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What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer Research

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

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New and Improved Lung Cancer Treatment Options

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Empowered: The Benefits of Learning About Your Lung Cancer

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

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

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

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


Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diagnosed with Lung Cancer? An Expert Outlines Key Steps

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Patricia:

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

Dr. Edelman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth About Managing Lung Cancer Treatment Side Effects

The Truth About Managing Lung Cancer Treatment Side Effects from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Are lung cancer treatment side effects avoidable? Dr. Martin Edelman reviews effective management strategies. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

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

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Transcript:

Patricia:

Let’s talk a little bit about some of the concerns that patients have about the side effects. Let’s see: Side effects are unavoidable.

Dr. Edelman:

Well, that’s not true. As I said, what were the side effects? If you go back a couple decades and you ask patients what were they concerned about, many of them were concerned about nausea and vomiting. And that is largely a thing of the past. Many patients will still have some queasiness with treatment, but even our most nausea-producing drugs – we really do have outstanding drugs for the prevention of that. You have to use them. You have to take them.

It’s very important to give them appropriately. There are very excellent guidelines that are out there. Sometimes, patients are still undertreated, no question about that. Not every drug has industry strong backing. There’s one drug – for example, olanzapine, (Zyprexa) was actually developed as an antipsychotic, and I always tell the patients, “No, I don’t think you’re crazy.”

But it’s at a lower dose, and we have excellent, excellent evidence that that drug given for a few evenings after chemotherapy is extraordinarily effective along with the other drugs in preventing nausea and vomiting. So, that’s one thing.

Hair loss is still somewhat inevitable with certain drugs – the taxanes. But many of our regimens don’t cause hair loss.

Or as I tell folks – only you and your hairdresser will know for sure because its hair on the pillow, but the average person won’t pick you out of a crowd. Those are big concerns still. There still are potentially life-threatening effects from chemotherapy, and we spend a lot of time educating people about that. But those are not inevitable, and it’s actually a minority of patients in lung cancer.

One should not confuse – there are different malignancies. Still, the treatments for say leukemia, though even that’s changing, can be extraordinarily toxic or the bone marrow transplant patients. Many, not just lung cancer, but in the other diseases as well – many of the things that people attribute to the drugs are more due to the disease. So, I always say, “The greatest failure and side effects to the drugs are they don’t work well enough because the side effects of the disease can be considerable.” So, that’s the bigger issue. The immunotherapeutic drugs have a rather interesting set of side effects.

They are clearly initially or frequently better tolerated than the older cytotoxics, which still have an extremely valuable place in the treatment and cure of lung cancer. The immunotherapeutics have clearly been quite beneficial, but their side effects can be subtle and far less predictable and can be very severe. Virtually, any organ in the body can be affected by this. We like to say, “If it ends in ‘itis,’ you can get it from immunotherapeutics.”

So, there are lots of side effects, no question. But they can be managed. They can be prevented. They can be treated. Sometimes, we have to abandon a drug. So, people who get severe – what we call immunotherapy-related adverse events – may not be able to continue on their drugs. But even that is not necessarily always the case.

Patricia:

This next one really gets to the heart of the doctor-patient relationship. I shouldn’t share my side effects with my healthcare team because I don’t want them to stop my treatment routine.

Dr. Edelman:

Well, you can’t prevent the side effects if you don’t know about them. And I always would tell patients, I said, “You know, if you’re having a problem, please don’t call me at 4:00 on Friday afternoon. I’m gonna end up sending you to the emergency room, which I may anyway.” But a lot of times, we can solve certain things over the phone. There are a lot of side effects that can be treated and particularly if one is aware early on. So, yeah, you should share the side effects because how’s somebody gonna know how to deal with them?

Now, the problem we run into sometimes is in a population that’s on average 60s and 70s, could be younger. There’re lots of things that can be just part of ordinary life. Everybody gets headaches, back pain, etcetera, etcetera.

We have to treat those sometimes and evaluate them much more aggressively because of the possibility of them being related to disease or drug, but it helps to sort it out. You can’t be too blasé about it because sometimes things need to be looked at very urgently, particularly with immunotherapeutic drugs. Some of the side effects that can be severe can sometimes be very subtle in their onset.

Trustworthy Resources to Help You Learn More About Lung Cancer

Trustworthy Resources to Help You Learn More About Lung Cancer from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Expert Dr. Martin Edelman shares credible resources to help lung cancer patients become informed and empowered.

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

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Transcript:

Patricia:

Let’s talk a little bit about health literacy. What would you suggest patients use for online resources? What are good resources?

Dr. Edelman:

So, there are some excellent resources. The International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer has resources for patients. The National Coalition of Comprehensive Cancer Center Network (NCCN) has resources. American Society of Clinical Oncology has resources. So, those or American Cancer Society. So, there are some really reliable sources out there. And there’s a great deal that’s very unreliable – people’s Facebook pages. I’ve seen this.

Patricia:

It’s a big place.

Dr. Edelman:

Everybody always – and I think it’s important for people to understand. There will be people who will get something and have a fantastic response. I’ve used anecdotes.

The anecdotes I’ve used are to illustrate the potential hope of benefit. They’re not exceptions to the rule anymore. They’re the good case scenarios. I could have just as many anecdotes of people who didn’t benefit and stuff. And I think it is important going into this – and that’s why we are reassessing patients constantly and getting repeat scans because we don’t necessarily know always – even if something’s 90 percent effective, it means 10 percent of the time it’s not.

