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Which Lung Cancer Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know

Which Lung Cancer Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What do you need to know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR lung cancer? Lung cancer specialist Dr. Heather Wakelee reviews key factors that help guide treatment decisions, including biomarker testing, and shares advice for partnering with your team to advocate for the best care.

Dr. Heather Wakelee is a thoracic medical oncologist and deputy director of the Stanford Cancer Institute where she also serves as the division chief of medical oncology. Learn more about Dr. Wakelee, here.

This program is brought to you by the Patient Empowerment Network. It is made possible through support from Daiichi Sankyo, Foundation Medicine, Illumina, Merck, Novartis, and generous donations from people like you.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for you today’s program. Today, we’re going to discuss how to access the most personalized lung cancer therapy for your individual disease and why patients should insist on essential testing. Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you.

Let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Heather Wakelee. Dr. Wakelee, would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Wakelee:              

Sure. Thank you so much and I’m really delighted to be on this and get to address all of our listeners. So, I am Dr. Heather Wakelee and I am a lung cancer specialist. I work at Stanford University where I’m also the chief of the Division of Medical Oncology.

Katherine:                  

Excellent. Thank you. Before we get into an in-depth discussion on lung cancer treatment, we’ve been hearing the term “personalized medicine” a lot more often. How would you define that term?

Dr. Wakelee:              

That’s a great question. So, I think back when I first started taking care of patients living with lung cancer 20 years ago, we really just had chemotherapy for those with metastatic disease. And for those with earlier stage disease, it was just surgery radiation. And since that time, we’ve learned a whole lot and brought in a lot of different types of treatment. Surgery and radiation still have important roles for many patients.

And we think about them as being targeted and personalized based on stage, but it’s a little bit different. When we talk about personalized, we’re thinking more about what are aspects about the tumor that allow us to pick the right systemic treatment. So, “systemic” meaning a pill or something that we give IV.

With chemotherapy, we don’t have much to pick between them as far as specifics for the tumor. We can look at what we call the histology, which is how it looks under the microscope, whether it’s the squamous type or the non-squamous type and some of the chemotherapy drugs matter there. But, in the last 15, 20 years, we’ve learned about the specific what we call “gene mutations” that define the tumor.

And, depending on the gene mutation in the tumor, for some patients, we can give them pill therapy drugs that will work well. So, that’s personalized. Or, immune therapy now is an option for a lot of patients. That’s usually IV therapy.

And, there are some aspects of the tumor that can help us pick that also.

Katherine:                  

Well, I imagine that much of personalized immunotherapy for a patient requires a number of tests and then a thorough review of the results. So, can you provide an overview of important tests following a lung cancer diagnosis?

Dr. Wakelee:              

That’s a fabulous question. When we think about the tests that we need to have done, they’re mostly tests that are done on the tumor, so, either if someone has a surgery or at the time of biopsy. and, that’s where we can figure out what we call, again, the histology that’s squamous or non-squamous. That’s when they look at it under the microscope. But, they also, with the tumor specimen, you can pull the DNA out of the tumor and then test for the gene mutations in the tumor. And, I always emphasize these are not changes in the genes that are in the whole person. They are things that are unique to the tumor. They are what make the tumor different from the rest of the person.

So, we look at those gene mutations or that’s kind of a biomarker. So, there are a lot of terms that we use, and I know it gets really confusing. So, I try to use “biomarker” to mean all of these things, but that gene mutation is what we look at in the tumor tissue to see if there are specific changes that will allow us to give a pill therapy, a targeted pill therapy. And then, there are also aspects of the tumor that help us figure out whether or not the immune therapy might work, and most commonly, that’s something called PD-L1. That’s a protein that we look at on the surface of the tumor, and so again, under the microscope.

Katherine:                  

And, when you talk about extracting DNA, is that via a blood test?

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, we have two different ways to do that. So, what I was talking about before was from the tumor tissue, you can extract the DNA. But now, there are these liquid biopsies where we can draw blood and find the tumor DNA that is different from the rest of the person’s DNA and look for those gene mutations in the tumor.

And that is where there’s a lot of developments happening. And, that’s so fabulous because they’re often faster results for patients, and it means that you can not have to go through another biopsy. We still need the biopsy to establish whether or not there is even cancer. But, once we know that there’s cancer for sure, then we can use the liquid biopsies to get a faster information result on those gene mutations and to follow over time to see how the tumor evolves because tumors change after they’ve been treated.

Katherine:                  

Do you use imaging at all?

Dr. Wakelee:              

Yes. Always. So, when someone is first diagnosed with cancer, we usually find that because of imaging, so, a CT scan or an X-ray, maybe they had a screening CT scan or maybe they had a cough that led someone to go get an X-ray, an examination. So, the imaging is a part of the original diagnosis. And in addition to CT scans, we’ll often get a PET scan that helps us look for, in a different way, the rest of the body, maybe an MRI of the brain to look in that area.

And then, wherever we’ve found the tumor, we will track that area with scans over time. And, it gets a little complicated for a patient that was found with what we call early-stage disease. So, stage I or II. Many of the times, those patients can have surgery and then we don’t have any tumor we can follow anymore. But we get CT scans to look to see if it could have come back. For patients with more advanced disease, so, stage III that couldn’t have surgery or stage IV, there we have areas that we’re going to continue to follow with the scans. And which scans and how often is going to depend a lot on what treatment the patient’s on and where the tumors are located that we’re tracking.

Katherine:                  

Do the.se tests differ for small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer patients? And, I know that non-small cell lung cancer is also known as NSCLC.

Dr. Wakelee:              

Yes. So, long ago, the only distinction we had with lung cancer was that small cell versus non-small cell, and that is something that is seen under the microscope when that tissue is taken out from the biopsy. The pathology doctors look at it under the microscope, and the cells look different. And, the small cell lung cancer, those cells are small. It’s not very creative naming. And then, everything else is non-small cell or NSCLC. So, it’s SCLC and NSCLC. So, that was one of the first distinctions.

And, it is still very important because the chemotherapy drugs that we use are slightly different. And, the genetic, those gene mutations, we see them in any cancer. That’s what makes a cancer different from the rest of the body. But in small cell lung cancer, the tumor mutations that we see are not things that we know how to target specifically. In non-small cell, there are targets that we can target specifically for some patients.

So, just there, it’s different in having the targeted pill drugs in non-small cell, not so much in small cell. With immune therapy, those newer immune therapy IV drugs, they can work in both small cell and non-small cell. But for small cell, the biomarkers, that PD-L1 level is not as important for helping us figure out who’s going to benefit. For non-small cell, with many of the drugs, it is important. So, there are differences there.

