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What Standard Testing Follows a Myeloma Diagnosis?

What Standard Testing Follows a Myeloma Diagnosis? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What tests will you have following a myeloma diagnosis? Are there additional tests you should request? Dr. Joshua Richter provides an overview of key testing for myeloma and why each test is necessary.

Dr. Joshua Richter is director of Multiple Myeloma at the Blavatnik Family – Chelsea Medical Center at Mount Sinai. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Medicine in The Tisch Cancer Institute, Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology. Learn more about Dr. Richter, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

What standard testing follows a myeloma diagnosis?

Dr. Richter:

So, the standard testing that follows a myeloma diagnosis is multifaceted. So, the first one is blood work. And we draw a lot of blood tests to look at the bad protein that the cancer cells make. So, we send tests like a protein electrophoresis which tells us how high that bad protein is. We send immunofixation. That test tells us what type of bad protein it is. You’ll hear names like IgG kappa and IgA lambda.

These are the different types of bad proteins made by myeloma cells. Oftentimes, we’ll send urine tests to find out how much of that bad protein that was in the blood is coming out in the urine. We will, typically, do a bone marrow biopsy. It’s a test where we put a needle into the back of the hip bone to look at the marrow itself. And we’ll use that marrow to figure out how much myeloma there is, any other characteristics like the genetic changes in those cells.

The other big thing is imaging. So, the classic imaging that we do with myeloma is something called a skeletal survey. It’s, basically, a listing of X-rays from head to toe. But nowadays, we have newer techniques, things like whole body low-dose CAT scans, something called a PET-CT scan, and MRI scans. And your care team may have to figure out which one is right for you at what given time.

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. Are there additional tests that patients should ask for?

Dr. Richter:

Absolutely. One of the most important things from myeloma has to do with the genetic risk stratification.

So, for almost all cancers, the staging has a very big impact. And people will often think of cancer in stages I, II, III, and IV, and they’re managed very differently depending upon what stage it is. Myeloma has three stages, stage I, II, and III. But the most important thing is, actually, beyond the staging is what’s called the cytogenetics risk stratification. So, it’s really important when the bone marrow is sent to be sure that it is sent for, kind of, advanced techniques. Because you really want that snapshot of exactly what the genetic profile is, because that gives us information of A) how to treat, and B) prognostic, you know, who will tend to do better or worse based on this information. And even though that may not tell us which drugs to use, specifically, it may say, should we do something like a transplant or not? Should we consider a clinical trial early or not?

Katherine:

I see. How do test results affect treatment choices?

Dr. Richter:

So, test results can affect treatment choices in a number of ways. Probably, the most common one is thinking about the routine blood tests like your CBC or complete blood count and your chemistry, which looks at things like your kidney function. Some drugs tend to have more toxicity to the blood counts. So, if your blood counts are very low, we may choose drugs that don’t lower the blood counts very much.

Kidney function which we, usually, measure by something called the creatinine. Creatinine is made by the muscles and cleared out by the kidneys. So, if your kidneys aren’t working very well, you don’t pee out creatinine, and that creatinine level will rise in the blood. If your creatinine level is high, we may choose certain drugs that don’t affect the kidneys or not metabolized or broken down by the kidneys.

The genetic studies that we use – we’re not quite at this base yet where we can say, if you have this genetic abnormality in your myeloma, we should use this drug except there’s some really great data on the cutting edge about a drug called venetoclax.

Venetoclax is a pill that’s used to treat other diseases like lymphoma and leukemia. And it turns out that people who have what’s called a translocation (11:14) which means part of the 11th chromosome and part of the 14th chromosome in the cancer cells swap material.

Those people respond amazingly well to venetoclax. So, we’re starting to have what we would call precision medicine where we find your genetic abnormalities, not that you got from your parents or passed to your kids, but the genetics inside the tumor cells to tell us which treatments will work best for you.

How to Play an Active Role in Your CLL Treatment Decisions

How to Play an Active Role in Your CLL Treatment Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can you partner with your healthcare team to feel confident in your CLL decisions? In this webinar replay, Dr. Matthew Davids discusses CLL treatment approaches, developing research and tools for partnering with your healthcare team. Dr. Matthew Davids is the Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to explore the factors that guide CLL treatment decisions, including your role in making those decisions. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during the webinar. And at the end of this program, you will receive a link to a program survey. This will allow you to provide feedback about your experience today, and it will help us plan future webinars.

Finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Refer to your own healthcare team. All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Matthew Davids. Dr. Davids, would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Davids:                  

Hi, Katherine. Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be with everyone today. I’m Matt Davids. I’m a CLL-focused physician based at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and I’m also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. And I get to wear many hats here. First and foremost, I take care of patients, particularly patients with CLL, but I also have some administrative roles. I direct our clinical research program in the lymphoma division. I also run a research laboratory focused on CLL and other lymphoid cancers, and I run about a dozen clinical trials mostly focused on developing new treatment options for patients with CLL.

Katherine:                  

Wow. Sounds like you’re a busy guy. I’m glad you have the time to join us today.

Dr. Davids:                  

My pleasure.

Katherine:                  

Let’s start with a question that’s on the mind of many of our audience members. Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for CLL patients?

Dr. Davids:                 

Very timely question. The simple answer is yes. There are now actually three different vaccines that have been granted emergency use authorization by the FDA.

And I would say that so far, we’ve seen clinical trial evidence suggesting these are very safe vaccines in the general population.

Our own experience with our own CLL patients so far has also suggested safety, so I think it’s very important that our CLL patients get vaccinated as soon as they can. I think the bigger concern more than safety is on the efficacy side of the vaccine, meaning how effective are these vaccines going to be for CLL patients? That’s not something that we know yet from the larger clinical trials that have been done. So, those numbers you see quoted, 95 percent protective, that’s in the general populations.

We do worry a bit based on our experience with other vaccines in CLL patients that they may not be quite as effective, but we don’t know that yet. Fortunately, that’s something that we’re studying now, both at our center and in some nationwide efforts, to look for example at the antibody production that CLL patients can make before and after vaccination. I’m hopeful that over the next few months we’ll start to learn about how effective these vaccines are specifically for CLL patients.

We certainly expect they will have some benefit, so that’s why we recommend vaccination for all of our CLL patients. But once patients are vaccinated, it doesn’t give them a free pass to then take their masks off and go back to normal life. Particularly CLL patients I think need to be careful even after vaccination to continue to do social distancing, hand hygiene, and all these things.

Katherine:                  

Is there one type of vaccine that’s more suited for CLL patients?

Dr. Davids:                 

Nope. As far as we can tell, all three of the approved vaccines so far are safe and should have some good effects for CLL patients.

There’s no benefit of one versus the others, so the best one to get is the one that’s in your muscle and injected. Whatever you can get access to, that’s the best one for you.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Davids, have there been any recent developments in CLL treatment and research that patients should know about?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah. We could spend a few hours on this, but I’ll try to summarize it. There’s a lot of exciting developments in the field. and I think we’re going to get into some of the specific treatments in a few minutes, but I would say at a high level obviously, over the last decade the entire field of CLL treatment has been transformed. Whereas we only had chemotherapy-based approaches before, now we have a whole number of different drugs that we call novel agents. And the reason why they’re novel is that they target the CLL cells, but they spare the other cells in the body, so there’s less collateral damage there. What that means is that they have fewer side effects, and they’re more effective, so it’s really a win-win situation for patients.

There’s kind of been two main approaches for this.

One is to start a novel agent drug and to continue it for as long as it’s helping, which fortunately for most patients is a long time, many years. And then, a newer approach is actually to do what’s called time-limited therapy where you start usually at least a couple of these different novel drugs together but hopefully achieve what we call a very deep remission, meaning excellent shrinkage of lymph nodes and improvement of blood counts and bone marrow disease. And by getting these very deep remissions the idea is we can do a finite period of treatment, whether it’s one year or two years, it kind of depends on the regimen. And then, stop therapy and hope that patients can then enjoy many years of remission while off therapy, which can be nice in terms of reducing side effects and costs and all these other things.

So, those are the biggest developments in the field right now, the continuous novel agent therapy and time-limited novel agent therapy. And a lot of the clinical trials that are getting off the ground now are starting to compare these two strategies to figure out really what’s the optimal way to treat CLL patients.

Katherine:                  

How can patients stay up-do-date on developments like these?

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s definitely challenging. It’s challenging even for us who are in the field to keep up with things on the academic side. I think for patients, seeking out patient-friendly sources of information on the web are helpful, but sometimes it can be hard to know what’s reliable information on the web. So websites like this and programs like this I think can be very helpful. Another resource that a lot of my patients find helpful is the CLL Society, so www.cllsociety.org. Brian Koffman really curates a lot of the new developments in the field on that website nicely. He interviews a lot of different CLL experts in this short format that can be very digestible for patients. Patient Power is another great website. So, there are a bunch of them out there, and I think those can be a great resource for our patients.

Katherine:                  

When a person is diagnosed with CLL they have a whole healthcare team. Who’s typically on that team?

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s definitely a multidisciplinary team.

Usually there’s an oncologist-hematologist who’s leading the team as a physician, but there’s a very large team of other people who are involved, whether it’s an advanced practice person such as a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant. They’re often very closely involved with the day-to-day patient care. There’s nurse navigators in some places that can help with getting access to these novel agents and with looking into clinical trial opportunities. There’s pharmacy folks who are very helpful sometimes in checking in on side effects, and advising on dosing, and so forth.

That’s more on the provider side of things. But, of course, the care team really includes the caregivers for the patient, whether it’s family members or friends, who are really a crucial part of this. The field is very complicated, and one of the challenges with COVID recently is that I’ve always invited family members and friends to come to visits with patients, because I do think it’s helpful to have many people listening. And that’s been hard because we’ve had to restrict visitors usually to either no visitors or one visitor because of COVID precautions.

Even if that’s the case, you can still have people dial in by phone or use technologies like FaceTime to try to have them there with you, because I think having that extra set of ears can be helpful as you hear all this information coming at you from your oncologist.

