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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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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

 

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

 

Could A Targeted Lung Cancer Treatment Be Right For You?


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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