Katherine:                  

Well, let’s go a little deeper. And, you did mention some of this already, Dr. Wakelee, but what is genomic or biomarker testing?

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, we are struggling with how to have one unifying way of describing it because it’s so complicated. So, to me, biomarker testing is any aspect of the tumor that helps us choose the best treatment for that patient. And so, it’s a very broad term. And, within biomarker testing, there are several different ways that we look at it.

So, one is to look at what proteins are on the cell’s surface. And, we do that by having stains that we use to stain the tissue. So again, complicated, but when a piece of tissue is taken out of the person, part of the tumor is removed. It’s sliced into little tiny slices, which are then put on glass slides that can be looked at under the microscope. And, that’s how the pathology doctors can look and see, “Ah, this looks like cancer,” or, “It doesn’t look like cancer.” When it does look like cancer, you can then put on stains, so basically, different colored antibodies that will light up if that particular protein is there. And so, that helps us figure out for sure that this started in the lung because there are specific proteins that are only found in lung. So, that’s one way we used it, and this is an older technology. But, we also can use that to look for how much of this PD-L1 protein is expressed. And so, that’s an important biomarker, but it’s not based on genomics, which is when we’re talking about the DNA.

 Then, we have the genomic testing, and that’s when we’re looking at the genome of the tumor and how that genome is different. And, that’s that DNA or RNA testing. We talk about it with the next-gen sequencing. So, “sequencing,” any of those terms are all meaning we’re looking at some aspect of what makes the tumor genes and therefore the proteins made by the tumor different than the rest of the genes in the person.

And so, that testing, that genomic testing can be done on either the tumor specimen or that’s where we can do blood tests that will be able to pull out those bits of the DNA that are from the tumor versus from the person and help us figure out what’s going on with the cancer. So, when we talk about biomarkers, the whole picture, and when I’m talking with patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer, we talk about well, there’s chemotherapy treatment, which is good for almost everybody. There is targeted therapy.

Targeted therapy is usually based on those genomic tests, and the genomic tests can be done either on the tissue or on blood. But, they’re really important to have a full understanding of the tumors to do a comprehensive or next-gen sequencing analysis of the tumor or DNA. And then, you have the immune therapy where that PD-L1 biomarker is important. So, that’s the way I think about it, and the biomarkers are really critical for helping us figure out what’s the best path forward for any individual patient.

Katherine:                  

Let’s turn to treatment, Dr. Wakelee. On a basic level, what are the goals of treatment for lung cancer?

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, with lung cancer, we’d love to cure everybody, that’s the ultimate goal, and do it in a way where people are able to continue living their life as they were before the cancer diagnosis. The ways that we do it, first of all, we’ve got to find the cancer, and that’s where screening is such an important aspect of things. If we can find the cancer at an earlier stage, we’re more likely to be able to cure someone.

So, what do I mean by “earlier stage?” Well, when a tumor first develops, usually, there is a single cell that develops a mutation, meaning a change in the gene, which gives that cell an advantage so it doesn’t die the way it’s supposed to. And then, it keeps growing, and dividing, and making new cells. And those over time get to a large enough size that they are the cancer. And given more time, those cancer cells start to spread into other parts of the body, usually first into what we call the lymph nodes, and from there then into other organs in the body. And this stage refers to health or how the cancer spread. So, the stage I cancer is still in that ball of cancer. Stage II means that it’s spread into some lymph nodes. Stage III is it spread into more lymph nodes, usually in the center part of the chest or mediastinum, and that’s where it starts to be much more difficult for the surgeons to be able to truly remove all of the cancer.

And then stage IV means that the cancer is not something that we’re going to be able to remove with surgery. It’s spread either within the lung to the lining of the lung or it has spread to other organs in the body. And so, when we talk about those stages that I, II, III, IV, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But, I think for most people, if they just think about it as stage I, just the cancer, stage II, lymph nodes and the lungs, stage III, lymph nodes in the center, and then stage IV, elsewhere, that’s a good way to kind of wrap your head around it.

And when we talk about stage I and II, that’s the truly early stage where we hope to be able to cure people with surgery. Surgery alone is enough for the majority of people with stage I cancer, and for maybe half, a little more than half of people with stage II. So, how can we be better than that? Well, that’s where there’s been a lot of new advances. So, adding chemotherapy after surgery can help a lot of stage II patients.

If the tumor genomic testing biomarkers shows that there’s a mutation called EGFR, we now know that there’s a pill drug that people can take that would prolong the time to when the cancer might come back. And then, just very recently, there was stated that that immune therapy drugs IV can also prolong time to when the cancer comes back and maybe improve cure if the tumor has that biomarker called PD-L1. So, that’s that early stage. So it’s, again, getting more and more complicated and emphasizing that you’ve got to understand the biomarkers of the tumor to know how to best help someone.

When we move to stage III, some have surgery, but when you can’t have surgery, then we do the chemotherapy and the radiation. That’s the key part of the treatment there. And, we also know that immune therapy can be really helpful for a lot of patients when it’s given after the chemo and radiation’s completed. And then for stage IV, I talked about that already, which is you’ve got to do the biomarkers to figure out the best treatments for some people starting with a targeted pill drug is the right thing if their tumor has those right gene mutations.

For other people, immune therapy alone might be an option if the PD-L1 level is very high and they don’t have one of those gene mutations in the tumor. And for a lot of people, chemotherapy or chemotherapy plus immunotherapy is the right strategy.

Katherine:                  

Would you help the audience understand the types of therapy for small cell lung cancer specifically?

Dr. Wakelee:              

Yes. So, small cell still has the same kind of staging, but it’s a little bit more simple. We talk about extensive stage or limited stage. And what that has to do with is we rarely do surgery for small cell. It tends to have spread earlier. There are a few cases where that’s done, but normally, we divide it up into limited or extensive. And when we talk about that, limited is the radiation doctors can get all of the cancer in one radiation field, and then radiation plus chemotherapy is the standard approach to try to cure. If it’s more extensive than that, then it becomes extensive stage.

And, the best treatment are going to be chemotherapy plus those immune therapy drugs added together.

And so, the chemotherapy drugs that we use for non-small cell and small cell, the platinum drugs play a role in all of it. The drug we partner is a little bit different. There’s a drug etoposide we use a lot in small cell and a lot of other options for non-small cell. And then, the immune therapy drugs, there are a lot of options that are fairly similar for both small cell and for non-small cell. 

Katherine:                  

Dr. Wakelee, you mentioned targeted therapies. How do they work?

Dr. Wakelee:               

Targeted therapies are something we can use when we find a specific gene mutation in the tumor. So, I mentioned before that in order for a cancer cell to become cancer, something has to happen to the DNA in the cell.