Katherine:                  

Yeah, absolutely. So, it really does sound like it’s a whole team approach. We have a question from the audience. Linda writes, “I’ve heard that CLL doesn’t need to be treated right away. Is that true?” 

Dr. Davids:                 

That is true for the majority of CLL patients, and it’s actually a very counterintuitive thing. We’re conditioned that if you have cancer that it’s important to be proactive and get rid of it as quickly as possible, the sooner the better, and that is actually not the case in CLL. And we didn’t just take a guess that that’s the best approach. This is actually something that’s been studied in clinical trials. There were several clinical trials launched in the ‘70s and ‘80s looking at an early intervention strategy using a chemotherapy-based approach to see if treating at the time of diagnosis would be better than waiting until patients developed more significant symptoms.

And all of those studies did not show a benefit to early intervention.

Now, more recently those studies have been challenged as somewhat out of date, which is a fair criticism because they used an older chemotherapy drug. And so, there is a newer study now going on in Europe that is looking at early intervention with the drug ibrutinib, which is one of our novel agents for CLL, looking to see if early intervention with ibrutinib, particularly for patients who have a higher risk form of CLL, may be beneficial.

But we have seen some data now already presented from this study that do not show any improvement in how long the patients live by treating with ibrutinib early, and we do see some of the typical side effects that we’re accustomed to seeing with ibrutinib. So, even with the newer data that we’re seeing, we still do not recommend early intervention for patients with CLL.

Katherine:                  

I’ve heard this term “watch and wait.” What does that mean?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah, it’s not the best term because it’s very passive. That refers to this observation strategy. I like to think of it more as “active surveillance.” It seems more proactive because you’re doing something about it.

You’re really checking the blood counts, you’re getting your physical exam, you’re checking in on symptoms, these sorts of things, and really keeping a close eye on the disease. And that’s the approach that we like to take with our patients to really keep them engaged, making sure they’re staying up-to-date on their screenings for other cancers, making sure they’re getting vaccinations, these sorts of things are all the things we do with active surveillance.

Katherine:                  

How is someone monitored during this watch-and-wait period?

Dr. Davids:                 

It varies depending on individual patients. We’ve alluded to the fact that there’s different genetic subgroups of CLL already, so there are some patients that have higher-risk disease. The example of that usually is deletion 17p that people may have heard of on the FISH test. For those patients I usually am seeing them every three months or so, physical exam, checking on their history, checking their bloodwork. But there’s quite a few CLL patients who have lower-risk disease. If they have for example mutated IGHV, if they do not have the 17p for example, those patients may be able to be seen once every six months or so with a similar setup.

 I don’t routinely get CAT scans on a regular basis for most patients. Most patients don’t need bone marrow biopsy tests unless they’re starting treatment. So, it’s mostly it’s exam, talking to patients, and checking the bloodwork.

Katherine:                  

Okay. So, how does CLL progress? When do you know when it’s time to treat?

Dr. Davids:                 

The stages of CLL involve the progression of the disease. When we first meet patients, often they only have cells circulating in the blood, and that’s called stage 0 disease. It’s one of the few cancers where there’s actually a Stage 0 before even Stage I, and the reason for that is that many patients can go for years on Stage 0 disease. But as the burden of the CLL cells begin to accumulate in the body they can start to collect in their lymph nodes, and the lymph nodes can start to swell up whether it’s in the neck or the armpits or elsewhere. That’s stage I disease.

They can accumulate in the spleen, which is an organ in the abdomen. It’s kind of a big filter for your bloodstream, and as the filter traps more of these lymphocytes the spleen can slowly enlarge over time. That’s stage II disease.

And then finally, the CLL cells can get into the bone marrow, which is like the factory for making your blood cells. And if the factory floor gets all gummed up with CLL cells it can’t make the normal red cells, that’s called anemia. Or it can’t make the normal platelet cells, that’s called thrombocytopenia. And when we start to see those more advanced stages III and IV of CLL, that usually does require treatment. And what the treatment does is it clears out the factory floor and it allows for the normal machinery to make the normal blood cells again. So, that’s one of the more common reasons why treatment is needed is due to anemia and low platelets. Second reason can be if the lymph nodes or spleen get so bulky that they’re uncomfortable or threatening organs internally. We want to treat before that becomes a real threat.

And then, the third thing that usually happens as the disease progresses, patients can develop some symptoms, what we call constitutional symptoms. These can be things like unintentional weight loss, drenching night sweats that are happening on a consistent basis, and those sorts of things. So, if that’s happening at the same time as these other factors are progressing, those would be reasons to treat.

And notice that one thing I did not say is the white blood cell count itself.

That’s a common misconception. Some people think that as the white blood cell count goes higher – and people use all different thresholds, 100, 200 – that by crossing that threshold you need to start treatment. And in fact, that’s not the case. We have many patients whose white blood cell count can get very high but then it can kind of level off and plateau for a period of several years, and as long as they don’t meet those other treatment indications, they don’t need to be treated just based on the white count alone.

Katherine:                  

Hmm, okay. Well, once it’s time to treat, of course then it’s time to think about treatment options. Let’s walk through the types of treatments that are used today to treat CLL.

Dr. Davids:                 

As I alluded to before, we historically have had chemotherapy-based approaches to treat CLL. And that was an effective way to temporarily put the disease into remission, but it had a lot of side effects and inevitably the CLL would come back. And the challenge particularly with chemotherapy-based approaches it that when the CLL does come back after chemotherapy, it tends to behave more aggressively and be harder to treat.

So, there have been quite a few studies over the last few years trying to figure out ways that we can avoid using chemotherapy as the first treatment, and this can involve treatments such as monoclonal antibodies. People may have heard of rituximab or a newer drug, obinutuzumab. There are the inhibitors of the B-cell receptor pathway, and this is for example ibrutinib, which targets a protein called BTK, also a newer one called acalabrutinib, which targets BTK. And then, I mentioned at the beginning these fixed-duration therapies that stop after a period of time. Many of those are based on a newer oral drug called venetoclax, which when we give it as a first therapy, we give in combination with that antibody obinutuzumab.

So, a bit of an alphabet soup. I know it gets confusing with all the different treatments, but the good news for CLL patients is, 1.) we have a lot of options, which is great, 2.) we don’t necessarily need to use chemotherapy anymore, and in fact I use it pretty rarely these days. One situation where I do still consider chemotherapy is for younger patients – which in the CLL world is sort of under age 60 or so – if they have very favorable biology to the disease, in particular this mutated IGHV.

That’s a scenario where the older chemotherapy regimen, FCR, can be very effective. It’s a six-month treatment, and we have patients with those molecular characteristics who are now 12, almost 15 years out from their initial six months, and they’re still in a complete remission. So, many of those patients have been functionally cured of their CLL from the six months of treatment. But again, there are some risks to that approach. We worry about other cancers that may be more likely after receiving FCR. We worry about infections, and particularly in the COVID situation, we worry about COVID infection in patients on chemotherapy.

So, it’s been pretty rare that I’ve been using that approach these days. I’ve been opting more for the novel agent-based approaches. So, often now the conversation as an initial therapy comes down to, “Do you prefer more of a continuous treatment strategy with a BTK inhibitor drug like ibrutinib or acalabrutinib, or do you like the idea of a time-limited therapy with one year of venetoclax in combination with obinutuzumab?” And I would say there’s pros and cons to both approaches, and we don’t know which one is the optimal one for CLL patients to start with, but probably I think most patients at some point in their lifetime are going to need one therapy or the other.

So, maybe in the end it doesn’t matter too much which one you start with if you’re going to get both eventually anyway. But we don’t know that yet.

Katherine:                  

Right. Where do clinical trials fit in with the treatment approaches?

Dr. Davids:                 

So, clinical trials are really how we’ve made all these advances in CLL over the last decade. It’s how we learn about new treatments. It’s how we learn about how to optimize the treatments that we have. I think sometimes patients have a misconception that clinical trials are a last resort, the idea that you’ve exhausted all the standard options and then you go to a clinical trial as your last hope. But I actually like to kind of turn that on its head and say that clinical trials are actually the first resort, the first best option for patients. Whenever patients can get access to a clinical trial at any stage of their disease, I would really encourage them to consider it.

We have quite a few clinical trials now in the frontline setting, meaning as an initial treatment for CLL, including some that are in development and will open soon. And these are the studies that are going to really help us define what the optimal regimens are. What’s the optimal sequence of these different novel agents?

And in CLL, really, we’re at a point where the research on the disease is so mature that when you’re in a clinical trial you’re either going to be on one regimen that you know you’re getting and you know it’s going to be an effective regimen, or you might be in a comparative trial where you could be randomized to one of two or three different regiments, but you know that each one of those regimens is one that we think is a great regimen. We just don’t know which one is optimal for individual patients. So, this is not a situation where there’s placebo-controlled trials where you don’t know if you’re going to get an active treatment or not. CLL is an area where we design our clinical trials so that all patients are going to be benefiting from cutting-edge approaches.

And so, not all patients have access to trials, and that’s okay. Again, we’re fortunate that we have many good options that can be given locally, but I do encourage patients even if they’re only able to travel to a CLL specialist once to have an initial consultation to think about doing that to get a CLL specialist on your team, so to speak. That way they can identify clinical trial options that may be a good fit, and even if not, they can advise on what the optimal treatment options are to receive locally with your own oncologist.

Katherine:                  

How do patients find out about these clinical trials?

Dr. Davids:                 

I do think the best way is through a CLL specialist because certainly they would have a great pulse on the trials, they have available at their own center. They should also have a sense for what trials are available maybe at other centers. Some of that can also be, there’s a great resource through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society where they can help navigate patients toward specific trials that may be applicable to them.

There’s also a website called clinicaltrials.gov. It can be a little challenging if you’re not familiar with it to navigate the site, but it is actually pretty straightforward. You can put in the disease and look at different options for trials based on different drugs, for example. They’ll list the eligibility criteria for the trial. That’s often I find a way that patients can begin to identify whether they may be a candidate. You can’t tell from the website whether you’re definitely a candidate or not. You really need to partner with an investigator who’s on the trial to learn that, but it certainly can be a good starting point to figure out what’s out there.