And each patient – we’re getting better at individualizing and personalizing therapy, but we’re not perfect yet. And we probably never will be. So, there will always be anecdotes. I think what’s – as a friend of mine puts it – the plural of anecdotes is not data. When I say, “Well, chemoimmunotherapy works.” It’s not because I have anecdotes of that, though anecdotes illustrate the magnitude of benefit.

I have data that shows that the chemoimmunotherapy regimen was compared to chemotherapy and was clearly and unequivocally superior. When I give a statistic that 60 percent of patients, 65 percent, can benefit from those types of regimens. That’s based upon prospective randomized control trials.

Is Lung Cancer Treatment Effective in Older Patients?

Is Lung Cancer Treatment Effective in Older Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Lung cancer expert Dr. Martin Edelman tackles common misconceptions about the effectiveness of lung cancer treatment in elderly patients. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

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

View more from Fact or Fiction? Lung Cancer


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Transcript:

Patricia:

How about this one? Treatment is not effective in older patients.

Dr. Edelman:

Treatment is highly effective in older patients. It’s interesting. So, we had long arguments about, when I started in this field, whether treatment ever worked, and there were a number of studies that showed that chemotherapy – that one platinum was better – what’s called a platinum-based agent – was better than no therapy.

And then that two drugs were better than one drug. And people would say, “Oh, well, that doesn’t work in the elderly. And they should only get one drug.” And that’s because, I guess, their burning bush on the lawn told them this. And the fact is is that then got evaluated in a controlled trial, a very nicely done study by my European colleagues. But what was crucial was that they used somewhat lower doses of chemotherapy, a little bit different schedule of chemotherapy, and it was clearly superior to a single agent. And those were even days before immunotherapeutics and these targeted agents. So, many patients will benefit. You just have to be aware of certain basic principles in geriatric medicine as well as basic principles of lung cancer care.

So, first off, if the patient is elderly but their tumor is characterized by a driver mutation, they get one of the so-called targeted agents. And these are these days very non-toxic, easy to take, and highly effective.

Patients – many are going to be eligible for immunotherapy either as a single agent or combined with chemotherapy. Chemotherapy drugs could certainly be cut in their doses and still preserve much activity and be done safely.

I had a woman with small cell lung cancer. This is now about a year and a half ago or so. And she’s in her 80s. And she came to me because she was told – oh, just sorta get your affairs in order. And her disease was what we term an extensive small cell. The staging system’s a little bit different, but she didn’t have a really vast bulk of disease. And we treated her with standard chemotherapy drugs but at somewhat lower doses and some careful TLC and some other supportive things like growth factors.

She got all of her treatment on an outpatient basis, had an excellent response. We used radiation later to consolidate her treatment, and I see her back every couple of months. I wouldn’t say that she’s necessarily cured of her disease, but she does yoga every day. She lives a full life. She sees her grandchildren. And she’s, I think – I wanna say 83-84 years old. I think she’s quite grateful for that. It’s not the numerical age.

The flipside is if somebody’s 50 years old and they’re extremely ill when they come in, then one has to be very cautious about what one does. We used to say that those patients who come in who are severely impaired should simply get supportive care and hospice services.

And actually, how would I put it? Our lives have gotten a little bit more difficult lately because as things have gotten better for patients – because I can’t necessarily say that as much because some patients may be very susceptible to the effects of – their disease may be very susceptible to the effects of immunotherapy. I had one patient who was a younger gentleman who was on a gurney. He was in his 50s, lost an enormous amount of weight , he was on oxygen. We immediately gave him fluids. My fellow – I had an excellent fellow at the time – came to me and said, “Should we admit him and send him to hospice? Or just send him to hospice?” And I looked, and he had a biomarker that indicated that he might have an excellent response to immunotherapy, so we gave him solely immunotherapy and saw him back a few days later. He was still pretty touch and go. We gave him some fluids. A week after that – still, we were kinda touch and go, but he was still with us.

And then a week after that my medical assistant, comes in, and she says, “You know, he looks a little bit better today.” And he was in a wheelchair that day. And then a few weeks after that, he had a walker, and a few weeks after that a cane and about a year after that was asking me about whether or not he could go on a cruise. Again, I still see this gentleman – a couple weeks ago. It’s now almost two years later. And the question now that we have is – should we stop his treatment? And he is restored to complete full health, has had almost no side effects of treatment.

So again, this is not every patient. Some people will be treated and get every side effect and no benefit, but I think I’ve become a lot more reluctant to say that any patient should not at least be offered the opportunity for treatment knowing what the potential side effects are. And there still are considerable and sometimes severe side effects from therapy.

Does Surgery Cause Lung Cancer to Spread? The Facts.

Does Surgery Cause Lung Cancer to Spread? The Facts. from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Could undergoing surgery cause your lung cancer to spread? Dr. Martin Edelman debunks this misconception.

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

View more from Fact or Fiction? Lung Cancer


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Transcript:

Patricia:

Sure. Here’s one I hadn’t heard until just now. Surgery causes lung cancer to spread.

Dr. Edelman:

Yeah, that’s common in certain states. When I was in Maryland that was a biggie.