And, there’s a change or a mutation in the DNA of the cell which leads it to be a cancer. And, a lot of the time, that mutation happens in a specific kind of gene that makes a type of protein called a tyrosine kinase. And for those of you who haven’t studied a lot of science, it’s a word you might not have heard before. But basically, these tyrosine kinases are proteins in the body that make a lot of changes to what’s going on in the rest of the cell. So, they’re sort of what we call regulators. And, one way of thinking about them is like on and off switches. So, normally, their job is to sit and if the right molecule comes around, that turns it on, and then it turns on other proteins in the cell. And if that molecule isn’t there, it’s turned off. So, it’s this on and off switch that does a lot of other aspects of what’s going on in the cell. But, sometimes, a mutation happens. It turns it on all the time. So, it’s like if you leave the light on.

It’s on all the time, that’s using a lot of energy, and that’s actually what’s driving the cell to act like a cancer. And so, we can now look for some of those mutations that turn some of these tyrosine kinases on all the time. But, we’ve also developed drugs that we can use to turn them off. So, if we find this specific gene mutation that’s turning, say, the EGFR protein on all the time, if we find that, we can have the patient take a pill that then turns that off.

And that helps the cancer slow down, some of it die, some of the cancer cells die, but it doesn’t completely wipe it out. It helps the patient for a long time though by shrinking the cancer, helping them feel better because the symptoms are gone, keeping the cancer from growing. But, cancer cells are clever. They continue to divide, they can continue to make new mutations, and eventually, they figure out ways around that. So, when we talk about targeted therapy, it’s a setting where we find the cancer.

In the cancer, we find the gene mutation, it’s in one of these specific types of proteins, genes that make specific protein that turn something on that we can then turn off, and with those pill drugs, we can have a big impact for people.

Katherine:                  

And, what exactly is immunotherapy?

Dr. Wakelee:              

Immunotherapies are treatments that were used to help keep the immune system more active.

So, the immune system is a very complex mechanism. There are cells that their whole job is to figure out and find things that are not us. So, they are looking for bacteria, they’re looking for cells that have a virus in them, and when they find it, they attack. And, that attack can be in the form of antibodies, it can be cells that actually go in and attack other cells directly, and we are all familiar a little bit with the immune system because we know that if we get a cold, our body, we can get a fever, that’s part of our immune response, and we get better. And then, some people know the bad side of the immune system if they have allergies or certain autoimmune diseases where the immune system gets a little bit too revved up and starts to recognize normal things as foreign.

So, in the setting of cancer, normally, the immune system is able to recognize a cancer cell, see that it’s different from the rest, and get rid of it. But, cancer cells are clever and they figure out ways to evade the immune system. And, one of the ways they do this is they put a protein called PD-L1. So, PD-L1 is a protein that a lot of our normal cells use to say, “Just a normal cell. Ignore me.” And so, when an immune cell comes in and sees that, it gets turned off it goes away. So, what our immune therapies do is most of them are blocking that PD-L1 protein. And, when they do that, it’s sort of like taking away the stop sign. So, you’ve got a tumor using a stop sign to say, “Go away, immune cell,” you block it so the immune cells can’t see that stop sign, and so then it kills the cancer cell better. So, that’s how these drugs work, and that’s the immune therapy.

There are some other stop signs besides PD-1 and PD-L1, but that’s the most common. So, when we’re talking about immune therapy, it’s drugs that block that. So, they increase the ability for the immune cell to recognize cancers. The risk from them is that you can get the body to recognize normal tissue as a problem sometimes. So, that’s the toxicity that we watch for.

Katherine:                  

Right. What are the advantages of these new treatment approaches compared to standard chemotherapy?

Dr. Wakelee:              

Well, I think the most exciting news that we’ve seen in lung cancer over the last few years is that we’re actually helping more people live longer. And the way that we’re doing that is through these newer treatments. So, when we can personalize treatment by recognizing that a person’s cancer has a specific gene mutation and we can give them the right targeted pill drug, we can help them live longer and feel better because those often have fewer side effects. Wish I could say they were curing the disease, but they’re helping people live longer.

And, that can be measured in years for some folks, which is fantastic. And then, with immune therapy, again, they’re not working for everybody, but they were for a large number of patients with lung cancer with non-small cell to help them live longer with their cancer controlled. And so, we’ve actually improved the overall survival rates for lung cancer with these new developments. Where we can make even more of an impact is also by finding more of the cancers earlier, and that’s where cancer screening is so important also. So, by having more choices, chemotherapy can still help a lot of people. Targeted therapies can help probably close to 20, 30, 40 percent of people with non-small cell lung cancer that’s the adenocarcinoma type. And then, the immune therapies can help other people living with lung cancer. Usually immune therapies don’t work on the same tumors the way the targeted pills work. So, you’re kind of getting at different groups of people with those different strategies. It’s not completely true, but it’s a kind of general principle about it.

Katherine:                  

What about side effects for some of these treatment choices?

Dr. Wakelee:               

So, chemotherapy is one people fear the most, but I think it has a bit more of a bad reputation than it needs. A lot of the lung cancer therapies that are chemotherapy can be reasonably tolerated. I mean, I’m not signing up to go get chemotherapy just because. There definitely are side effects. The biggest one is people get fatigue, get really tired. Though, if they’re feeling horrible because of the cancer, a lot of times people feel dramatically better. But, tiredness, it can impact appetite a little bit, though cancer does that also. There can be nausea, vomiting, but we’re much better at controlling that with the newer drugs. Some cancer therapies cause hair loss, but a lot of our non-small cell lung cancer therapies don’t cause hair loss. So, there are a lot of options there you can talk about with your doctor. And then, when the blood counts are low, there can be risk for infection, low red blood cells with anemia.

So, there are a lot of different things. But in general, chemotherapy is better tolerated than people think it’s going to be because in the movies, they make it look horrendous.

With the pill therapies, again, lots of variability depending on the specific pill. Some of them cause rash. Some don’t. Some of them can cause some changes to the heart that we have to monitor with EKGs, electrocardiograms, some don’t. Some cause some changes to labs like for liver tests that we have to monitor. Some don’t. Some cause hair color changes. Some don’t. It’s always to gray, unfortunately.

So, there are a lot of different variations in what different treatments can do. And so, it’s just really important if your doctor is talking with you about starting one of the targeted pill drugs that you really ask what are the side effects I need to be watching for, what are the ones I need to know to call you about, and which are the ones I just know, “Okay, this is happening and it’s okay. It’s going to cause swelling in the ankles,” no, just a huge range of them. And then, with the immune therapy drugs, they tend to be mostly fatigue, just like with chemotherapy, though some people feel fine.