Katherine:                  

With CLL, what are the goals of treatment?

Dr. Davids:                 

I like to say to patients, “The goals are to make you live longer and live better.” You want to obviously have treatments that prolong life, but you also want to have treatments that are helping with symptoms, and giving patients more energy, and making them feel better, and protecting them from some of the risks of the disease. And so, I think the goals do vary a bit based on the stage of life that patients are at.

I see a lot of patients in their 70s and 80s, and in those patient’s symptom control, having the disease be in a good remission, allowing them to live their life is a good goal. I sometimes see patients in their 40s and 50s, and some of those patients want to be a bit more aggressive and try to do a strategy that will get them a very long-term remission, and even potentially explore potentially curative strategies.

If I have a higher-risk patient with deletion 17p who’s young and fit, and they’ve already had some of the novel treatments, that’s where we start thinking about clinical trials of some of the cellular therapies like CAR-T cells that people may have heard of where you use the T cells from the patient to try to use that as a therapy to kill off the disease. Or even a bone marrow transplant is something that we have used historically in CLL. We don’t use it as often now, but for younger patients with high-risk disease it’s still a consideration to try to achieve a cure of the CLL even though the risks of that are significant.

It sounds like there are several factors to weigh then in making this decision. Lately we’ve been hearing the term “shared decision-making,” which basically means that patients and clinicians collaborate to make healthcare decisions.

And it can help patients take a more active role in their care. What are your thoughts, Dr. Davids, on how best to make this process work?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah, I fully support that model. I think for most patients it’s very helpful to be an important decision maker. Really the patient is the ultimate decision maker to say what they want for their own treatment. And sometimes it’s hard for me to predict what a patient will want for themselves, so I see my role for most patients as providing the information that they need to make the best decision possible for themselves.

I do try to steer patients a bit in the directions that I think they should be thinking. I’m not going to necessarily present a laundry list of things to patients. I’m going to try to narrow it down to what I think are the most reasonable choices for a patient to make.

I feel that’s part of my job. I do still have patients who just say, “Just tell me what to do,” and I respect that, too. Not all patients want to be part of shared decision making, and they just want me to decide, and that’s fine. But I do find that most patients like the idea of having a voice and being the one to decide, and that way I can help to guide them, but ultimately, it’s up to them.

Katherine:                  

Well, speaking of patients having a voice, are there questions that patients should consider asking when they’re thinking about a proposed treatment plan?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah. I think some of the key ones revolve around basic stuff, but sometimes it’s hard to think of it in the moment. But thinking about, what are the risks of this therapy? What are the specific side effects that are most common? When you look at a package insert or you look at a clinical trial consent form, you’re going to see 100 different side effects listed. I always promise patients, “You won’t have every single side effect that’s listed here, but you may have a couple of them.” And again, my role often is to identify which are the more common side effects that we see and how can those be managed?

And then, I think often you’re just asking simply about what are the potential benefits of this therapy? What are the odds that I’m going to get into remission? How long is this remission likely to last?

And then, something that is often challenging for patients to think about – it can be challenging for me as well – is to think about what’s the next step? So, I think a good question to ask is, “If I choose Therapy A, what happens if I need therapy again in a few years? What are the options at that point?” because we’ve been talking so far mostly about what we call frontline therapy, making that initial choice of treatment. But then, once you get into what we call the relapse setting, a lot of the decision of what to receive at that point depends on what you got as the first therapy. And so, trying to think at least one step ahead as to what the next options are I think can be helpful, certainly for the physicians but also for the patients.

Katherine:                  

Do you have any advice to help patients speak up when they’re feeling like their voice isn’t being heard?

Dr. Davids:                 

That’s always a challenging situation, but I encourage patients not to be shy about asking questions.

There’s often an imbalance in terms of the information where the oncologist may know more than the patient about a particular condition. And so, I think reading up and trying to educate yourself as much as you can. Whenever possible, including a family member or friend as part of the visit to also help advocate for you. And then, if you’re not being heard the way that you think you should be, thinking about seeking out another provider who may be able to listen more.

And sometimes that can be again helpful to have a touchpoint with a CLL specialist who may be able to reinforce some of what you’re thinking. If what you’re reading online or seeing online is different from what your oncologist is telling you, that may be a sign that it’s good to get a second opinion and just make sure you’re on the right track.

Katherine:                  

All really helpful advice, Dr. Davids. Before we end the program, what are your thoughts about the future of CLL treatment and research?

Dr. Davids:                 

I’m very optimistic about where things are right now. We’ve gotten to this point where we have so many different effective options, so it’s fun for us to now design this next wave of clinical trials to really try to optimize the outcomes for patients.

One area I’m particularly interested in is a concept called MRD, which we haven’t talked about yet, but minimal residual disease is a way to look even at a molecular level for tiny amounts of CLL that may be left behind after treatments. And so, one of the things I’m particularly excited about is the idea eventually of using what we call MRD-guided therapy.

So, we talked before about continuous treatment. We talked about what we call fixed-duration treatment where everyone gets a year or everyone gets two years. MRD-guided therapy would actually allow us to vary the length of therapy depending on how a particular patient responds. So, some patients may need one year of a particular combination, but other patients may need two years. This could be a way to really individualize therapy for particular patients. It’s also a way to monitor patients who are in remission after they’ve stopped therapy.

And so, there’s another wave of trials looking at, should we be intervening early when patients develop recurrence of their MRD rather than waiting until they’re having progression of the disease? There’s still a lot of unanswered questions about these sorts of approaches, but I think it’s going to help us get even better at treating CLL.

All of this is contingent though upon the fact that patients continue to be interested in clinical trials and enrolling in trials so that we can really push the boundaries and learn even more about the disease. So, again, if no other message comes through, it’s really to think about clinical trials as a way to continue to improve outcomes for all patients with CLL. I think it’s a great situation where both the individual patient who’s participating in the trial can stand to benefit, but then also you can really be giving back and helping others.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Davids, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s my pleasure. Thanks so much.

And thank you to all of our partners. If you would like to watch this webinar again, there will be a replay available soon. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. Don’t forget to take the survey immed – don’t forget to take the survey immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan programs for the future. To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us.

January 2021 Notable News

What do cancer cells and bears have in common? How is artificial intelligence changing cancer? How do ovarian cancer cells survive in hostile environments? Can CML patients stop taking their medication? Why are cancer death rates continuing to decline? What should cancer patients know about the Covid-19 vaccines? There are a lot of questions to answer this month. Fortunately, we have the answers.

COVID-19 Vaccine

Some of the most pressing questions cancer patients have are about the Covid-19 vaccines. Some of the answers can be found at curetoday.com, which has put together a list of some things you should know. There are currently two Covid-19 vaccines available in the United States. They were authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in late 2020. The two vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna both require two doses, and both have an over 90 percent efficacy rate after both doses are administered. Both vaccines trigger the immune system to react defensively to the SARS-CoV-2 virus without causing the virus. There are common side effects seen as a result of the vaccines that include tiredness, pain at the injection site, headache, muscle ache, and fever. The side effects can last for several days or a week. While cancer patients should discuss the vaccine options with their doctors, it’s important to note that getting the vaccine should not affect most cancer treatments. Find the complete comparison of the two vaccines, which includes an explanation of how each vaccine works and the common side effects specific to each vaccine, here. There is also a helpful and easy-to-read infographic.

Declining Cancer Death Rates

There’s no question that declining death rates are good news. As of 2018, cancer death rates are continuing to decline in the United States, reports abcnews.go.com. The rate has been falling since 1991, and from 2017 to 2018, it fell 2.4 percent. In the past five years, almost half of the decline in cancer deaths was attributed to lung cancer. With fewer people smoking, the rates of lung cancer illness and death have declined, and due to better treatments and diagnostics, people with lung cancer are living longer. While cancer remains the second leading cause of death, it’s encouraging that the death rates are continuing to decline. Learn more here.

CML News

A question CML patients could be asking their doctors is whether or not they can stop taking their medication. Some chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) patients may not have to, reports cancer.gov. The tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) CML patients take to make the disease manageable are taken every day and they come with some disruptive side effects, which affect the quality of life for patients. However, a new clinical study shows that patients who were in remission for at least two years, and stopped using nilotinib, imatinib, and two other TKIs, had an improved quality of life, and about two thirds of the patients remained in remission three years after stopping treatment. Find more information about the study results and which patients could be eligible to stop taking their CML medications here.

Ovarian Cancer

Researchers have long been questioning how ovarian cancer cells survive in hostile environments, but now have an understanding of how ovarian cancer cells survive and grow in the fluid of the abdomen, which should be a hostile environment of low nutrients and oxygen, reports eurekalert.org. The study looked at the structures inside the cells during different stages of ovarian cancer and found that one of the structures, the mitochondria, changed shape and function in the peritoneal cavity, the space in the abdomen that contains the intestines, liver, and stomach, which made it possible for aggressive cancer cells to flourish. Knowing how the cells are able to survive and thrive in the abdomen could help develop better treatments for the disease that may prevent the spread of cells from the original tumor to the peritoneal cavity. When ovarian cancer cells spread through the peritoneal cavity, a patient’s survival rate is just 30 percent. Learn more about the findings here.

AI Being Used in Cancer Care

Some researchers are answering the question of how artificial intelligence will play a role in the future of treating cancer. A new telescope developed at Rice University could be a game changer for cancer surgeries, says texasmonthly.com. Using artificial intelligence, it can take a lot of the guess work out of analyzing tissue and could save valuable time during surgeries. Find out how here.

Artificial intelligence is also being used to develop a technique to diagnose prostate cancer, reports phys.org. The technique is almost 100 percent accurate and can diagnose prostate cancer from urine within 20 minutes. This new technique is less invasive and much more accurate than current prostate cancer testing. Learn more about the development of the new technique here.