So, there’s a myth that the air gets to the tumor, and then it spreads. But that’s certainly not true. It certainly is possible that in a bad surgical procedure that disease can be spread, but I think historically what that was was in the days before we had as accurate of radiographic studies. So, it’s kinda interesting. I always say, “I’m not that old, and I began medical school before there were CT scans.” So, the way you would diagnose something was with a chest x-ray. That was your best chest imaging. And the brain you’d image with something called a pneumoencephalogram, which is – you don’t know what that is. Most people don’t, and they should be thankful for that. But we had no real way of knowing these things. So, what would happen is there would be a surgical exploration. They would say, “Well, it looks very localized.” But then you’d go in, and there was lots of disease all over the place.

And for the most part, that doesn’t happen anymore. Now we have CT/PET scans. We have MRIs. Patients before they go to surgery usually have had – our pulmonary physicians will usually have sampled the nodes in the middle of the chest, the mediastinum. So, it isn’t that there aren’t surprises, but there are far fewer. And certainly, a properly done operation should not spread lung cancer. I would emphasize the properly done operation. It is my strong belief that nobody should have surgery for lung cancer from other than a board certified thoracic surgeon who spends their time thinking about lung cancer, preferably in an institution with a fair volume of this.

We know – it should be no surprise to people, practice makes perfect. People who really focus in an area – people at the NCI-Designated Cancer Centers, comprehensive cancer centers – who do a lot of this have greater expertise.

Lung Cancer Treatment Decisions: Which Path is Best for You?

Lung Cancer Treatment Decisions: Which Path is Best for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Martin Edelman reviews key factors that help to determine a treatment course for lung cancer patients.

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

View more from Fact or Fiction? Lung Cancer


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Transcript:

Patricia:

How are you approaching treatment decisions with your patients?

Dr. Edelman:

Well, the treatment decisions that we make – that I make are those that are in ways similar to other medical oncologists. It really depends because some of the patients may first go to a surgeon or whatever. However they come into the system, there are a few key factors in this. First is – make your decision based upon, Number 1, which kind of lung cancer. So, there are two major varieties. You have small cell and non-small cell, and they are treated – they are biologically distinct, and they are treated in distinct ways.

And then the next major consideration is the stage of the tumor, which is our way of expressing how advanced that is and deciding on both the therapy as well as conveying a prognosis and evaluating a patient for a clinical trial. And that’s based upon the size and location of the tumor; presence, absence, and location of lymph nodes; and the presence or absence and, these days, the number of metastatic areas of disease.

And then, lastly, and again depending a little bit upon the stage and interacting with all the others is what condition is the patient in? Anybody can get lung cancer, but still the median is in older individuals.

Many of these patients have compromised cardiac and pulmonary status as well as other diseases of aging, hypertension, cardiac disease, etcetera. Those people – one obviously has to tailor one’s treatments to fit those comorbidities. So, that’s sort of how the basic assessment – obviously, some patients show up with metastatic disease. We know that, but we go through a whole process for this.

The staging system that we use is complicated, and it keeps changing. We’re, gosh, up to version eight of this? I started with version three. I’m not quite sure I’ve fully mastered the current one, and the ninth edition is coming soon. And why does it keep changing? Because our knowledge of the disease keeps changing. The database keeps expanding.

We’re able to be more refined. Molecular variables have not yet fully entered into our considerations. Unquestionably, they will. But basically, one could consider lung cancer – despite the four major stages and multiple substages – that you really have three buckets that people will fit into. They have localized disease, which we will predominantly address with a localized therapy – surgery, radiation. And many of those patients, however, particularly those who might have a lymph node that’s positive, will benefit from chemotherapy to prevent recurrence.

We have patients with locally advanced disease. Primarily, those are patients who have lymph nodes located in the middle of the chest as opposed to more localized disease where if there’s a lymph node present it’s more in the lobe of the lung. Those patients with lymph nodes in the middle of the chest or larger tumors are approached with frequently a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, sometimes surgery.

And then we have patients with advanced disease who will be predominantly treated with drug therapies, which nowadays, depending upon the molecular background of the tumor, could be a targeted treatment if they have a specific mutation.

Something we see most frequently, though certainly not exclusively, in patients with scant or no smoking history, they may be approached with immunotherapy or chemotherapy combined with immunotherapy.

And there are many considerations that go into those decisions. And even in advanced stage, there are certainly roles for surgery and radiation depending upon whether there are structural abnormalities, occasionally whether there are relatively few areas or several areas of metastatic disease. And in the localized and locally advanced disease, our goal is cure in those, though we certainly are not there for every patient yet.

And in advanced disease, it’s extension of life, which is now quite considerable compared to untreated disease. And I think in certain situations, particularly those who only have a single area of metastatic disease, curative treatment is a realistic possibility. And even those with more disseminated disease, we’re now beginning to see a substantial fraction of patients who are still alive at five years or more. So, we’re beginning very cautiously to think that perhaps some of those patients may even be cured of their disease, though I’m not quite ready to say that.

How Genetic Testing Has Revolutionized Lung Cancer Treatment

How Genetic Testing Has Revolutionized Lung Cancer Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Martin Edelman explains how genetic testing has revolutionized the lung cancer treatment landscape. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

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

View more from Fact or Fiction? Lung Cancer

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Could A Targeted Lung Cancer Treatment Be Right For You?


Transcript:

Patricia:

How is genetic testing changing the landscape?

Dr. Edelman:

So, genetic testing – and in this case the testing of the tumor, not the germline, not the individual – has been very, very crucial. If you go back about 20 years ago, there was a family of drugs called epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors or EGFR inhibitors.