What we have to watch for is that they can cause what we call autoimmunity. So, it’s talking about the fact that the way they work is they help the immune system better recognize the cancer, and they do that by taking away one of the stop signals. But, that stop signal, the PD-1, PD-L1, that stop signal is also used by a lot of normal cells to tell the immune system to back off. So, when you remove it, when you block it, the immune system can get confused and start to attack normal cells. So, you can get a rash, people can end up with gut symptoms like diarrhea, they also can end up with it attacking the lungs and causing what we call a pneumonitis lung inflammation or brain symptoms, so, almost anything. Now, those are rare, and we can treat them with steroids. But, people need to be aware that if something new is happening, they need to alert their doctor. I think sometimes, there’s this false impression that immune therapy is completely safe, but, it’s not. And, all of the treatments that I’m talking about are designed to help people live better and live longer when they’re dealing with lung cancer, but they all also have risk.

And so, it’s just really important to have those discussions with the care team as you’re starting something new about what are the things I need to be watching for and to know how to reach people if you’ve got a new and concerning symptom, especially if you’re starting on something new.

Katherine:                  

That’s all really helpful information. Thank you, Dr. Wakelee. We have a question that we received from an audience member earlier. Jeff asks, “How do you know if your lung cancer treatment is working?”

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, there are a lot of ways of knowing if treatment is helping. So, the one I rely on the most is, “Does the patient overall feel better?” That is difficult to say exactly how. Sometimes people are having breathing problems; they feel that that’s better. Sometimes their energy’s lower. They feel better. It can be vague. We also use scans. So, we tend to get scans, depending on the treatment we’re giving, every couple of months plus or minus, sometimes, every three months to help track what’s actually going on. But occasionally, there are discrepancies.

So, sometimes, the scan, is it better? Is it not better? Can’t really tell. And then, you’re always taking that, “How does the patient feel?” So, usually, if the scans are better, the patient feels better. It’s easy. Usually if the patient’s feeling worse and the scan looks worse, clear decision. Not a good one, but clearly, we need to do something different. But sometimes, you’re left, and especially this happens with the first scan because you get a scan, it takes a little while, you start the new treatment, then you get the next scan, how much of the changes happened before you started the new one and how much didn’t? So, these can be more challenging conversations, but generally if the patient’s feeling a little bit better, the scan’s unclear, we usually say, “You know, let’s give this treatment a little bit more time.” We also, I think your question was specifically around how do we tell if it’s working, but, you also often need to be thinking about, “Well, what’s it doing that’s negative to the person and is that potential, those side effects worth the benefits we are or are not seeing?”

So, it’s kind of all of those things together. It can be a bit complex.

Katherine:                  

What goes into the decision to change therapies if it becomes necessary?

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, when we’re thinking about making a change, the way I always look at it is, is where we are today still okay or not? And, if it’s not, that would be because clearly the cancer’s growing or clearly the side effects are just not tolerable. Then, we decide together with the patient we need to do something different. And, when we think about what do we do next, we look at what have we’ve already done, did it work or not, if not, let’s do something more different. And so, let’s think about something that might be somewhat similar. When we’re dealing with targeted therapies, we have ways to try to figure out what changed in the tumor that made it now resistant or not working with that treatment. And so, with some of the pill drugs, there’s been a lot of research and understanding how does the tumor change that helps it evade, get away from, be resistant to whatever treatment you’re on.

And then, sometimes, we have other pill drugs that work in that particular setting, not always. With immune therapy, we’re trying to better understand why does the immune therapy stop working? Sometimes you can add back to it, like, you can add chemotherapy back to immune therapy alone or sometimes you can do radiation with immune therapy to get that response back. Or, add other combinations to it. So, that’s another thing that we’re working on. And then, like I said, if someone hasn’t ever had chemotherapy and the tumor’s become resistant, we’re going to be thinking a lot about chemo because that can play a role against so many different reasons that the cancer might not be responding to whatever treatments someone’s on. And then also, looking at how the patient’s feeling and doing, what their overall what we call “performance status, ” their sort of overall health, and how well do we feel with them that they’re going to be able to tolerate the next treatment because, you’re always having to weigh how much is this likely to help, and how might this harm in finding the right balance.

Katherine:                  

I’d be remiss if I did not bring up COVID-19, and, I’m sure a lot of patients are curious whether the vaccine is safe and effective.

Dr. Wakelee:              

So, we do believe the vaccine is safe and effective for patients living with lung cancer, and really important to be protected as much as possible. I was part of a group of other physicians around the world looking at the impact of COVID-19 on patients living with lung cancer. And, we collaborated with a group of physicians, Rayna Garcina was the lead. She was living in northern Italy at the time of the first wave, and so, was really face-to-face with it early on when there was so much we didn’t know. And, she gathered a group of us to watch and see, and what we were able to figure out before the vaccine was available was that people living with lung cancer who were overall healthy still except for their cancer were perhaps on a pill, targeted therapy, or immune therapy seemed to really not have that different of an impact compared to people who didn’t have lung cancer.

Chemotherapy was a little bit harder to see that, but didn’t seem to be such a big issue. It’s different than people living with, say, leukemias or lymphomas where the treatments are impacting their immune systems even more. They seem to have worse outcomes. A lot of lung cancer patients were okay, but still, it’s a higher risk. And so, we want to protect our patients as much as possible.

So, we are, now that we have the vaccines, strongly advocating vaccines for any patient who was living with cancer really for almost anybody because as a physician, we really think that makes a big impact. We have not seen any negative impacts of the vaccine on any aspect of cancer treatment. It does not have a negative impact on how well the cancer is treated by the therapies. We did notice that when someone gets the vaccine, they can get some enlargement of the lymph nodes. That’s part of having an immune response is your lymph nodes get enlarged. And so, we did get a bunch of scans that the vaccines came out showing, “Well, this person has some lymph nodes in the axilla, which is the armpit.”

And it seemed to be correlating with the side that someone had a vaccine. And then, those go away. And, this was actually an interesting medical literature thing because for people getting screened with mammograms for breast cancer, there were suddenly all these lymph nodes showing up. But that was actually a sign that the person was responding to the vaccine and it went away over time. And, it was a fine thing. It was just – I remember the first patient I had where that happened, we’re like, “Oh, well, that makes sense. Okay.” So, it’s okay. So, it was not cancer. It was just the immune response. But, yeah, so, we are recommending vaccines. There’s no data showing it is not working for lung cancer patients. The vaccines are less effective in people getting certain types of cancer treatment that are really suppressing the immune system. But even some response is better than none, and we’re still recommending the patients really do their best to stay safe with masks and things like that.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Wakelee, what are you excited about in lung cancer research right now? And, what do you want to leave the audience with? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Wakelee:              

I’m very hopeful. When I started treating lung cancer patients 20 years ago, we only had chemotherapy. And now, for metastatic disease, with using the right biomarkers, we can figure out so much more about the cancer to be able to personalize the treatment, for many patients, being able to offer pill therapies that are somewhat less toxic and highly active and give people more time. And now, we’re in the immune therapy revolution, which is helping a whole other group of patients living with lung cancer to be able to live with quality life for much longer. And the pace of discovery is just going up so quickly. And, I think that’s what I’m most hopeful about is just how much attention is being paid on lung cancer and finding better therapies that are going to help more people for a longer period of time. And again, I’m going to emphasize the screening is making a big difference also. If we can find the disease early, we can have an even bigger impact on people.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Wakelee, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Wakelee:              

Thank you. Really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you.