Cell Hibernation

Finally, who isn’t asking what bears and cancer cells have in common? It’s hibernation, of course! Cancer cells can go into a type of hibernation as a means of surviving chemotherapy, reports scitechdaily.com. Research shows that cancer cells have the ability to become sluggish and enter a slow-dividing state of rest to protect themselves when threatened by chemotherapy or other targeted therapies. They hibernate, just like bears, until the threat is gone, and they can resume their normal state of growth. The information helps look at chemotherapy-resistant cancers and how to better treat them. The study also showed that cancer regrowth can be prevented when therapies target cancer cells in their slow-dividing state of rest. Learn more about hibernating cancer cells here.

Digital Advocacy and Health Equity for CLL Patients

Telemedicine or telehealth – remote access to healthcare – has become widely used after the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, especially by cancer patients. But the rise in telemedicine has also brought challenges to the vulnerable populations of Americans over age 65 and to low-income Americans who have struggles getting online. Among patients who are over age 65, only 55 percent to 60 percent of them have broadband access from home or own a smartphone. These patients also have challenges with completing information online, with only 60 percent who have the ability to send an email, to complete a form, and to locate a website. Among low-income patients, only 53 percent are digitally literate, and they also have lower rates of Internet use, broadband access, and smartphone ownership compared to other patient groups.

As an avenue toward reducing inequities, the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) and Diverse Health Hub (DHH) have partnered to help foster change toward achieving equitable healthcare for all. In order to provide practical usage of telemedicine tools, PEN created the TelemEDucation Empowerment Resource Center for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients and their loved ones. Another resource, the digital sherpa™ program, helps cancer patients and their families become more tech-savvy by learning to use technology to their advantage during their cancer journey and beyond.

Here’s a summary view of the knowledge gained about telemedicine to help provide optimal care to CLL patients: 

How to Optimize a Telemedicine Visit

Just like in-person care visits, telemedicine visits are scheduled with a time limit in mind. Some things to remember about telemedicine visits:

  • If a video conferencing tool is needed for your visit, install the tool on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone ahead of time so that you aren’t rushed when your appointment time arrives.
  • Just like in-person doctor visits, your doctor or care provider may run a few minutes late.
  • Try your best to remain flexible and to be patient.
  • Try to write down your questions before your appointment to keep on track about things you want to learn during your visit.
  • Remain focused on the main purpose of your visit as much as possible. Polite small talk is fine but keep it to a minimum so that you can get the most out of your visit. 

CLL Patients Who Benefit the Most From Telemedicine

Not every CLL patient will be a good fit for telemedicine visit. Things to keep as top of mind for telemedicine visits:

  • CLL patients who are on active surveillance from their care providers are a natural fit for telemedicine. They can get periodic blood tests from a local laboratory, and the results can be sent electronically for their CLL specialist to evaluate.
  • Patients with high-risk genetic features or rapidly progressing CLL are not the ideal patient for care via telemedicine.

In the time of the coronavirus pandemic, remote monitoring has become part of standard healthcare terms. Some things for CLL patients to know:

  • Though it may be a new healthcare method for many patients, monitoring has actually been used for decades in the care of CLL patients and others with suppressed immune systems.
  • Remote monitoring is used to reduce the risk of infection to those with reduced immune system function, such as those with cancer and CLL.
  • Remote monitoring is a completely safe medical practice for CLL care when a patient’s blood work is monitored on a regular basis. Always ask your doctor if you’re unsure if you’re a candidate for remote monitoring or if you have questions about the frequency of your blood tests.

How Telemedicine Can Improve CLL Care

Now that even more CLL patients have become accustomed to using telemedicine care tools, CLL experts are looking to the future. Looking ahead:

  • Telemedicine can help CLL patients who live in very remote areas to gain access to clinical trials that weren’t accessible to them in the past.
  • CLL therapies will continue to improve for patients as a higher percentage of CLL patients participate in clinical trials.
  • The improvements in remote monitoring will bring more tools for CLL patients to do routine things like sending their heart rate and other things to their care provider in real time. 

Telemedicine Glossary

Here are some helpful telemedicine terms to know:

  • HIPAA – HIPAA, or the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, is a healthcare compliance law providing data security and privacy for the safeguarding of patient medical information. In telemedicine, provider-patient communication must take place through HIPAA-compliant secure platforms.
  • Patient portal – a secure Internet sign-on that allows patients to contact their provider, review medical tests and records, access health education materials, and seek appointments. Most provider networks develop a patient portal before they move to full video appointments.
  • Remote monitoring – type of ambulatory healthcare where patients use mobile medical devices to perform a routine test and send the test data to a healthcare professional in real-time.
  • VPN – a VPN, or virtual private network, is a secure and private way to connect to the Internet over public wireless connections. VPNs are particularly important for those living the digital nomad lifestyle and connecting in foreign countries where networks may be more vulnerable to communication transmission interference.

Now that telemedicine tools are gaining both in usage and numbers, CLL patients can feel hopeful about improved care and treatment toward the future. As a step in that direction, take advantage of the resources below and continue to visit the TelemEDucation Empowerment Resource Center for informative content about CLL and telemedicine.


Resources for Telemedicine and CLL

Dr. John Pagel’s Top Tips for Preparing for Your CLL Telemedicine Visit

Telemedicine Challenges and Opportunities for CLL Patients

Will Telemedicine Mitigate Financial Toxicity for CLL Patients?

What Subset of CLL Patients Should Utilize Telemedicine?

Will Telemedicine Be Part of Routine Management for CLL?

How Will Telemedicine Impact Time-Limited Therapy in CLL?

What CLL Population Will Benefit Most From Telemedicine?

Remote Monitoring

TelemEDicine ToolBox Visit Checklist

TelemEDicine ToolBox Glossary

 

Will Telemedicine Give More CLL Patients Access to Clinical Trials?

Will Telemedicine Activate More Remote Monitoring for CLL?

Will Telemedicine Improve My Quality of Life with CLL?

Will Telemedicine Be a Long-Term Survivorship Tool for CLL Patients?

What CLL Symptoms Can Be Monitored via Telemedicine?

Is Remote Monitoring for CLL Patients on CAR T Therapy the Future?

digital sherpa™ program

Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML) Patient Profile

You would never know that the subject of this Patient Profile is living with cancer, and that’s exactly the way he likes it. Very few people know this patient’s story, even though he’s been living with chronic myeloid or myelogenous leukemia (CML), an uncommon cancer of the bone marrow, for almost 8 years. He is the very definition of an empowered patient. He’s informed, involved, and utilizes the resources available to him. If cancer were a bull, he definitely would have taken it by the horns. He prefers to remain anonymous, but he believes so strongly in being an empowered patient, that he agreed to share his story to encourage others to take control of their own cancer care.

It was March 2013, when he went in for an MRI on an unsatisfactory hip replacement, that his cancer journey began. When the report came back it said that there was a bone marrow infiltration with a high probability of malignancy. “The word malignancy stuck out to me,” he says. He had no symptoms at the time, but he couldn’t ignore the report and knew he needed to take immediate action.

His first step was to confirm that he did indeed have cancer. Coincidentally, he was pretty well connected with a prominent oncologist who diagnosed him with CML, told him it was easily treatable, and referred him to another doctor for treatment.

Not being the kind of guy to accept his fate without thoroughly gathering information, he decided to get a second opinion, and was able to do so through another connection he had. The second doctor confirmed the diagnosis and the doctor referral.

Satisfied that he was in the best possible hands for his specific cancer, he began treatment taking one of the four tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) medications commonly used to treat CML. Unfortunately, he started having intolerable side effects so, in August 2014, his doctor switched him to another TKI. While taking the new medication, he says his liver enzymes went through the roof and he was becoming concerned that he was running out of treatment options. However, once again, he was able to use his connections to get dosage instructions directly from the drug manufacturer, and with a simple shift in dosing, his problem was fixed. His liver enzymes returned to normal and he’s been living well ever since. “If I had to get a bad disease,” he says, “I got the right kind.”

His proactive nature toward his health was essential to the positive outcome he’s living with today. In addition, his connections to high-quality doctors gave him an advantage. He is grateful for that, but he’s also acutely aware that not everyone has the same advantages, and that’s why he appreciates the value of Patient Empowerment Network (PEN). He came across the free programs and resources available on the PEN website while doing his own research about CML. He believes that anyone who is sick should use whatever resources are available to get all the information they can. “The Patient Empowerment Network is a source of information and potential support,” he says. “I’ve told my friends and doctors about PEN because I want to help other people. To fail to do so would be a shame.”

He feels a sincere and urgent duty to pay forward his good fortune and credits that sensibility to his parents and his Jewish heritage. Describing himself as only moderately observant from a religious standpoint, he says he was raised to subscribe to the philosophy that there are only two kinds of Jews. “You either need charity or you give it,” he explains. In his life, he’s been fortunate financially, and so he feels compelled to give. “It’s just who I am, I thank my parents,” he says.

His charitable giving is also motivated by personal loss. His first wife died from an aggressive form of breast cancer, and he later lost a very close friend to myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which he refers to as a death sentence. The pain of that loss continues to be palpable and has driven him to set up a foundation, named after his friend, at a leading cancer center that does cutting edge research on MDS, a group of rare and underdiagnosed bone marrow disorders.

Now at 76, with his CML in remission, he’s vibrant and busy and has no intention of slowing down. He continues to stay up to date on CML research because he believes it’s important to be informed about his disease. He serves in a one-on-one mentor program for cancer patients, and he also takes evening courses learning about topics such as the United States Constitution and the Federalist Papers. “I’m lucky,” he says. “With CML I will die with it, not from it.”

Navigating AML Treatment Decisions Resource Guide

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Navigating CLL Treatment Decisions

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PEN-115_InfoGraphic_CLLToolkit

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Key CLL Treatment Decision-Making Factors

Key CLL Treatment Decision-Making Factors from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What should a patient consider when deciding on a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment approach? Dr. Susan O’Brien, a Hematology-Oncology specialist, provides key factors that help guide treatment choices for patients with CLL.

Dr. Susan O’Brien is the Associate Director for Clinical Science, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

 

Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor?

What Are Common CLL Treatment Side Effects?

What Should You Know About the Future of CLL Treatment?