And the basic science at the time made it look like these would be best combined with chemotherapy in squamous cell carcinoma. And as it turned out, combined with chemotherapy they weren’t very useful. But as single agents, there were these occasional very dramatic results.

So, that came at a time when we were able to evaluate tumor DNA, sequence it with some degree of ease at a reasonable cost. So, there was a discovery of specific mutations, which were targeted by these drugs. So, it was sort of interesting in that it was the clinical observation that led to the discoveries in biology, not really the other way around.

But then that in turn resulted in looking for other mutations, which were found, and then the development of other drugs – in some cases, the repurposing of other drugs for those. And now we have about a half a dozen very validated targets, each one of which in a small slice of the population – between say 1 percent and 5 percent – 10 percent of the lung cancer population – but these – if the patient has within their cancer that particular mutation, these are drugs that are 80 percent-plus effective and frequently can be administered with relatively little toxicity.

And usually they’ll give them benefit for one-plus years or more. So, that’s been an example of progress there.

Could Advances in Lung Cancer Research Benefit You?

Could Advances in Lung Cancer Research Benefit You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Expert Dr. Martin Edelman reviews the latest lung cancer research and explains how it may impact patient care. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

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

View more from Fact or Fiction? Lung Cancer


Related Programs:

 

How Genetic Testing Has Revolutionized Lung Cancer Treatment

 

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Transcript:

Patricia:

Let’s start with an overview of lung cancer’s research. Can you tell us a little bit about the field right now?

Dr. Edelman:

So, I think the field has been remarkable over the last few years. There’s been more progress, more drugs, more things that have happened in the last five years than probably the prior 50. It’s been an amazing time both for developments in microbiology as well as in immunotherapy of the disease, which is exciting for all concerned.

For patient’s, of course – really a promise of longer, better lives, even cures where we previously did not see any in advanced disease. For the scientists – an amazing amount of new information. And for clinicians and clinical investigators – just almost too many questions for us to answer.

Patricia:

It sounds like the field is really advancing quickly. What do you attribute that to?

Dr. Edelman:

Well, you know, I think there are a number of things. Everybody always talks about breakthroughs, but breakthroughs really happen after decades of other work. And what’s happening now is really a result of many, many years of different types of work. There were our colleagues in immunology who built this area of cancer immunology for many years – I have to say with much skepticism from many, myself included.

The advances in molecular biology – our abilities to do things with tumors to determine genetics at a rate and a pace and a cost that was previously unimaginable. All of these things have developed in the last few years but really are a result of the decades of work before that. If you look at immunotherapy – probably one of our biggest areas of progress – the roots of that are a century old. So, nothing’s really new. It’s just now we have the technology and the ability to really use it. And then I would also say that we’ve created the infrastructure that lets us test this – the people who have done the studies, the endpoints for the studies, the expertise in doing clinical trials – that also was there for decades, and we frequently were kind of ridiculed at times.

Oh, you’re just testing this drug against that drug, but the reality is is it was those incremental advances. It was the ability to know the endpoints, to refine the populations, to develop the infrastructure that allowed for all of this to happen.

Patricia:

Dr. Edelman, as a researcher in the field, tell us why you’re hopeful about lung cancer research.

Dr. Edelman:

Well, I think that we have gone from trials with very small incremental improvements and frequently a very slow degree of progress where if we had a positive study every two or three years, we were thrilled – to the point where we’ve had an avalanche of positive studies. I don’t think my younger colleagues know what a negative trial looks like anymore. Even our negative trials are pretty impressive. We’ve had studies where an immunotherapy agent was compared with chemotherapy. And it was designed to show that the drug would be better.

And it was just as good, and that was a negative study. That’s the correct interpretation, but still I would point out that that’s quite remarkable because these other drugs had taken us 25-30 years to develop. And now we have another drug with a very different mechanism of action that’s as good potentially. That’s impressive. I think we’ve just had an amazing degree of progress in the last few years. We have far more drugs. We understand far more about the disease – the technology at every point from diagnosis to assessment of response to the ability to evaluate better what we’re not doing well. So, our studies now frequently have biopsies before, during, and after treatment in a way of trying to figure out why is stuff working or not working.

Back in 2006 or so, I proposed a study. We ended up doing it, but it took two or three years because we were requiring a biopsy result – actually, not even a new biopsy but just an archived specimen from the original biopsy to determine eligibility, and there was strong pushback that we would never be able to do that. And now, we routinely are getting biopsies and re-biopsying, and that’s over a brief period of time.

So, we’re getting to get better understanding of the disease, and why stuff works and doesn’t work. And I think that that’s why our progress will accelerate. And I would again emphasize progress only happens – real progress – only through clinical trials. We’ve cured a lot of mice for many decades. A mouse is not a person. You actually have to do the studies patient by patient, and I think we are making substantial progress. We almost have too many things to test right now.

Focusing on Proton Therapy

This blog was originally published by Cancer Today by Sue Rochman here.

Proton therapy, an alternative to standard radiation therapy, is safe and effective. But evidence is lacking that it’s always a better option than standard radiation, and some insurers balk at the higher price tag.