Katherine:                   

And thank you to all of our partners.

To learn more about lung cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us today.

Why Should You Ask Your Doctor About Prostate Cancer Genetic Testing?

Why Should You Ask Your Doctor About Prostate Cancer Genetic Testing? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Why is it genetic testing important when it comes to prostate cancer care? Learn how test results could reveal more about YOUR prostate cancer and may indicate that one treatment may be more effective than another.

See More From INSIST! Prostate Cancer

Related Resources

How Does Genetic Testing Impact Prostate Cancer Care?

Treatment Options for Advanced Prostate Cancer

What Is a Prostate Cancer Genetic Mutation?


Transcript:

Why should you ask your doctor about genetic testing?

The test results may predict how your prostate cancer will behave and could indicate that one type of treatment may be more effective than another type.

Genetic testing identifies specific gene mutations, proteins, chromosomal abnormalities, and/or other molecular changes that are unique to YOU and YOUR prostate cancer.

There are two main types of genetic tests used in prostate cancer:

  • Germline or hereditary genetic testing, which is conducted via blood or saliva and identifies inherited gene mutations in the body. Germline mutations are present from birth and can be shared among family members and passed on to subsequent generations. Results can identify whether you could be at risk for another type of cancer or if your family members may need genetic counseling and testing to guide their own cancer risk.
  • The second is somatic or tumor genetic testing, which is performed through testing tumor tissue or by testing cancer cells/DNA extracted from blood to identify gene mutations that are unique to the cancer itself. It is also commonly referred to as genomic testing, biomarker testing, or molecular profiling. Somatic mutations are NOT inherited and are NOT passed on to subsequent generations or shared among family members.
  • Depending on your history, your doctor may order one–or both–of these types of tests.

So why do the test results matter?

Both germline and somatic mutation testing can identify the presence of certain genetic mutations that may help to guide your treatment plan, and germline testing specifically can inform cancer risk for you and, potentially, family members.

  • In some cases, mutations can indicate that a newer approach, such as targeted therapy or immunotherapy, may work better for you.
  • Results of these tests may also help you to find a clinical trial that may be appropriate for your particular cancer.
  • And, genetic testing results could also show that your cancer has a mutation or marker that may prevent a certain therapy from being effective, sparing you from getting a treatment that won’t work well for you.

How can make sure you have had essential biomarker testing?

  • First, always speak up and ask questions. Remember, you have a voice in YOUR prostate cancer care.
  • Ask your doctor if you have had or will receive genetic testing, including germline and somatic testing, and how the results may impact your care and treatment plan.
  • Ask whether your family members should meet with a genetic counselor or undergo testing to help gauge their risk of developing prostate cancer.
  • And, finally, bring a friend or a loved one to your appointments to help you process and recall information.

To learn more about your prostate cancer and to access tools for self-advocacy, visit powerfulpatients.org/prostatecancer

Which Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know

Which Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What do you need to know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR metastatic breast cancer? Expert Dr. Jane Meisel reviews recent research news, discusses the role of key tests–including biomarker testing –in determining a treatment plan, and shares advice for self-advocacy.

Jane Lowe Meisel, MD is an Associate Professor of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Meisel, here.

[Editor’s Note: On August 23, 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for individuals 16 years of age and older.]

Download Program Guide

See More From INSIST! Metastatic Breast Cancer

Related Resources:

 

What Could Advances in Breast Cancer Research Mean for You?

How Can You Advocate for the Best Breast Cancer Care?

Factors That Guide a Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Decision

 


Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. In today’s webinar, we’ll discuss how you can access the most personalized metastatic breast cancer therapy for your individual disease and why it’s vital to insist on key testing. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few more important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials.

If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during the webinar. At the end of this program, you’ll receive a link to a program survey. Please take a moment to provide feedback about your experience today, in order to help plan future webinars. And finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember, this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team – Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you.

All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining us is Dr. Jane Meisel. Dr. Meisel, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely and thank you so much for having me. My name is Jane Meisel and I’m a medical oncologist at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. I’ve been here for about six years and before that, I did my training in Boston and at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York. And I specialize in breast cancer and have had a lot of great opportunities to treat amazing patients and participate in a lot of research.

And I’m looking forward to having this discussion with you today.

Katherine:

Thank you for joining us, we really appreciate it. So, let’s start by discussing the latest developments in treatment and research updates. Are there recent developments you feel breast cancer patients should know about?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely and I think it’s really been such a remarkable time because even during COVID, a pandemic, where I think a lot of people worried that research efforts would shut down or stall. We’ve still seen the approval of a number of drugs in the past year that’ve really already markedly changed lives. And a lot of important findings that’ve come out of other trials that they have opportunity to do that as well.

I think some of the biggest information that was presented at our most recent large meeting, which was the American Society of Clinical Oncology, or ASCO National Meeting in 2021, were a few things that pertain to the metastatic breast cancer population. One was two studies, the PALOMA-3 Trial and the MONALEESA-3 Trial, which looked at a class of drugs called CDK4-6 inhibitors along with anti-estrogen pills in metastatic estrogen-positive breast cancer.

And really confirm for patients that not only do these drugs improve the amount of time that people can stay on treatment before their cancer progresses, but actually improve how long people live. Even when they’re used very, very early on in treatment, they impact survival down the line for many, many years. So, it really confirms for physicians like me that this class of drugs should be used as the standard of care and first line for patients with estrogen-positive stage IV breast cancer, and I think that’s important for patients to know. Along those lines, there a drug called sacituzumab govitecan, or Trodelvy, which is a much easier to say name.

Katherine:

Yes.

Dr. Meisel:

A new antibody drug conjugate in triple-negative metastatic breast cancer. And we’ve also seen, since this drug was approved last year, it has markedly changed the lives of many patients with triple-negative disease. And the study called the ascent trial, which is what led to that drug’s approval was studied further and some of these additional results presented at ASCO this year.