Transcript:

Katherine:

Dr. O’Brien, once it’s determined that it’s time to move forward with treatment, what do you take into consideration to help guide the treatment choice?

Dr. Susan O’Brien:     

Well, the good news and the bad news are kind of the same. The bad news is it’s a very complicated decision, but the good news is the reason it’s complicated is because we have a lot of good options. So, as I said, there are some people for whom chemotherapy would still be an option. One of the benefits of that is that it’s intravenous, i.e. there’s no copays for the patient. It’s administered over a finite period of time. Generally, six months.

And then, most patients will get several years of remission after that where they don’t have to be on any treatment. However, we now have what we call the small molecules or the targeted therapies and those come in two major categories. One is called BTK inhibitors. And there we have two drugs available in the same family, if you will. One is ibrutinib. One is acalabrutinib.

And then we have a different category of oral treatment where we only have one drug, which is a BCL-2 Inhibitor, which is Venetoclax. So, what these drugs do, they’re not chemotherapy, but they interfere with certain proteins in the CLL cell. And by doing that, cause the cell to die off.

Katherine:                  

Okay. What do you feel is the patient’s role in this decision?

Dr.Susan O’Brien:      

Well, I think the patient plays a key role, which they usually do when there’s options because then you have – you with your doctor have to make a choice. So, for example, we talked about chemotherapy is time limited and you generally will be done after six months in contrast, with the BTK inhibitors, those are given indefinitely. They’re pills but given indefinitely for several years.

With Venetoclax it’s given with an antibody, which is given intravenously but the Venetoclax can be stopped after 12 months. So, the side effect profiles are different also. So, we have to take into consideration the duration of the therapy as well as the side effect profiles in determining what might be best for that patient.

How Do You Know If Your CLL Treatment Is Working?

How Do You Know If Your CLL Treatment is Working? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How do you know if a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment approach is effective? Dr. Susan O’Brien, a Hematology-Oncology specialist, explains how CLL treatment response is monitored.

Dr. Susan O’Brien is the Associate Director for Clinical Science, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

 

Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor?

What Are Common CLL Treatment Side Effects?  How to Be A Partner in Your CLL Care

Transcript:

Katherine:

But how is that treatment monitored to evaluate its effectiveness?

Dr. Susan O’Brien:

Well, generally the things we’re – the same things we’re look – the same things we’re looking at when we treat. Right? So, we’re looking at abnormal blood counts. We’re looking at enlarged lymph nodes or spleen. We have symptoms. So, those three things are looked at when the patient is on the therapy. Are the lymph nodes shrinking? Are the blood counts improving? Are their symptoms getting better?

So, the same way pretty much that we would follow a patient who’s not on a clinical trial is the way we follow them on a clinical trial. Now, if it’s a very new drug which has never been given to humans before, let’s say, those trials probably have more frequent surveillance than we might do with a drug that we are familiar with and know what to expect with it. So, sometimes the trials might have more surveillance, more visits, more tests.

But generally, if those tests or visits are required – are not considered standard of care, the companies pay for them. So, usually what’s billed to the insurance is only what we would do treating any CLL patient with an already available drug.

So, it doesn’t wind up costing the insurance or the patient any more to be on a clinical trial. And they might get actually – there is some data the patients on clinical trials get better care because they’re being monitored very carefully as part of the trial.

Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor?

Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Susan O’Brien, a Hematology-Oncology specialist, explains why patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) should consider a clinical trial and the role trials play in treatment and care.

Dr. Susan O’Brien is the Associate Director for Clinical Science, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

 

What Should You Know About the Future of CLL Treatment?

What Are Common CLL Treatment Side Effects?  How Do You Know If Your CLL Treatment is Working?

Transcript:

Katherine:

Dr. O’Brien, where do clinical trials fit in in all of this? Should patients discuss clinical trials with their physicians?

Dr. Susan O’Brien:

Absolutely. If we think of these great drugs that we have now, and I’ve mentioned ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, Venetoclax. Before those drugs were available, the only options were chemo. So, that means that people that went on the clinical trial, so let’s say with ibrutinib, have access to a really treatment changing revolutionary drug in CLL years before it was commercially available.

So, clinical trials can be a great way to have access to drugs or combinations. So, for example, right now there are some clinical trials looking at combinations of a BTK inhibitor and a BCL-2 inhibitor. So, the patient might say, “Well, why can’t you give me that combination, doctor?” “Well, technically I could.” If the drug is approved by the FDA, a physician can prescribe it really pretty much anywhere they see fit.

However, does insurance pay for it? That’s the trick. And these are very, very expensive drugs. And so, outside of an FDA approved combination, it probably wouldn’t – I wouldn’t be able to prescribe that combination because it wouldn’t get paid for and it would cost thousands and thousands of dollars. But on a clinical trial in general, the drugs are paid for.

Katherine:                  

Mm-hmm.

Dr. Susan O’Brien:     

And so, clinical trials are testing, for example, combinations now, which are not standard and there are some preliminary data from some of these trials that look really promising, i.e. two drugs may be better than one. There are also patients who, perhaps we’re talking about younger patients now, who have kind of worked their way through the available therapies. And so, they might not have a standard therapy that’s really gonna work for them. And for whatever reason they might not be a good candidate for stem cell transplant.

And so, innovative or totally novel drugs that we don’t have that class of drugs available at all are also being tested in clinical trials and allow people access to them. So, sometimes it’s – I think some people think of it as, well, a last resort if the drugs that are out there don’t work. But don’t think of it that way, because as I mentioned, these combination trials are for people who’ve never had prior therapy, but their disease has progressed enough to need treatment and could potentially offer, at least at a preliminary level, looks like a dynamite combination of drugs.

So, it’s not just for people who failed other drugs or whose disease has failed other drugs. That could be one group that is particularly important for, but even patients who’ve never had treatment, there may be clinical trials that they would be highly interested in participating. And again, it generally has a big financial benefit too, because remember oral drugs have copays for cancer patients.

Is It Time to Treat Your CLL? What You Need to Know

Is It Time to Treat Your CLL? What You Need to Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When it’s time to move forward with a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment plan, what determines the best therapy for YOU? In this webinar, Dr. Susan O’Brien, reviews key decision-making factors, current CLL treatments and emerging research.

Dr. Susan O’Brien is the Associate Director for Clinical Science, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Download Program Resource Guide

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


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Advocate for These CLL Genetic Tests
 

CLL & COVID 19: What Do Patients Need to Know?

 

How to Learn More About Your CLL

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello and welcome to the webinar. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’ll discuss how you could work with your physician to find the best CLL treatment path for you. Joining me is Dr. Susan O’Brien. Welcome Dr. O’Brien. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Sure. I’m Susan O’Brien. I’m the Associate Director for Clinical Sciences at the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center in Orange, California.

Katherine:                  

Excellent. Thank you. And a note before we begin. This program is not a substitute for medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team. Many CLL patients start in a period called watch and wait. Would you give us a brief overview of this approach?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Sure. The reason that we do watch and wait, or as some patients like to call it, watch and worry, is because many people present asymptomatically. So, for example, it’s very common that a patient might be found to have CLL because they go in for a routine physical and they have a slightly elevated lymphocyte count. So, many people have no symptoms at all. The average age of the disease is about 71.

So, people at the age of 71 often have what we call comorbidities. So, what does that mean? High blood pressure, high lipids, coronary artery disease. So, they also have a lot of comorbidities and even though right now we have great treatments for CLL that are generally well tolerated, all drugs do have side effects. So, if a person feels fine and the disease is not causing any problem in their life, why give them a treatment for it?

Particularly if we think that we don’t have a curative strategy. There may be a cure fraction for a small subset of patients with CLL who are young and have what we call a mutated immunoglobulin gene. But they’re a minority of most patients with CLL. So, what we want to do is keep people alive as long as we can with CLL until they likely die of other causes that people die of as they age. Heart disease, et cetera.

So, if they don’t need any treatment, we don’t want to expose them to the side effects. And some people, if you take all comers, everybody diagnosed with CLL, about a third of people will actually never need treatment for their disease. And so, that’s the idea behind it. That we’re sparing people side effects from treatments when they feel fine and their quality of life is perfectly good.

Katherine:                  

How do you decide when it’s time to treat?

Dr. O’Brien:                

So, it’s very variable because there are different indications from treatment in CLL. When I’m teaching my fellows, what I say to them is you basically treat the disease when it’s causing a problem. There are published guidelines, but they’re guidelines. They’re suggestions about when you might need to treat. But we take into account a number of different things. And in two different people the indications for treatment could be completely different. So, let me give you two examples.

 We could have a patient where they have big lymph nodes maybe in their neck, under their arms, in the groin, in the abdomen. And those nodes are getting bigger and bulkier to the point where they’re really problematic. That could be an indication for treatment. Other people might have very small lymph nodes but have very abnormal blood counts. So, their lymphocyte count could be really high. They could be starting to get anemic where their hemoglobin is dropping.

If you get too anemic, what’s going to happen? You’re gonna be symptomatic with fatigue and shortness of breath. So, we want to intervene not at a time when the disease is not causing any problems, but we also have to kind of find a happy medium. We don’t want to intervene – and wait until the patient is sort of bedridden and then start to do anything about the disease.

So, it’s a little bit of a judgement call. We also take into account the symptoms that the patient might be having. Like, are they having really terrible night sweats and fatigue that’s impacting their daily activities? So, we look at symptoms, we look at blood counts, and we look at lymph nodes or bulk of disease.

Katherine:                  

Where does genetic testing fit into the plan to treat?

Dr. O’Brien:                

There are certain tests that we definitely want to do before treatment. And some people have these tests done at diagnosis. So, the two main tests I would say are FISH, which just stands for fluorescence in situ hybridization, which is a fancy word for looking at chromosome abnormalities inside the CLL cell. The other thing we look at is the immunoglobulin mutation status. So, a patient’s immunoglobulin can be mutated or unmutated.

The immunoglobulin mutation status never changes. So, if a patient has had that test done once, they don’t have to have it repeated. However, the FISH, or the chromosome test, can change. So, it’s very important even if it was done at diagnosis that we repeat it at a time when a patient needs therapy. And why that’s so important is there is a particular chromosome abnormality called a 17p deletion where we know that those patients respond very poorly to chemotherapy.