Photo by ​​​​gorodenkoff​ / iStock / Getty Images Plus

IN AUGUST 2017, Ha​uli Sioux Warrior Gray noticed a lump in her left breast. Two months later, after having seen three different health care providers, the then 33-year-old mother of two from Yukon, Oklahoma, learned she had stage IIB breast cancer. In November, she started chemotherapy to shrink the 7-centimeter tumo​r in her left breast and kill the cancer cells that had spread to her lymph nodes. In March 2018, she had a mastectomy. When it was time to start radiation, Gray says, her radiation oncologist at the Integris Cancer Institute in Oklahoma City explained that proton therapy would be a better option than standard radiation therapy because “it would save my heart and lungs.”​

Gray’s doctor sent a treatment proposal for proton therapy to her health insurer. The request was denied. “I didn’t know insurance companies did that,” says Gray. Aided by a media consultant brought in by her doctor, Gray used social media and local news outlets to tell her story. Time was ticking—the first of 34 proton therapy radiation treatments that would target her lymph nodes and any breast tissue remaining in her chest wall was scheduled for May 10, just three weeks away. When her insurer wouldn’t budge, the proton therapy center, ProCure, agreed to front the cost. The same day, says Gray, the Indian Health Service, which also provided her with health benefits, called to say they would cover the cost of the treatment. “I was surprised, shocked and happy,” says Gray. “I had been praying and asking God if this is what needed to be done.”

For about a century, radiation therapy has been a mainstay of cancer treatment. Standard radiation systems use photons, or X-rays, to kill cancer cells. Proton therapy uses particles that can be targeted at the tumor more precisely. Studies have shown that proton therapy is safe and effective. Less clear is which patients with which types of cancer should receive it instead of standard radiation. Clinical trials that compare proton and photon therapies are now underway, but enrolling patients hasn’t been easy. And in the years that it takes fo​r the answers to come in, thousands more cancer patients will find themselves in a position similar to Gray’s.

Photons and Protons

Radiation kills a cell by damaging its DNA. The photon beam used in standard radiation therapy travels through normal cells in the body, gets into the cancer cells, and then travels again through normal cells as it comes out the other side of the body. Protons are particles with a different set of physical characteristics. They accelerate and penetrate the skin quickly, explains Steven Lin, a radiation oncologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Then the particles stop at the tumor, where they deposit all their energy at once.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved proton radiation as a cancer treatment in 1988. Before the FDA can approve a new cancer drug, clinical trials must show that the treatment is safe and effective for a specific type of cancer. New devices and technologies like proton therapy are held to a different benchmark. They only have to be proved safe and effective overall, not for a specific use. This means “there is no clear indication where proton [therapy] should be the standard treatment,” says Lin. Instead, “every cancer patient who needs radiation is potentially eligible for proton treatment, but not all patients will benefit.”

When there are no specific indications for a treatment’s use, insurance coverage can vary widely. Medicare typically covers the cost of proton therapy, regardless of the type of cancer. But many private insurers do not want to pay for proton therapy when it has not been shown to be more effective than standard radiation therapy and can cost four to 10 times more. A recent study found that two-thirds of patients with private health insurance initially had their requests for proton therapy denied. (On appeal, about 68% of patients initially denied coverage had their treatment approved.)

​Determining the BenefitFor children with cancer, proton therapy is now a routine treatment. “For many pediatric patients, proton therapy offers clear benefits,” says Shannon MacDonald, a radiation oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. When treating children, she explains, “you are treating brain tumors and tumors close to areas that are responsible for future growth.” Before proton therapy was available, some of these children would not have been able to have radiation at all. With proton therapy, she says, they can be treated, and the tissue spared from radiation will continue to grow and develop normally. Proton therapy has also made radiation a possibility for some adults with rare or difficult-to-treat cancers, such as tumors in the central nervous system, brain, head and neck, eye, skull and spine.

In other instances, proton therapy has allowed many patients to avoid some or all of the potential side effects associated with standard radiation therapy, which can include skin problems, pain and swelling, and heart and lung problems. That was the case for Arianne Missimer of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, who was diagnosed in 2015 with a stage III liposarcoma—​a rare cancer that can start in muscle tissue—in her right thigh. The 34-year-old physical therapist, registered dietitian and athlete needed radiation therapy to treat her cancer and was concerned about her potential risk for pain, swelling, weakness and long-term bone damage. Her radiation oncologist explained the difference between photon and proton therapies and then suggested proton therapy at Penn Medicine’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center in Philadelphia. Her insurer was willing to cover it.

A Growing Business

Proton therapy centers are now ​located across the U.S.

​Waiting for Answers

It’s unclear whether proton therapy improves outcomes and reduces side effects in other cancer types, including breast and prostate cancer. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) have funded seven phase III randomized trials comparing proton therapy and photon therapy in patients with breast, esophageal, liver, lung and prostate cancer and two types of brain tumors, glioblastoma and low-grade glioma. Some of the trials are comparing overall survival; others are looking at reductions in symptoms and side effects.

New Research Sheds Light on Side Effects

When combined with chemotherapy, proton therapy is associated with fewer severe s​ide effects than standard radiation therapy, according to a​ study.

The results of these trials have the potential to inform future treatment guidelines, but finding patients for the studies has been laborious. In 2018, almost two years after it opened, the breast cancer trial had enrolled only 317 of 1,716 patients needed; after five years, the prostate cancer trial, which needs 400 patients, had enrolled only 254. Radiation oncologists point to multiple factors contributing to the slow patient accrual. In some cases, says Lin, doctors may believe proton therapy is better, and they don’t want their patients to participate in a clinical trial where there is a chance they won’t receive the newer approach. In other instances, patients don’t want to take the chance they will be assigned to the treatment arm that doesn’t receive proton therapy.