And found that this drug not only improves again, how long people get before they have to move on to another treatment, but actually improves how long people live as well, even when given later on in the course of therapy. So again, really encouraging use especially in triple-negative metastatic disease, which is hard to treat. And I think another study that’s really worth patients and doctors taking a hard look at, was actually a study that looked at patient outcomes and patient experience. This is a study that actually talked with metastatic patients and gathered their views on treatment related adverse effects.

Talked to patients about what adverse effects they were experiencing from drugs. How they managed those adverse effects. And found that most patients, over 90%, will be willing to talk about reducing the dose of drugs or changing dosing schedules, in order to improve quality of life. And I think that’s really important because a lot of times, the doses of drugs that get approved are the doses that are the highest doses that don’t cause extreme toxicity. But sometimes people can have effective, really good outcomes on lower doses and have much better quality of life.

And in metastatic breast cancer where really the goal often times is to help people live as long as they can, but also as importantly, as well as they can, be able to have those open-ended conversations between patients and doctors about what’s really impacting your quality of life now and how can we make that better is important. And this study I think really highlighted that both for patients and physicians, how important that back and forth is to having a successful outcome. Both in terms of how life is lived, but in terms of quality of that life.

Katherine:

Right. Right. How can patients stay up to date on developing research?

Dr. Meisel:

It’s so interesting because there is so much coming out and I think it can be hard to figure out what Phase I study that looks exciting is really going to become something, versus what really could be important in my treatment today. And what I always tell people is actually, the NCI website. So, the National Cancer Institute, has a phenomenal page looking at advances in breast cancer research. So, if you Google “NCI advances in breast cancer research,” there’s a great page that comes up. And it’s impressively up to date and I think very patient-friendly.

Breaks things down into early stage and metastatic and then in the metastatic section, talks about estrogen-positive, HER2-positive, triple-negative, which we can talk about more today but are the three big subtype of metastatic disease that dictate how we treat them. And then have links to all the different research updates and talk about what these drugs are, what the classes are and what the settings are in which they’re studied.

And so, I think that’s a really great first stop and then the links can take you to all different stuff that’s on the page that you might want to look into more in depth. And then also, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which is a phenomenal organization. They have a great website, too and if you click around on the website, you can see not only who they’ve donated money to that’s doing promising research, they also have podcasts, they have a blog with science and research news. I think that’s a really great site for patients to use to stay updated.

Katherine:

Let’s shift gears for a moment and talk about another time sensitive topic, COVID. Now that vaccines are available, are they safe and effective for breast cancer patients?

Dr. Meisel:

Yeah, I think the short answer to that is yes, absolutely. I’m encouraging all my patients, no matter what their treatment status is to go ahead and get vaccinated. And we are seeing now this third surge in COVID with cases rising all over the country, and really among unvaccinated populations. And with the delta variant being more transmissible, I think it’s all the more time, even if you haven’t considered vaccination up until now, to really go ahead and strongly consider getting a vaccine.

I think some of the hesitations that some of the people have talked to me about is that there were not a lot of active cancer patients, if any, included in the initial trials. And whereas that is true, it’s still the case that now, so many cancer patients have been vaccinated. We haven’t really heard about adverse effects in vaccination being something that’s higher in patients who have cancer who are on active treatment. I think the one challenge is, if you have a compromised immune system because of cancer treatment, there’s the possibility that you might not mount the same immune response to the vaccine as someone who doesn’t have cancer or isn’t getting active treatment.

So, while I would say yes, definitely get vaccinated, I would also at the same time encourage caution in saying, because you might not mount the same, 95 percent or whatever immune response, it may still be a good idea to wear a mask when you go to the grocery store, taking those precautions because no one really knows what’s coming and it’s better to be safe than sorry. But I think we will get a lot of information as the months go on about, do we need boosters? Who might need boosters more soon than others and some of that will get clarified for us, but my short answer would be yes, vaccines for all.

Katherine:

Excellent, that’s very helpful.

Dr. Meisel:

Thank you.

Katherine:

Since this webinar is focused on metastatic disease, would you define metastatic breast cancer for us?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely. And I think metastatic breast cancer is one of those terms that as doctors, we throw around a lot and often times don’t stop to check understanding as to what that means.

And what metastatic breast cancer is and means, is breast cancer that is spread outside of the breast and surrounding lymph nodes to another organ system. So, metastatic breast cancer, some of the most common places where it spreads are to the bone, to the skin, to the lungs, to the liver, to the brain. There are other places it can spread to. I’ve seen it on the ovaries, in the GI tract. But basically, when breast cancer spreads outside of the breast and surrounding lymph nodes to another organ system, that’s when we consider it metastatic.

Katherine:

How can a patient ensure they are getting an accurate diagnosis?

Dr. Meisel:

Another good question. And I think the most important thing when you’re considering whether or not you have a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer is to get a biopsy of that metastatic site. So, you wouldn’t want to assume, just based on a CT scan that shows something in the bone that you have metastatic disease. Ideally, we would biopsy that spot or some spot that was indicative of metastatic disease to actually prove that there is metastatic cancer in that distant site.

Because sometimes it’s nothing. Sometimes you get scans and a little bone abnormality, maybe a scar from a prior fall. And then also, sometimes if it is metastatic, sometimes the breast cancer, the hormone receptor status, for example, can change from the primary site to the metastatic site. And that might impact treatment. So, it’s important to both get a metastatic biopsy to confirm diagnosis. And also, to understand what the treatment plan might be. And I think also for patients, just to make sure that you understand what your stage is, ask your doctor.

Say, what is my stage? Because sometimes doctors think people understand and they don’t actually, so checking that understanding is important. But if your doctor or provider is not actively checking your understanding, you can check it with them to make sure that if you are metastatic or have Stage IV disease, which is another way we define metastatic or talk about metastatic cancer, that you make sure you have the definition right.

Katherine:

Right, right. So, once someone has been diagnosed with metastatic disease, are there key tests that’re used to help understand how their disease may behave and progress?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely. So, I think the first thing as I said is that metastatic biopsy. Another thing that’s very important is understanding the hormone receptor status and the HER2 status of the breast cancer. And probably for a lot of you listening, if you have listened to metastatic breast cancer webinars before or maybe know someone or have had a diagnosis yourself, you’re well versed in this. But for some who may not be, I think a quick overview is maybe helpful. Breast cancer can be divided into three different subtypes. So, triple-negative, estrogen-positive or HER2-positive. And estrogen-positive breast cancer is the most common kind.

That tends to be driven by hormones and often treated with what we call, endocrine therapy. So, anti-estrogen pills, things like Tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors are examples of that. And that’s one kind. And then there’s HER2-positive breast cancer, which is a type of breast cancer that over expresses a marker called HER2. And we now, since we know about that marker, have been able to develop a lot of different treatments that target HER2 selectively.

