing side effects is a really important part of the discussion for selecting any one given therapy and in general, I think when we talk about the hormonal therapies one of the side effects that people can get is largely fatigue.  

But a lot of the symptoms are related to low testosterone. And so, that may mean muscle loss, bone loss, you know, hot flashes, fatigue, decreased libido. So, you those are things to consider with hormonal therapies. With the chemotherapies, I think the big ones we worry about are fatigue, risk of infection, blood counts dropping a little bit, people getting tired, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet can occur, some swelling in the legs are common side effects for chemotherapy agents. With regards to the immunotherapy with the vaccine therapy, it actually tends to be a fairly well-tolerated treatment. Maybe some fatigue, rarely some dizziness or some lip – lip sensitivity, numbness with the – the process of kind of collecting the cells. But it actually tends to be fairly well-tolerated.  

The targeted therapies can cause fatigue. They can cause the blood counts to drop and can impact bone marrow function. There can be sometimes GI side effects. Nausea, rash, and then the immune therapy, the pembrolizumab (Keytruda), that is FDA-approved sometimes that can cause immune-related adverse events which is kind of overactivation of the immune system developing, you know, what I’d call it as the itises. Colitis or pneumonitis, which is inflammation of various organs and symptoms related to wherever that may be.  

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

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

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

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

See More From INSIST! Lung Cancer

Related Resources:


Katherine Banwell:

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

Dr. Preeshagul:

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

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

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

Katherine Banwell:

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

Dr. Preeshagul:

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

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

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

Katherine Banwell:

Are there specific biomarkers that affect lung cancer treatment choices?

Dr. Preeshagul:

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

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

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

Patient Profile: Jeff’s Diagnosis of Parotid Cancer

On April 27, 2020, I received an email plea for help from Debra after she had read my book. Deb’s husband, Jeff, was struggling with a very malignant form of parotid cancer called Acinic Cell Carcinoma that, despite surgery and radiation, had spread to his chest and spine. Worse yet, there were no clear treatment choices available. Over the next 11 months, Deb & I have maintained an almost constant contact via emails and telephone chats. It has been my honor & privilege to get to know Deb. I am most impressed by her innate intelligence, rock solid determination and steadfast perseverance. Jeff is alive today primarily due to Debra’s tireless efforts to find a solution. 

On my request, Deb has penned this story of Jeff’s illness. I sincerely hope that it will inspire other patients and caregivers to become more empowered. Remember, Knowledge is Your Superpower.  Sajjad Iqbal, M.D.

 My husband, Jeff, was diagnosed with high-grade acinic cell cancer of the parotid gland in February of 2018 at the age of 65. He was a very young, healthy 65, who rarely saw a doctor and needed no regular medications. For 37 years he was a teacher and coach at a small school in Iowa. We have now been married for 47 years, have three children and three grandchildren. Jeff retired early from teaching when he was 61, but continued coaching for several more years. He also did small construction jobs with our son. We spent a lot of time traveling by car throughout the United States. It was a shock to both of us to hear that Jeff had this disease since he seemed to be so healthy. 

Several years before Jeff was diagnosed, he mentioned a small lump behind his ear. During a brief physical he had, he asked his doctor about it and was told to keep an eye on it and, if it got bigger, to see a doctor. In January of 2018, he noticed it was getting bigger so he saw the doctor. He was told he needed to get a biopsy but it was probably just a blocked salivary gland. As soon as I heard that, I figured it was cancer as Jeff’s mother had been diagnosed with salivary gland cancer many years before. Hers was a slow growing adenoid cystic cancer that was treated with surgery only. He had his biopsy done at a local hospital and when they said it was cancer, we had them make him an appointment at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota which is only a couple of hours from our home. 

He had further testing done at Mayo which also showed a lesion at the top of his spine. In March of 2018, he had two separate surgeries to remove the tumors. Cancer was also found in 9 of 21 lymph nodes. He came through the surgeries with no problems. Soon after, he received six weeks of radiation on both of those spots. This was much tougher on him than the surgeries. His neck was badly burned, nausea, no appetite, etc. He made it through and slowly got back to feeling normal. At that time, we were told that chemo wouldn’t help him so he never received any. Three months later, a scan showed a nodule on his chest wall. They did a biopsy and found it to be the same type of cancer. He had a cyroablation on that spot.

Two months later, we found out that the cyroablation had not worked, the spot was bigger and there were several spots on bone. He had Foundation One testing done on his tumor and it showed very few mutations. There was only one mutation, RET, that had a possible treatment at that time. There was a clinical trial at Mayo for a targeted drug for that mutation and they were able to get him in. He started on that in February of 2019. He experienced no side effects and the chest wall tumor stayed about the same the entire time he was on the trial. Unfortunately, though, it was not stopping the bone mets. He had radiation three days in a row on a couple of them when they started causing him pain. Because it was not stopping the bone mets, he discontinued the trial. His oncologist told us that he didn’t know of any clinical trials at that time that would help him. The only thing he had to offer was chemo and possibly Keytruda but he was doubtful they would help very much. Needless to say, this left us feeling lost as to what to do next. 