There is also an insurance barrier. In the major proton therapy trials, insurers are asked to pay for patients’ radiation treatment, whether it’s proton or photon therapy. Justin Bekelman, a radiation oncologist at the Penn Medicine Abramson Cancer Center, says it’s all too common for insurers to say they won’t pay for an unproven treatment when a patient is selected for the proton therapy arm. Bekelman was the lead investigator for the breast cancer trial and a co-lead investigator for the prostate cancer trial.

“Naturally, insurance companies are going to question the value,” says Bekelman. “That’s precisely why we need to run these trials. We want to determine if there are benefits and if there are harms to proton therapy, and in which cancer patients which treatment will be most successful for cancer control and reducing side effects.” But researchers can’t do that if insurers won’t cover that care.

In 2012, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center launched the NCI-funded clinical trial comparing protons and photons in esophageal cancer, which aimed to enroll 180 patients. Enrollment closed this year with 104. (Another 21 patients enrolled but couldn’t be evaluated because their insurer wouldn’t pay for the proton therapy.) Lin, who is overseeing the study, says some patients declined to enroll when they learned their health insurance covered proton therapy. “We explain to [patients] that the proton therapy is experimental, which is why we are trying to do the study,” he says. “But they say they’ve heard good things about it. Others say, ‘I have money and I don’t want standard treatment. I want the best.’”

It’s easy to understand why a patient who has pored over a proton therapy center’s website might feel that way. In a study published online March 15, 2018, in Radiation Oncology​, researchers analyzed 46 websites of proton therapy centers—half of which w​ere in the U.S. The analysis found that many centers used language that could lead patients to think that choosing proton therapy would give them a better outcome, says the study’s senior author Alexander Louie, a radiation oncologist and epidemiologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. “Many of the websites made blanket or generic statements that may not be completely supported by evidence but have some credence potentially or theoretically, blurring the line between evidence and advertising,” he says.

“It’s not as easy as saying if proton therapy is good or bad,” adds radiation oncologist Jeffrey Buchsbaum of the NCI’s Radiation Research Program. “Proton therapy is like a vehicle for getting the patient to a better place. And it has to be used properly.” There are certain situations, he notes, in which patients wouldn’t be alive without proton therapy. “But that doesn’t mean it’s necessary for all cancers.”

Proton Therapy Tips

Follow​ these suggestions​ as you consider radiation therapy options.

​Moving Forward

The American Society for Radiation Oncology has developed model policies for insurers that delineate where there is sufficient evidence to support coverage of proton therapy. Insurers also use National Comprehensive Cancer Network treatment guidelines to support or deny a patient’s treatment with proton therapy. To move research forward, investigators are trying to work with hospitals to find ways to make insurers more amenable to covering the cost of treating patients in randomized clinical trials comparing photon therapy and proton therapy. In some cases, this may include reducing the cost of proton therapy to make it more comparable to that of standard radiation therapy. “The issues happening here are partially the result of the complexity of the health care delivery system,” says Buchsbaum.

But for patients, treatment choices must be made now. Missimer believes that proton therapy helped treat her cancer without sacrificing her athleticism. She is an active member of Penn Medicine’s proton center alumni group, which provides support to patients who are currently receiving or are considering proton therapy. She also appears in an advertisement for Penn Medicine’s proton therapy center, and an article about her experience is included on the cancer center’s website.

Missimer’s treatment began with chemotherapy, which she admits slowed her down. But during her proton therapy, which started in July 2015, she joined a ninja gym. And as she recovered from the surgery and additional chemotherapy that followed the radiation, she kept going. In May 2016, Missimer competed in the Philadelphia regional American Ninja Warrior competition. “I lost my brother to cancer,” she says. “He had radiation and had significant complications. The only thing I get is a little stiffness. But as long as I keep moving, my leg is good.”

Gray completed her proton beam treatment in June 2018, about a year after she’d first felt the lump in her breast. Skin damage is a common side effect of both types of radiation therapy. Gray says her doctor told her that her skin did well during the proton therapy. “But if that was well,” she says, “I can’t imagine what worse would be like. My chest looked like burnt hot-dog skin. And I still have a dark scar from the burn that might not ever go away.” After being out of work for a full year, Gray returned to her job as an educational specialist for Native American youth in October 2018, and she slowly started back at the gym. She wears a compression sleeve and a glove to manage lymphedema that developed in her arm—caused by either the surgery or radiation—and deals with nerve pain in her arm and chest. None of it has been easy, but, she says, “my faith has gotten me through.”​ 

Sue Rochman is a contributing editor for Cancer Today.​

The Right Dose

This blog was originally published by Cancer Today by Kate Yandell here.

Researchers want to find out when cancer patients can benefit from receiving lower doses of drugs or radiation, shortening treatment or skipping certain treatments altogether.

​​​

OVER A SPAN OF 15 YEARS, ​Liza Bernstein was diagnosed with three separate primary, early-stage breast cancers. Even though she was treated by the same oncologist throughout, the treatments she received varied with each diagnosis.