And can be used to treat that subtype. And then triple-negative is basically estrogen-negative, progesterone-negative and HER2-negative. And that type of breast cancer traditionally was treated essentially only with chemotherapy. But now we’ve had some breakthroughs, which we’ll talk about I think later in this program talking about immunotherapy and more targeted therapy for that. But those subtypes help determine how we treat patients. And it also can sometimes predict behavior.

I would say one of the other things that helps us predict behavior of metastatic disease is, if a patient had early-stage disease before, how quickly they developed metastatic disease. So, for example, someone who develops estrogen-positive metastatic breast cancer 12 years out from their original diagnosis is statistically more likely to have a slower progressing course of disease than someone who develops triple-negative metastatic disease very soon after their initial treatment. So, I would say that’s the primary thing we look at in terms of determining treatment plan and then predicting overall course.

Katherine:

Right. Well, let’s talk about treatment options for advanced disease.

Can you review the types of treatments available for metastatic breast cancer?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely. And what I’ll do is, I’ll give you a broad overview and then because there’s so much and this is such a rich environment, I mean, I give hour long lectures just about the treatment of metastatic triple-negative breast cancer to our fellows. So, there is so much meaty information here. But I’ll give an overview with some key buzzwords so then people can go look up things that matter more to them or interest them more. So, as I said, we start with thinking about, is this hormone receptor-positive or estrogen-positive breast cancer? Is this HER2-positive or is this triple-negative? And those factors really send us down different paths.

So, if someone is estrogen-positive, I had mentioned before the PALOMA and MONALEESA studies showing that CDK4-6 inhibitors, which is a class of drugs that the first one was approved in 2015 and then two others have been approved subsequently. So, relatively new drugs. But those drugs, which are pills, added to traditional anti-estrogen therapy which would be aromatase inhibitors or fulvestrant.

Are often great first-line options for these patients. And people can do well for years on just that alone, with estrogen-positive metastatic breast cancer. On average, about two years before people progress and need something new. And then after that, there are lots of trials ongoing looking at different ways in which an estrogen-positive breast cancer might progress on that regiment and how do we target that. So that there are multiple other anti-estrogen options down the line that people can use in estrogen-positive breast cancer before they need to even think about going on to something like chemotherapy.

So, really lots and lots of options for those patients, but probably starting with a CDK4-6 inhibitor plus anti-estrogen combination. And then in HER2-positive breast cancer, typically the first-line treatment would be what we call monoclonal antibodies directed at HER2. So, something like Herceptin and Perjeta, which you may have heard of. And often combined with chemotherapy. But again, this is one of those areas that is also very, I think the art of medicine is very important and patient dependent.

Some of these regiments depend a little bit on patient’s age and other medical problems and desires, whether to include chemotherapy along with that frontline anti-HER2 regimen. Or whether to think about something like anti-estrogen therapy if the patient is HER2-positive and estrogen-positive. And then there are a lot of other different things we’re also using in HER2-positive disease after patients progress on that initial therapy, so there are what we call, antibody drug conjugates, where a chemotherapy like drug is attached to an antibody that then brings the chemo to the HER2-positive cell and allows for chemotherapy penetration more directly.

And then a class of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors, which are oral drugs that get directed at HER2. So, another really exciting area to treat and a place where we’ve seen so many advances. And then in triple-negative breast cancer, I’d mentioned that chemotherapy has really been the mainstay of treatment historically because there weren’t great targets. But recently we’ve seen that immunotherapy, along with chemotherapy drugs like Keytruda, which you may have heard of.

Or atezolizumab, which is Mesenteric, can be used along with chemo and patients that overexpress a molecule called, PDL1. And that can actually include not just how long patients spend on the first treatment, but how long they live. So, we’re seeing a lot of triple-negative patients being great candidates for immune-based regimen now. And then for patients who have inherited a BRCA gene mutation, which many of you may have heard of. That gene mutation can actually predispose a triple-negative patient to be more receptive to a class of drugs called PARP inhibitors.

So, drugs like olaparib (Lynparza) or talazoparib (Talzenna) are new drugs that’ve been approved in the last couple of years in triple-negative metastatic breast cancer for patients who carry a BRCA1 mutation or BRCA2 mutation. And then there are also antibody drug conjugates in triple-negative breast cancer as well. The Trodelvy that’s been approved and then of course others that are in clinical trials currently. So, as you can see, it’s complex. I mean, the treatment of metastatic breast cancer is complicated. And so, it’s important I think to really be able to have a dialogue with your provider about what they’re recommending for you and why.

And I think there are often lots of options. And so, as much as you can make your doctor aware of what matters to you in terms of what side effects are you most afraid of or would you like most to avoid, what dosing schedules would be idea for your schedule for the rest of your life. So that you can deal with taking kids to school or the job that you’re currently working on or whatever, I think helps your doctor help you come up with the right regiment for you.

Katherine:

Yeah. Yeah. So, what factors are considered when deciding on the best treatment approach for an individual patient?

Dr. Meisel:

So, I think certainly the tumor type that we were talking about. Is it estrogen-positive or HER2-negative or HER2-positive? I think response to past treatments, both in terms of if someone has had metastatic disease for a long time and has had a few treatments already, how long did they respond to those treatments and how completely did they respond to those treatments. Did they have stable disease for a while or did their cancer actively shrink?

And then I think other than that, it would be some of the things I touched on. Side effect profiles. Do patients have pre-existing neuropathy from other chemotherapy? If so, maybe you want to avoid a regiment that causes more neuropathy. Schedule. Some patients, it’s really important to be on a certain schedule, as opposed to a different schedule. I think whether there are clinical trials available instead of whatever the standard of care regiment would be is also important.

Because for some patients who are interested in pushing the envelope or who might be a great candidate for a particular trial, if there is one that they’re a candidate for that’s not horribly inconvenient from a logistics standpoint, then trials I think are also a great option to consider. So, I think from an effectiveness standpoint, you want to think about the tumor type response to past treatments. And then potentially, if the patient has had, what we call genomic profiling, where the tumor has been sent for basically genomic analysis, to see what genes might be mutated in the tumor that could potentially drive a response to a newer, different therapy.

All those things can be taken into account as we think about the cancer. But then there is the patient specific factors, and I think those would be mainly side effects, schedule, clinical trials and desire or not to pursue those. And then, just what the patient’s perspective is on the plan that you’re offering them.

Katherine:

What is biomarker testing and how do results impact treatment options?