The Mayo oncologist had told us that, in his opinion, clinical trials were the best way to go as you could get the newest treatments and you would be closely monitored. That is what I decided to look for first. Luckily, since Jeff was first diagnosed, I had been doing research on his cancer and possible treatments. There wasn’t a lot as it is a rare cancer. I have no medical background but was determined to figure things out as much as I could and find something that might be able to help. I found three clinical trials that I thought might work for Jeff. These trials did not exist when Jeff was first diagnosed. I sent them to his Mayo oncologist who had told me that he would be willing to look over a clinical trial if I found one. He agreed that the one I was most interested in looked like a good possibility and one of the trial locations was Iowa City which is about 3 hours from us. This is a trial that focuses on the genetic makeup of the cancer instead of the type of cancer. One of the mutations that Jeff has is FANCA and this trial was the first one I found where FANCA was one of the mutations they were looking for. Also, Jeff’s mother, who also had salivary gland cancer, is a carrier of the FANCA gene. There is no known relationship between the FANCA gene and salivary gland cancer but I feel there must be a connection. It is a rare cancer and to have a mother and son have it must be extremely rare. Our children have been tested for this gene and we discovered that our son is also a carrier. 

It was in February of 2020 when we went to Iowa City to try to get Jeff into the trial. We found out that they had changed the requirements for the trial and now you had to have had chemo in order to be accepted. The doctor started Jeff on the oral chemo drug, Xeloda, and told us that if anything grew, he would stop the chemo and try to get him in the trial. Jeff was also having some rib and back pain and that was treated with five days of radiation therapy. Following those treatments, he had some heartburn issues for a couple of weeks after which it slowly resolved.

At first, the chemo wasn’t too bad. Soon though, there were many nasty side effects; peeling palms and bottoms of feet, nausea, no appetite, etc. He did not feel up to doing much and spent a lot of time sitting or lying down. He was on this about five months and decided to stop due to the side effects. He was having some back pain during his chemo and was prescribed a narcotic pain reliever. It helped the pain some, but caused constipation, so he had to take more medication for that. He told the doctors he did not like taking the narcotic drug and wanted to find another alternative. They tried one drug and the first night he took it he ended up fainting and having make a trip to the hospital. Needless to say, we stopped that drug right away! They said he was having nerve pain from his spine but were not able to find the exact source. He ended up having a vertebroplasty on his spine as they thought it might help his pain.

Unfortunately, it didn’t help the pain and he also started having a weird feeling of a tight band around his abdomen. We made a trip back to the Mayo Clinic to see a pain specialist there. He thought Jeff might be helped with a nerve block on either side of his spine. He had this done and, not only did it not help, it made the band feeling we were trying to get rid of feel even tighter! This was very disheartening as we really thought it would help. Iowa City had started him on Gabapentin for his nerve pain and had been slowly increasing the dosage. He was also started on a low dose of Lexapro and, between those two drugs, he started to feel less pain in his back. The “band” feeling is still there, but not as bad as it once was. He was finally able to get into the clinical trial in August of 2020. The drug he is on now is a parp inhibitor that targets the FANCA pathway. He has been on this drug for about seven months now with almost no side effects. The targeted tumor has shrunk quite a bit and the bone mets have stayed the same. Unfortunately, on his last scans, there was a new spot on his liver. He was allowed to stay in the trial as it is working on his targeted tumor and he is scheduled soon for microwave ablation on his liver. 

When one treatment stops working, I always look for a new clinical trial first.

It is hard, however, as so many of the trials are for certain types of cancer. Even though you discover (from the mutations) that a certain drug may help your cancer, you can only be in that trial if you have a certain type of cancer. I hope in the future there are many more trials based on the genetic makeup of the cancer rather than the type of cancer. The other problem is that the majority of trials are held at larger hospitals that are just too far away to go back and forth as often as needed. It would be great if there were a way to have some of the treatments done at a larger hospital in your own state. Also, if you have a rare cancer, it is much harder to find clinical trials. 

I have a library background and have always relied on books and articles to find information about various topics. Now that the internet is available that has been my most important tool at this time. Also, websites like PEN, providing patient’s stories, healthy recipes and classes are very helpful. These types of sites have really helped me feel not so alone and have given me much more hope than I have ever received from any oncologist. It is also over the internet that I connected with Dr. Sajjad Iqbal after reading his book “Swimming Upstream.” He has been very generous with his time and willing to give suggestions and advice as he has a cancer similar to Jeff’s. It has been a great comfort to me to be able to e-mail him to get his opinion on something or ask a question. He has also helped me feel more hopeful than anyone else I have talked to – not only by his words but by his courageous example. 

When Jeff was first diagnosed, he was still coaching track. The entire track team wanted to have a benefit for him and sold t-shirts and wristbands, and had a meal and dodge ball tournament to raise money for him. Jeff is a very popular guy in this rural school district and I know it meant a lot that his team did this for him. We have support from our family and friends and feel that we have people we can call if we need something. The pandemic has kept us from getting together with people as often as we would like but we are looking forward to that in the future. 

We know that there is a good chance that Jeff’s cancer may never be cured. If that is true, I would like the next best thing – for him to live as long as possible, as well as possible with the cancer. We have had three very good years living with it and working around his medical appointments. I will do everything I can to help him have more of those years. 

Jeff has handled this whole situation very well from the beginning. He is a pretty laid-back person who takes things as they come and isn’t much of a worrier. He has kind of set an example for me just by taking things as they come. I feel his job is to fight the cancer and my job is to help him fight the cancer. Our lives are pretty much the same as they were before he was diagnosed – only with a lot more doctor appointments!