​Bernstein, who lives in the Los Angeles area, was first diagnosed with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer in 1994, when she was 29 years old. She recalls that her doctors were pleased to be able to do a lumpectomy, only removing part of the breast, instead of a mastectomy as would once have been standard. However, her surgeon removed about 20 lymph nodes from her armpit, and she received both radiation and chemotherapy.

In the course of receiving her second diagnosis, a hormone receptor-positive cancer in her opposite breast, in 2005, Bernstein underwent a sentinel lymph node biopsy, a less invasive procedure that requires surgeons to remove only a few lymph nodes in areas where the cancer is most likely to have spread.

Bernstein was also able to get testing with a product called Oncotype DX, which measures gene expression in breast tumors and helps estimate the likelihood that chemotherapy will prevent an early-stage, hormone receptor-positive cancer from recurring. The test, released in 2004, helped Bernstein and her oncologist make the difficult decision to skip chemotherapy in 2005, due to little predicted benefit. Bernstein received a lumpectomy, radiation and the hormone therapy tamoxifen. Conversely, when she was diagnosed with another hormone receptor-positive cancer in 2009, genomic tumor testing helped them decide to include chemotherapy, along with a double mastectomy and tamoxifen, in her treatment.

Advances in cancer research can mean making patients’ treatment more onerous and complex. But some of the changes in Bernstein’s breast cancer treatment over the years reflect de-escalation—the process of decreasing the intensity or duration of a treatment, thus reducing side effects and cost, while maintaining the treatment’s effectiveness.

Today, researchers are investigating whether they can identify patients—using genomic tumor testing, imaging of the cancer or other methods—who can receive less intense treatment. Treatment de-escalation aims to spare patients the burden of unnecessary treatments and side effects.

“The key is we want to give people the right treatment that they need without treating them excessively, which just produces too much toxicity,” says Eric Winer, a medical oncologist and chief of the Division of Breast Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Treating the Right Patients

Treatment de-escalation has been successful primarily in cancers where the survival rate is high. “When you have a situation where mortality from a given malignancy is high, then it’s pretty hard to think about backing off [from treatment],” Winer explains.

The effects of treatment can last long after chemotherapy or radiation is completed. For example, 87% of people in the U.S. diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, which until the 1960s was usually fatal, live five years or more. “The issue for this group of people, who are often diagnosed in their 20s and 30s, is that they have a long life ahead of them,” says Peter Johnson, a medical oncologist who specializes in lymphoma at University Hospital Southampton in England. The radiation and chemotherapy typically given for Hodgkin lymphoma can result in serious side effects, including heart disease, second cancers and infertility.

Over time, doctors have adopted techniques for delivering radiotherapy to Hodgkin lymphoma patients that increasingly spare normal tissues from damage, Johnson says. Most recently, researchers have learned that they can perform a form of imaging, called 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose PET, to determine early on whether a patient’s Hodgkin lymphoma is responding to chemotherapy. If the scan indicates a good response, the patient may be able to skip later radiation therapy or receive a less intensive chemotherapy regimen.

“In some ways, it’s a reflection of how successful modern oncology has been that we’re thinking about these things,” Johnson says of the topic of de-escalation.

The rise of genomic testing, among other factors, has contributed to a decline in chemotherapy use for patients with early-stage breast cancer whose disease is driven by hormones. With Oncotype DX and similar tests, patients with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer can learn how likely they are to benefit from chemotherapy. Their score can help determine whether their drug treatment after surgery should include both chemotherapy and hormone therapy or whether just hormone therapy is enough.

Researchers are investigating de-escalation strategies for patients with early-stage HER2-positive breast cancers as well. These patients are often treated with HER2-targeted therapy and a multidrug chemotherapy regimen. Winer’s research shows that patients with small HER2-positive cancers that have not spread to the lymph nodes can safely use a de-escalated ​chemotherapy regimen that includes just one drug, paclitaxel, alongside targeted therapy.

Challenges of Stepping Back

Despite some successes in de-escalation, it can be easier to intensify treatment than to take treatment away. This is partly because it is difficult to prove that taking away treatment is not going to harm patients—a different statistical challenge than showing that a therapy is significantly better than standard care.

For example, in 2004, researchers discovered that patients with stage III colon cancer lived longer if oxaliplatin was added to their chemotherapy regimen. The additional chemotherapy drug can lead to peripheral neuropathy, and the effects are cumulative as therapy continues. An international consortium of researchers published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine​ on March 29, 2018, pooling the results of six randomized clinical trials that included 12,834 participants. The trials investigated the practice of shortening chemotherapy after surgery from six to three months for these patients.

“We thought with such a large number it would be very easy and we’d get a clear answer, [but] we haven’t got as clear an answer as we thought we would,” says Timothy Iveson, a medical oncologist at University Hospital Southampton who co-authored the study.

The study did not meet pre-specified statistical benchmarks to determine that a shorter period 
of chemotherapy was not worse than standard chemotherapy for the patients in the trial in general. However, the survival difference between patients using shorter versus longer chemotherapy (six months versus three months) was small, Iveson says, and the decrease in side effects with shorter chemotherapy was large. And for some patients, treatment for three months was sufficient. Cancer treatment guidelines now recommend the shorter chemotherapy regimen as an option for certain patients with low-risk stage III colon cancer.