And so, really should never receive chemotherapy and should receive a targeted therapy if that’s the case. There are other people that still could benefit potentially from chemotherapy, but not if they’re in that 17p deletion group.

Katherine:                  

All right. Dr. O’Brien, once it’s determined that it’s time to move forward with treatment, what do you take into consideration to help guide the treatment choice?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Well, the good news and the bad news are kind of the same. The bad news is it’s a very complicated decision, but the good news is the reason it’s complicated is because we have a lot of good options. So, as I said, there are some people for whom chemotherapy would still be an option. One of the benefits of that is that it’s intravenous, i.e. there’s no copays for the patient. It’s administered over a finite period of time. Generally, six months.

And then, most patients will get several years of remission after that where they don’t have to be on any treatment. However, we now have what we call the small molecules or the targeted therapies and those come in two major categories. One is called BTK inhibitors. And there we have two drugs available in the same family, if you will. One is ibrutinib. One is acalabrutinib

And then we have a different category of oral treatment where we only have one drug, which is a BCL-2 Inhibitor, which is Venetoclax. So, what these drugs do, they’re not chemotherapy, but they interfere with certain proteins in the CLL cell. And by doing that, cause the cell to die off.

Katherine:                  

Okay. What do you feel is the patient’s role in this decision?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Well, I think the patient plays a key role, which they usually do when there’s options because then you have – you with your doctor have to make a choice. So, for example, we talked about chemotherapy is time limited and you generally will be done after six months in contrast, with the BTK inhibitors, those are given indefinitely. They’re pills but given indefinitely for several years.

With Venetoclax it’s given with an antibody, which is given intravenously but the Venetoclax can be stopped after 12 months. So, the side effect profiles are different also. So, we have to take into consideration the duration of the therapy as well as the side effect profiles in determining what might be best for that patient.

Katherine:                  

Well, you talked about chemo and targeted therapies, but where – where’s stem cell treatment fit? Where does – where does stem cell treatment fit in and when is it considered?

Dr. O’Brien:                

So, stem cell treatment – if we’re talking about stem cell transplant, allergenic stem cell transplant is a transplant where you need a donor and you receive stem cells from the donor. And that can be a curative therapy, but it can also be associated with significant risks including risk of dying from the transplant. Because we have so many effective therapies nowadays, we’re generally not needing to use allogenic transplant.

And what I mean by that is if these targeted therapies don’t cure people, and the jury is still out on that I would say, if we can sequence them such that we get five years from one, six years from another, et cetera, we’re going to be able to keep the patient alive long enough until they die of something else. So, where the stem cell transplant comes in is generally much younger patients with CLL.

I mentioned the average age is 71, but we have – all of us int eh field have seen patients, for example, in their 30’s. Well, yes, a sequence of therapies might not get that patient to a normal lifespan, because they’re so young to start. So, really the consideration is pretty much reserved for younger patients where we might need a curative strategy that we might not have otherwise.

But for older patients, we probably have enough active drugs now. We have other categories of drugs that we can use if the disease reoccurs. So, we have enough categories of drugs that I think we can keep most people who are the average at CLL alive for quite a long time.

Katherine:                  

What about CAR-T therapy? Where do we stand on that with that research?

Dr. O’Brien:                

So, my answer is a little bit like allogenic stem cell transplant. CAR-T therapy is also associated with significant risks, but also significant benefit. Up until now, it’s pretty much been reserved because of the risks for patients who, to be frank, their disease has now kind of escaped everything. We don’t feel like we have great options that are similar and easier to use.

So, it can be effective, but it’s not something we do very early on because of the associated risks. If you take patients who go for CAR-T therapy, about 25 to 40% of them will wind up with some stay in the ICU. So, I’m really talking about some serious complications from these therapies.

It’s possible that as we learn how to minimize the toxicities of CAR-Ts, that they might become a more attractive strategy. And so, that could change with time. But the counterpoint to that is we’re having new drugs approved all the time for CLL. So, that gives us also more options before we would need to move to a CAR-T.

Katherine:

Dr. O’Brien, where do clinical trials fit in in all of this? Should patients discuss clinical trials with their physicians?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Absolutely. If we think of these great drugs that we have now, and I’ve mentioned ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, Venetoclax. Before those drugs were available, the only options were chemo. So, that means that people that went on the clinical trial, so let’s say with ibrutinib, have access to a really treatment changing revolutionary drug in CLL years before it was commercially available.

So, clinical trials can be a great way to have access to drugs or combinations. So, for example, right now there are some clinical trials looking at combinations of a BTK inhibitor and a BCL-2 inhibitor. So, the patient might say, “Well, why can’t you give me that combination, doctor?” “Well, technically I could.” If the drug is approved by the FDA, a physician can prescribe it really pretty much anywhere they see fit.

However, does insurance pay for it? That’s the trick. And these are very, very expensive drugs. And so, outside of an FDA approved combination, it probably wouldn’t – I wouldn’t be able to prescribe that combination because it wouldn’t get paid for and it would cost thousands and thousands of dollars. But on a clinical trial in general, the drugs are paid for.

Katherine:                  

Mm-hmm.

Dr. O’Brien:                

And so, clinical trials are testing, for example, combinations now, which are not standard and there are some preliminary data from some of these trials that look really promising, i.e. two drugs may be better than one. There are also patients who, perhaps we’re talking about younger patients now, who have kind of worked their way through the available therapies. And so, they might not have a standard therapy that’s really gonna work for them. And for whatever reason they might not be a good candidate for stem cell transplant.

And so, innovative or totally novel drugs that we don’t have that class of drugs available at all are also being tested in clinical trials and allow people access to them. So, sometimes it’s – I think some people think of it as, well, a last resort if the drugs that are out there don’t work. But don’t think of it that way, because as I mentioned, these combination trials are for people who’ve never had prior therapy, but their disease has progressed enough to need treatment and could potentially offer, at least at a preliminary level, looks like a dynamite combination of drugs.

So, it’s not just for people who failed other drugs or whose disease has failed other drugs. That could be one group that is particularly important for, but even patients who’ve never had treatment, there may be clinical trials that they would be highly interested in participating. And again, it generally has a big financial benefit too, because remember oral drugs have copays for cancer patients.

Katherine:                  

Right. But how is that treatment monitored to evaluate its effectiveness?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Well, generally the things we’re – the same things we’re look – the same things we’re looking at when we treat. Right? So, we’re looking at abnormal blood counts. We’re looking at enlarged lymph nodes or spleen. We have symptoms. So, those three things are looked at when the patient is on the therapy. Are the lymph nodes shrinking? Are the blood counts improving? Are their symptoms getting better?

So, the same way pretty much that we would follow a patient who’s not on a clinical trial is the way we follow them on a clinical trial. Now, if it’s a very new drug which has never been given to humans before, let’s say, those trials probably have more frequent surveillance than we might do with a drug that we are familiar with and know what to expect with it. So, sometimes the trials might have more surveillance, more visits, more tests.

But generally, if those tests or visits are required – are not considered standard of care, the companies pay for them. So, usually what’s billed to the insurance is only what we would do treating any CLL patient with an already available drug.

So, it doesn’t wind up costing the insurance or the patient any more to be on a clinical trial. And they might get actually – there is some data the patients on clinical trials get better care because they’re being monitored very carefully as part of the trial.

Katherine:                  

Let’s turn to patient self-advocacy. How can patients feel confident in speaking up and becoming a partner in their own care?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Yes, obviously for some people that’s going to be a lot harder than others. What I generally advice people is if you’re going in for your physician and you’re diagnosed with CLL, I would say this for any cancer because cancer is obviously a potentially life changing diagnosis, is you probably want to get an opinion with an expert. I would talk to my doctor first, ask them what their plan is so I know, and then see an expert in the field.

Then if the expert in the field says, “I think your doctor’s plan is great.” 1.) you’re now comfortable because you’ve got a second opinion, and 2.) that’s also a way, in my experience, to know if your doctor’s really gonna allow you to have an easy time participating. What I mean by that is that if your doctor is upset or finds it offensive, quite frankly you probably need a new doctor. That’s my take on that. Because that means they’re not going to be too open to your comments or you’re saying, “Well, I would prefer to do this.”

That’s just my quick take on how you can tell if it’s going to be easy or hard. But I think the relationship between the doctor and the patient is very important and you have to establish that relationship early on. If you go to a doctor who – where you start to ask questions and they’re in a hurry or they’re looking at their watch, you know that’s probably not the doctor that you want. I think most doctors realize that if they’re diagnosing a patient with a cancer, that’s going to be a pretty long clinic visit, because any patient is going to have a lot of questions to ask.

I also tell patients when you go to see a specialist or get a second opinion, bring somebody with you. It’s very well known that when patients have just been diagnosed with a cancer, they’re overwhelmed. Their emotional system is overwhelmed. Even if it’s “not a bad cancer”. Maybe early stage CLL. And that makes it very hard to process what a doctor is saying.

Particularly if they’re trying to give you quite a bit of information, which you need because you’ve just been diagnosed, and you need to know what to expect from the disease. So, having a friend or a spouse or a significant other there is really, really helpful.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Yeah. That’s really good advice. Are there resources to help patients stay informed and educated?

Dr. O’Brien:             

Oh, yes. Our Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is great at that. Lymphoma Research Foundation were two of the big ones. And then there’s patient spots. CLL Society is a very well-known one run by a physician who’s also a CLL patient. I know him very well. And they have online support meetings now.

They used to have them in person, but now they have them online. And those can be really helpful because that allows a patient to talk to another patient who has their same disease. So, there are quite a lot of resources for patients nowadays. Especially in our technology enabled world.

Katherine:                  

That’s great. We have a couple of questions from patients. Patrick asks, “I’ve discussed a treatment plan with my doctor, but I’d like to get a second opinion. What are your thoughts on that?”