New information about cancer subtypes can also spur de-escalation. But even when it’s clear that de-escalation is necessary, it can take time to settle on the right strategy, as shown by the experience of researchers trying to back off treatment for head and neck cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). “There’s been an epidemic of oropharyngeal cancers that are related to HPV,” explains Joshua Bauml, a medical oncologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “These cancers have a much higher cure rate, and that’s wonderful, but the issue is that our treatment paradigm is still based upon older cancers with a different biology.”

Standard treatment for patients with advanced head and neck cancer—originally developed for patients with smoking- and alcohol-associated cancers—involves some combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. But these treatments can cause troubling side effects, including difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, problems with speech and changes in taste.

One approach for reducing toxicity of chemotherapy for these patients was to replace the chemotherapy drug cisplatin with the targeted therapy Erbitux (cetuximab), in an attempt to spare patients the side effects that cisplatin can cause when combined with radiotherapy. However, recent clinical trial res​ults have shown that patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer treated with Erbitux have shorter survival than those treated with cisplatin and have similar rates of side effects, indicating that this is not a good de-escalation strategy.

Early trials of approaches to reduce doses of radiation ​or chemotherapy for patients with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer have shown promise, Bauml says. However, he urges clinicians to wait for further data before adopting new protocols for HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer. “If a head and neck cancer metastasizes, it is incurable,” he says. “It’s really essential that when we move towards treatment de-escalation, this is done through robust clinical trials.”

Getting Targeted

The term de-escalation is used most often to describe efforts to reduce harms from old modes of therapy, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. But researchers are also working to understand the right doses of medication for patients being treated with newer targeted therapies and immunotherapies.

A study in the July 2018 issue of Cancer, for instance, showed that Sprycel (dasatinib), a type of targeted therapy called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, is effective at a reduced dose in treating chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). The lower dose appears to cause fewer dangerous side effects, such as buildup of fluid near the lungs, and costs around half as much. Other tyrosine kinase inhibitors have also been shown to be effective in treating CML at reduced doses, says study co-author Hagop Kantarjian, an oncologist who specializes in leukemia at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Traditional methods of determining doses for cancer drugs aren’t always ideal for dosing targeted therapies, Kantarjian explains. Clinical trials for chemotherapy ramp up doses in people until the highest dose with acceptable side effects is found, a measure known as maximum tolerated dose. Targeted therapies, in contrast, can be effective at doses much lower than the maximum tolerated dose. Researchers are still trying to find the best strategies for determining dosing of targeted therapies.

Researchers are also investigating whether they can reduce the time that patients are on targeted therapies and immunotherapies. For instance, “there are no clear, specific guidelines on exactly how long to treat patients with immune therapy in cancer,” says Michael Postow, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City who treats patients with melanoma.

Scientifically, it makes sense that patients who respond to immunotherapy drugs might be able to stop taking them at some point, says Janet Dancey, scientific director of the Canadian Cancer Trials Group and a medical oncologist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Most cancer drugs work by directly killing or inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. In contrast, immunotherapies work by stimulating the immune system to attack cancer. It’s possible that once the immune system has been activated, continued administration of the drugs isn’t necessary.

Dancey’s organization is currently enrolling patients for the STOP-GAP study, a randomized trial looking into whether melanoma patients who have responded to a class of immunotherapy drugs called PD-1 inhibitors can stop treatment or whether they would benefit from staying on treatment indefinitely.

There are multiple reasons to stop treatments, says Postow. “People would want to stop mostly to get their lives back to themselves, for flexibility in travel and work. … And I think the idea of being under treatment is still a reminder that there is something wrong with the patient.”

There are also financial implications: Checkpoint inhibitors have generally debuted with list prices of $150,000 per year or more. And treatment comes with other costs like time taken off from work, Postow says.

Currently, Postow works with his patients to make individual decisions on whether to stay on immunotherapy after all evidence of active cancer disappears or after two years of improvement on the treatment. He hopes further research will make choices easier for patients. “As you can imagine, there is a lot of emotional decision-making around this issue, too, which is reasonable in a setting where we don’t have strong science to specifically guide us,” he says.

A Lower Dose of 
Financial Toxicity

Researchers are​ looking into whether some drugs are just as effective when taken at a reduced​ dose.

​A Shared Decision

Whether patients are considering skipping chemo​therapy or stopping immunotherapy, having thoughtful discussions about benefits and risks of treatments is key. That includes helping patients understand side effects, says Iveson, who studied shortening chemotherapy for colon cancer patients. For instance, rather than telling patients they might experience peripheral neuropathy, doctors should explain this can mean not being able to button a shirt or feel one’s feet.

“The challenging part is that, for both doctors and patients, there’s a tendency to be risk averse,” Winer notes. People don’t like to feel they are leaving potential benefits of treatment on the table. Doctors sometimes underestimate side effects and overestimate treatment benefits, he says, and “nobody wants to be judged as having done something wrong by backing off if there’s a bad outcome.”

For Bernstein, the lengthy decision-making process that came with skipping chemotherapy after her second cancer diagnosis was difficult because there wasn’t a clear-cut answer of what to do, at least until she got the Oncotype DX test results. But she says she ultimately was glad to have had in-depth discussions with her doctor. Despite progress in treatment de-escalation, Bernstein hopes more can be done both to eliminate unnecessary treatment and to treat cancer more effectively.

“Over time there have been strategies that have come into play and have helped, in a sense, to do less harm, but by no means do they do no harm,” Bernstein says. “I want to make that clear.”​ 

Kate Yandell is the digital editor of Cancer Today.

 

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