Dr. O’Brien:             

I think it’s a great idea. That’s exactly what I would do if I had a cancer. And again, I think Patrick made an important point that I’d like to emphasize. See what your doctor’s plan is first. Because then when you go to see the specialist or the second opinion, you can say, “This is what my doctor’s suggesting.”

And then if the specialist says, “Exactly what I would do.” But if you don’t know what your doctor is going to do – was suggesting to do when you go in to see the second opinion, it’s going to be really hard to make sure –put together that feeling of confidence that you’re on the right track.

Katherine:                  

Right. Right. To judge. A question from Julie. “How do you approach treating a relapse?”

Dr. O’Brien:

So, treating relapse we do the same thing that we do upfront. Namely “watch and wait”. So, for example, if a patient had a treatment on – let’s say they had some chemotherapy. And three or four years alter the lymphocyte count starts to go up, well, that technically would be indicating relapse.

But let’s say for the sake of discussion the person is asymptomatic, they feel fine, and their lymphocyte count is 20,000. Well, why do we need to do anything? So, in most cases we take the same approach of watch and wait when the disease comes back. And the first point at which it comes back is not always the time at which we need to initiate therapy.

Katherine:                  

Right. Right. Another question. Will is wondering, “If inhibitor treatments have to be taken forever?”

Dr. O’Brien:                

Well, it depend on the group – the class. So, for the BTK inhibitors, all the trials so far have given those drugs indefinitely. For the BCL-2 inhibitor, Venetoclax, there are time limited regimens both in the frontline setting and in relapse. But realistically, I have talked to my patients who are going on a BTK inhibitor who say to me, “Do I really have to be on this forever?”

And so, my answer is, “I don’t know what life is forever, so I would never use that word. We generally use the word indefinite.” But what I’ve said to those patients is, “If you’re on the drug for a while – and I’m not talking months. I’m talking say two, three years. And you’re in a really good remission and you think you want to stop treatment. I’m not necessarily opposed to that.”

Because if you’re in a very good remission, even if it’s not complete, but most people who are not in complete remission, meaning they still have a bit of disease left, have very little disease if they’ve been on the BTK inhibitors for a while. So, maybe only some enlarged lymph node on a CAT scan or a little bit of disease in the bone marrow.

But basically, most people after a couple years, they’re blood counts are normal, they feel fine, unless they’re having side effects from the drug and their physical exam is normal. So, I’ve told my patients if you want to go off, I expect you’d probably be off for even a couple years. And then we could always restart therapy potentially with that drug again or with one of the other drugs.

So, I think it’s important to let people know that they have options. But I will say that all of the clinical trials with the BTK inhibitors have given those drugs basically until the patient loses their response or there’s a toxicity where they just don’t want to take the drug anymore.

Katherine:                  

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. One last question from Jen. “What should be considered related to side effects when choosing a treatment plan?”

Dr. O’Brien:                

Well, the BTK inhibitors have some side effects. They can cause diarrhea, but that’s usually mild and self-limited. They can sometimes cause joint aches or arthrology. They – the two probably most serious side effects are atrial fibrillations, which is an irregular heart rate. But that generally is not frequent and tends to occur mainly in older men with heart disease.

Katherine:                  

Hmm.

Dr. O’Brien:                

They also are more likely – they impact the platelet function. So, they can more likely cause bleeding, but it’s typically minor bleeding like a bruise. Major bleeding is quite rare. In general, I’m outlining a lot of side effects, but remember not all side effects occur in everybody and there’s some people who don’t have any.

For the BCL-2 inhibitor, Venetoclax, one of the things we have to be very careful of when a person first goes on that and this would be particularly true if they have a very high lymphocyte count or a bulky lymph nodes, it that drug can cause something called tumor lysis. Tumor lysis, lysis is just a fancy word for breakdown, is where the disease responds so rapidly that their lymph nodes shrink very quickly. Lymphocyte comes down, which sound really good.

But what can happen is that breakdown of the cells can release potassium which can cause heart arrythmias. The cells can clog the kidneys and cause kidney failure. So, we have to be very careful about that when we start. And the way that drug is started is it comes with a starter pack actually to help make it easy where you go up, you start at a low dose, and go up weekly until we get to the target dose.

But we have to monitor very carefully during that escalation phase. The other thing that the Venetoclax can cause is neutropenia, meaning low neutrophil counts. What – that’s important because neutrophils are what we use to fight infection. So, if we get low neutrophil counts, the options are either to add a growth factor transiently, in other words a shot to – the subcutaneous injection that stimulates the bone marrow to release neutrophils. Or if it’s really a persistent problem, then we can go down on the dose of Venetoclax.

Katherine:                  

All right. How do you feel – how do you feel about the future of CLL treatment? Are you hopeful?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Absolutely. I think we’ve had something like six drugs approved in the last seven years, which is mindboggling. I think in the 30 years before that, we didn’t even have six drugs approved. That’s how rapidly – it’s mindboggling, really. That’s how rapidly the field is moving forward. And not just CLL, but other cancer fields also are moving at a very dizzying pace.

Which is great because that – anything that gives us more options is wonderful. So, I am very, very optimistic about CLL going forward. And I’m also very hopeful that some of these combination regimens might actually be – small molecules might actually be curative in the long run. But I will say it’s way too early to know that.

Katherine:                  

Are there emerging treatments that patients should know about?

Dr. O’Brien:                

So, one of the categories we haven’t talked about, where there actually are two FDA approved drugs, are PI3K inhibitors – that’s another oral small molecule. They’re not approved for frontline therapy. So, that’s kind of why we weren’t talking about them so much today where we’re talking about making a choice for the first therapy. But they are approved for patients where the disease reoccurs.

And there’s two of those as we mentioned. We have antibodies, which we really haven’t talked about very much, and then there’s new classes of drugs that are being explored in clinical trials. So, for example, there are interesting drugs which are antibodies that bind to the patient’s own T-cells and they also mind the CLL cells and they redirect the T-cells towards the CLL cells.

Kind of like CAR-T but inside the body without having to take out the T-cells. So, those are really interesting class of drugs. None have been yet approved in CLL or lymphoma, but I think those are on the horizon and looking very promising.

Katherine:

Hmm. One last question, Dr. O’Brien. In this uncertain time, do you have any advice related to COVID-19 for CLL patients?

Dr. O’Brien:                

It’s a hard time for everybody and particularly CLL patients because we know that they’re immunocompromised by – and even if you’ve never been treated and you probably never get any infections, which is quite a number of people with CLL, unfortunately you do have to think about yourself as being a high-risk patient.

So, masks are very important. Washing hands. Avoid – social distancing. Avoiding crows. It’s really important for patients with CLL to follow those same guidelines that we’re giving to everybody. But very important for them because they are in a higher risk group.

Katherine:

How do you feel telemedicine is working for CLL patients?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Telemedicine works I’d say better for CLL patients than some other patients, particularly watch and wait patients. Obviously the one thing that we can’t do in telemedicine is a physical exam. But in patient we can get – have patients get their blood counts done and then talk to them and see how symptomatic they are and know what their blood counts indicate anything is changing.

And then what I’ve been doing is, say I have a watch and wait patient – or it also applies let’s say to a patient who’s been on ibrutinib for years now and they’re in remission. There’s probably nothing to exam anyway. Right? So, those patients are good. I think it’s not going to work very well if you’re starting a new treatment. But for people who are watch and wait or have been on established treatments that are doing well, it works really well.

And then you can use the video visit if the patient says, “This is going on.” Whatever it is. “And I think I’m worried about this or I have this pain here.” Or whatever. If that’s an issue, you can always then schedule a regular visit. Right?

But I think that it – because it’s a chronic disease as opposed to acute leukemia where you really can’t do video visits, I think it lends itself to it very well. And my expectation is that moving forward, even after hopefully COVID has died down or we have a vaccine, that video visits are definitely here to stay.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Yeah. I agree with you. What about patients who are fearful going into a medical center? Do you have any advice for them?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Usually – and it does vary. I also would be nervous if it was a hospital-based place where I had to go for my visit. But for example, where we are in the cancer center, it’s a completely separate building. Everybody is temperature checked before they get in. Everybody has to fill out a questionnaire about their symptoms. If they do have a low-grade temperature, we immediately triage them to another area.

So, actually I think the cancer center is probably a pretty safe place to be. Probably safer than the grocery store in that sense, because of the screening and the testing of the temperature of everybody who comes in there. And, of course, everybody has a mask on.

So, I would be probably a little bit weary in a hospital setting where they may be many sick patients hospitalized with COVID. But I think in a lot of clinic buildings or freestanding buildings, I probably would not be that worried.  

Katherine:                  

Well, Dr. Susan O’Brien, thank you so much for joining us today. And thank you to all of our partners. To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thank you so much for joining us.

How Does COVID Impact CLL Patients?

How Does COVID Impact CLL Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

How has chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) care been impacted in the age of COVID-19? Dr. Phillip Thompson explains how COVID affects CLL patients and the importance of not delaying CLL treatment.
 
Dr. Phillip Thompson is an Assistant Professor in Medicine in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about this expert here.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


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How Can CLL Patients Take Advantage of Telemedicine

 

CLL & COVID 19: What Do Patients Need to Know?

 

How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Dr. Philip Thompson:

There was a large ISH study published, I think, in Lancet Oncology, recently,  from the UK, where they looked at outcomes for patients with cancer. And of course, it was all patients with cancer, not specifically CLL, specifically blood cancers. But I think there were roughly 200 patients with hematologic malignancies.

And the interesting thing that I noticed, there were that patients who had recent chemotherapy, which I might have expected to be a really high-risk feature for a poor outcome, actually didn’t do any worse than patients who hadn’t recently been treated.

By far, the most important predictors of outcome for patients were whether their cancer was controlled or not, number one. And then other co-morbidities that patients had, like lung disease, advanced age, that sort of thing. So, actually, we need to see more data from more – from datasets that have more patients with CLL. But it seemed like the type of treatment mattered less than whether the disease was controlled and what other problems the patient had in terms of predicting their outcome from COVID.

So, I am taking that information with a – we have to, as I said, see more data. But I’m not going to use COVID as a reason not to patients who need treatment.

We may stretch things out somewhat in people where the decision is really well, and maybe you don’t definitely need to treat. But I don’t want to see people get into really severe trouble from their CLL because we’re trying to delay treatment because of COVID. Because that might actually be counterproductive. Because people with very uncontrolled CLL, if they were to get the infection, may actually have inferior outcomes to people whose disease is controlled.

Partnering With Your Doctor on CLL Treatment Decisions

Partnering With Your Doctor on CLL Treatment Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Which CLL treatment could be right for you? Dr. Steven Coutre, a CLL specialist, reviews current approaches and explains why patients should stay informed about emerging options.

Dr. Steven Coutre is a Professor of Medicine in the Hematology Department at Stanford University Medical Center. Learn more about this expert.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

 

How Can CLL Patients Take Advantage of Telemedicine

 

CLL & COVID 19: What Do Patients Need to Know?

 

How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Dr. Steven Coutre:

Well, any decision about treatment is, of course, a joint decision between the physician and the patient. It’s our job to really educate each individual patient about their options and also, I think, very importantly, determine what their goals are. You don’t really follow a strict algorithm. It’s really making a decision for each individual patient.

So, of course that takes into account other medical conditions they may have, the nature of their disease, why it is that we’re treating that individual, what we’re trying to accomplish, and very importantly, what the goals of therapy are for that individual. That may be very different, for example, for somebody who’s quite young versus somebody who’s older or who might have significant medical comorbidities.

I think patients are always well served by asking questions about the treatment, side effects of treatment, of course, these days, cost comes into play, so I think we have an obligation to let patients know the differences between the therapies because often we have choices about a therapy. There isn’t any one best therapy, for example. It’s often a number of choices, and sometimes that can be very, in some ways, confusing for patients, because they wanna know, “Well, what’s the best therapy?” and as I mentioned, it’s not so much what’s the best. It’s what’s the best for that patient, and many times that’s choices of treatment.

Some are time limited, for example. Some are continuous therapies. So, there’s plusses and minuses, and again, it all goes back to what’s your goal for that individual patient, what are their preferences in terms of the treatment that they want to receive.

The drugs that I mentioned earlier are Bruton Acalabrutinib, Venetoclax, for example. These are really the first of our new really transformative drugs for CLL. Drugs, along sometimes, with our antibodies, Rituximab and Obinutuzumab, which are really replacing the use of chemotherapy in treating the disease. So, moving forward, we’re looking at combinations of these drugs. Can we drive responses deeper? That would lend itself to stopping therapy, in some case, instead of using continuous daily therapy as we currently do with drugs like Ibrutinib or Acalabrutinib.

So, that’s the major focus right now. There, of course, will be other new drugs. There’s a third drug, Zanubrutinib, which is another BTK inhibitor, so that’ll probably play a role in treating CLL. There may be differences in side effect profiles between these drugs. There isn’t any new drug that we’re looking at currently that’s far enough along to say that it’s gonna be yet another fundamentally different, revolutionary therapy for CLL. But those, of course, can come along as we learn more about the biology of the disease.

You may have heard about CAR T-Cell Therapy, where you’re using your body’s own immune system to try to target the cancer. This has been very successful and is actually approved for use in other diseases, like large cell lymphoma, for example, but it remains very much investigational in CLL. There are also other clever ways of trying to achieve the same, endpoint, that is, using your own immune system to target the cells, that are simpler than CAR T-Cell Therapy and those kinds of approaches are also in clinical trials.

So, when you’re having the discussion about treatment, it’s always good to learn about what the latest therapies may be, even if they are investigational. I think that’s how we move the field forward and, of course, the newer drugs that we have brought forward came from clinical trials that patients greatly benefitted from. So, always ask your physician about clinical trials. Another great source for that, I think, is the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. They’re very patient-focused, they’re very up to date on the latest therapies and the latest trial results. They have a very robust presence, both online, and also, generally locally. There’s local chapters. So, I would encourage you to reach out to them for information.

CLL & COVID 19: What Do Patients Need to Know?

CLL & COVID 19: What Do Patients Need to Know? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What do people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) need to know about COVID-19 (coronavirus)? CLL expert Dr. Steven Coutre provides guidance for patients during the current global pandemic.
 
Dr. Steven Coutre is a Professor of Medicine in the Hematology Department at Stanford University Medical Center. Learn more about this expert.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


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How Can CLL Patients Take Advantage of Telemedicine

 

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How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Dr. Steven Coutre:

Well, of course, we are in the COVID era. We don’t know how long this is going to last. And so, a very common questions that comes up from our patients with CLL is what impact does this have on them and are they more susceptible, you know, the natural things that people wanna know. With CLL in general, there probably is some compromise to the immune system, but it’s really hard to measure or quantify. Certainly, individuals who’ve had a lot of chemotherapy in the past, who have advanced disease are more susceptible to infections. In contrast, someone who’s without symptoms, has a low burden of disease probably is close to being like somebody who doesn’t have CLL. So, there’s certainly a spectrum.

Really, we just try to advise following the guidelines that we are all following in terms of social distancing at present, at being aware of being around others too closely, or those who may have symptoms. So, I think, in a way, what everyone is doing now is something that is beneficial to patients with CLL, and certainly other cancers, with respect to infection risk.

Now, what about do we have any information? Is somebody with CLL more susceptible to getting COVID? What if you do get the infection? Is it going to be more severe because you have underlying CLL? And, at least in general terms, the answer seems to be no. That’s really just based on experience, anecdotal experience, certainly in areas like New York City or Italy, for example, where infectious rates have been quite high. Colleagues have commented that their patients don’t seem to be more ill simply because they have the underlying disease or because they’re on a certain treatment, for example.

There’s actually some very interesting data suggesting that perhaps the BTK inhibitors, Ibrutinib, Acalabrutinib, et cetera, might actually confer benefit, might lessen some of the consequences of the infection, and as a result, large clinical trials have started for patients without CLL. Just anyone who has a significant COVID infection who’s hospitalized, they’re testing that hypothesis. So, it’ll be very interesting to see what we learn from this. Perhaps what we’ll learn is that being on a drug like that might actually be beneficial.

It’s certainly natural to be hesitant to come into a healthcare facility because of the risk of infection, and certainly that’s gonna vary quite a bit depending on where you are. At the height of the pandemic in New York City, of course, a lot of concern on the part of patients going into a hospital clinic, for example. Whereas, at our institution, the impact has been quite low. All institutions, of course, have taken any precautions they can to limit exposure, so, I’ve often told my patients that it’s probably safer to come into our clinic and get your blood drawn or see someone if you need to than going to the grocery store, for example, in terms of exposure.

But that’s very different than saying the same thing in the middle of New York City. So, I think you have to deal with each situation as it arises, and one would hope that your physician can give you guidance. And I think, in particular, what we can do is really decide how important it is to see somebody in person or have them come in and get a lab test there. I think in many, many, many cases, that can be avoided for the time being.

And that also is an important point, that we can provide reassurance that you know, you’re used to coming in every four months or every six months and having things checked, and in many cases we can reassure that individual that it’s okay to wait. It’s not critical to get that information right now.

So, remember that what we often emphasize in evaluating someone and making decisions when to treat is three things. It’s how you feel, what your exam is like, and what your blood counts look like. So, of course, you know how you feel. If something changed, you’re having night sweats, or a lot more fatigue, is it significantly different? Of course, you typically know if anything’s changing with your exam. Are your lymph nodes getting enlarged?

Do you notice discomfort in your abdomen because of an enlarging spleen?

And so, two of the three things you can sort of self-assess, in a way, and then based on what your blood counts have been showing over time, your physician can factor that in and decide how important it is to get that test now. And as I mentioned, in many, many cases, it’s perfectly fine to delay that. So, it’s not as difficult as it might seem to you to be able to come up with a reasonable assessment about how somebody might be doing, even in the absence of seeing them and doing an exam in person.

How Can CLL Patients Take Advantage of Telemedicine?

How Can CLL Patients Take Advantage of Telemedicine? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

In light of the global pandemic, many providers expanded their telemedicine options so that patients can connect with their physicians virtually and avoid in-person visits. Expert Dr. Steven Coutre explains how this approach could benefit people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

Dr. Steven Coutre is a Professor of Medicine in the Hematology Department at Stanford University Medical Center. Learn more about this expert.

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Transcript:

Dr. Steven Coutre:

Well, we are in a new era, at least temporarily, and, for example, we’ve switched almost exclusively to video visits. This had largely been used for patients who lived in remote areas. They didn’t have good access or ready access to healthcare providers, and so, the government reimbursed for those kinds of visits, but not for somebody who lived close by, for example.

Well, that all changed dramatically with the COVID infections, even for our patients on clinical trials. And we’ve done the grand experiment that never would have been done otherwise, of just suddenly doing all video visits, and I must say, it’s worked out quite well so far. I think patients are quite satisfied with it, by and large. It allows them to have their questions answered and continue to have appropriate monitoring if they’re on therapy, or even if they aren’t. And so, I think, when things improve, this will continue, to some extent. So, right now, I would expect that any CLL patient would have ready access to their hematologist or oncologist via video visit.

And also, I think this whole situation has promoted a lot more video conferencing, educational video conferencing. Not having to physically attend a conference in order to get information. So, I think they’ll see a lot more educational resources out there online for them.

Well, of course, with CLL, we’re also very interested in blood counts, as are our patients, and if we’re doing remote visits, or even if they live fairly close but aren’t coming in, we do try to get the lab work done, but that’s worked out quite well. We’re used to dealing with patients coming from far distances, and so, in the past, if we wanted to get a lab result in between visits, we would simply make those arrangements with their local lab. Everybody tends to have an internist, a family doctor that they see, and so they’re familiar with getting lab tests done near where they live, and in all cases, we’ve been able to accommodate that.

And now with the increasing of electronic medical record usage and interlinking of medical record systems, we can, for example, get lab tests done at a local lab and have those. Actually, those results are directly imported into the medical record. So, they’re easily accessible to us. So, I must say, it’s been a pleasant surprise to see how well this has worked.

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