Dr. Meisel:

Great question. So, I think people often confuse germline mutations and somatic mutations. So, I’ll talk about that a little bit as we talk ab out biomarkers. So, I think biomarkers in general are factors within the tumor that allow us to make treatment decisions. So, if a biomarker in the tumor can predict response to a certain type of treatment, we want to know what that biomarker is so we can better treat the patient and more elegantly design a regimen. So, for example, having an estrogen-positive tumor, estrogen positivity is a biomarker suggestive of response to anti-estrogen treatments, which is why we give anti-estrogen therapy to ER-positive breast cancers.

But more recently, we’ve been able to move a little bit beyond estrogen, HER2- and triple-negative as our subtypes and think a little bit more in some patients about more sophisticated biomarkers. And that’s where somatic mutation testing comes in. So, there are germline mutations, which are inherited mutations that’re present in every cell in your body. So, for example, if your mother was a BRCA mutation carrier and based that BRCA mutation down to you, you would have a germline BRCA mutation. So, your cancer would carry a BRCA mutation, but so would every other cell you have.

And that’s a biomarker. That would make you a candidate for something like a PARP inhibitor. But in cancers, which the genes in the cancer have gone awry by definition, there are often other biomarkers within that tumor that may make you a candidate for certain treatments. And so, those mutations that arise in the cancer itself are called, somatic mutations. Those are mutations in the tumor, can’t be passed down to your offspring or anything like that and were not inherited by your parents. But mutations that’ve accumulated over time as these cancer cells have gone awry.

And so, genomic testing, or biomarker testing can be done often on a metastatic specimen. So, to be specific about it, say you had a metastatic breast cancer to the liver. You could have a liver biopsy done and that tissue from the liver biopsy could be sent for genomic testing. There are a lot of companies that do this and there are also some larger cancer centers that actually do in house testing for genomics. So, this testing can be done and what it does then is, it helps you determine, do you have a biomarker that predisposes you to a certain treatment.

So, if that metastatic liver tissues, for example contained high levels of PBL1 expression for example and you were triple-negative, that would say to your doctor, “Ooh, this is a great candidate for immunotherapy along with chemotherapy.” Or if you’re estrogen-positive, for example, and your tumor contains a mutation in the gene called PIK3CA and that might make you a candidate for a drug called, alpelisib (Piqray). So, these mutations could often be paired to a drug or treatment options, or sometimes to a clinical trial to allow patients to come take advantage of more targeted therapies.

That sometimes, because they’re targeted, have fewer side effects than drugs that are a little more discriminate.

Katherine:

Marie sent in this question prior to the program. Are there some genetic tests that’re more accurate than others?

Dr. Meisel:

That’s a good question. I would say most genetic testing platforms have been heavily vetted and approved by national organizations and laboratories that’ve been tested multiple times before they’re allowed to be marketed. So, I wouldn’t say that one genetic testing program is necessarily better than another. I think that any of the commercially available platforms that’re used are probably pretty accurate.

Katherine:

Okay. How does symptom management play into the treatment decision?

Dr. Meisel:

I was just going to add one thing to that, if that’s okay. I was going to say that I think it’s important when you’re using genetic testing platforms though to know what you’re testing for. So, there are some platforms that will just test for say, the three most common mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 that Ashkenazi Jews have.

And so, if you get that testing back and you’re negative, you might think oh, I don’t have a mutation in those genes. Well, we know from that testing, just as an example, is that you don’t have a mutation in those three alleles of that gene. But if you haven’t had full gene sequencing, you could have a mutation somewhere else in that gene. So, I would say all genetic testing that’s commercially available is probably pretty accurate. But it is important when you get testing done to know what you’re testing for and what you’re not testing for so you can interpret your results accurately. And genetic counselors, as well as your doctors can help you do that.

Katherine:

Right, right. Okay, I’m going to ask the question, this question again. How does symptom management play into the treatment decision?

Dr. Meisel:

I think symptom management is huge, because like I said and I tell this to all my patients at the outset of treatment that most of the time, metastatic breast cancer becomes a chronic diagnosis for a patient. You’re dealing with it, essentially like a chronic illness for the rest of your life. And you’re on some form of treatment for the most part, for the foreseeable future.

And so, making sure quality of life is as good as it can be is critically important. And I think symptom management is a huge part of that and we know that if we can treat and manage symptoms well, people can live better and often live longer because then they can stay on treatment for more extensive periods of time comfortably. And so, I always encourage patients, don’t be a martyr.

Don’t think you have to just bounce in here and tell me everything’s okay if it’s not okay. If you’re having symptoms and side effects from treatment, or from the cancer, I want to know about them so that we can really aggressively manage those symptoms just like we’re aggressively managing the cancer. A lot of times oncologists can do that on their own. We are pretty well versed in managing a lot of symptoms and side effects.

But a lot of times also, there are teams of doctors either who do palliative care or here at Emory, we call it supportive oncology where they are specially trained in things like pain management and managing more common side effects like nausea, constipation, diarrhea, appetite suppression, that can go along with cancer and with treatment.

And then they often will co-manage patients with us as well, just to make sure there’s that really strong focus on maintaining as much of a low symptom burden as possible.

Katherine:

So, you mentioned earlier, clinical trials. When should patients consider participating in a trial?

Dr. Meisel:

I think it’s a great question and I think the answer is really, almost any time. There are trials in every setting. So, I think one of the common misconceptions about clinical trials is that you really only should be in a clinical trial, or your doctor might only mention a clinical trial if they don’t have other options for you or if you’re really in stage. And I think that perception is changing. But I think the reality is that there are clinical trials in every setting.

So, we have clinical trails looking at prevention of breast cancer. Clinical trials looking to optimize early-stage treatment of breast cancer. Clinical trials looking at secondary prevention, so once you’ve had breast cancer, how can we reduce your risk of recurrence. And then lots of clinical trials in the metastatic setting both for patients who are initially diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.

And then in second, third, fourth line and even for patients who have had tons and tons of additional therapy that we’re looking at new drugs for. So, I think at almost any juncture where you’re making a treatment change, it’s probably appropriate to say, would there be a clinical trail that you can think of that would be good for me in this setting? And it may be that there’s a one that’s 12 hours away, and it’s not convenient for you or feasible.

And it may be that your doctor doesn’t necessarily know of one but then that prompts them to ask a colleague who may be more involved in clinical trial design and development. Or it may be that there is one, but you ultimately choose not to pursue it because you have a different option. But I think it’s always appropriate to ask, would there be a trail for me? Because if there is, then maybe that opens up an option you hadn’t thought about before.

Katherine:

Sure. For patients who aren’t familiar with the stages of clinical trials, would you give us a brief overview of the stages?

Dr. Meisel:

Yeah. Absolutely. So, in terms of clinical trials that’re being done in humans, we talk about Phase I, Phase II and Phase III typically. So, a Phase II clinical trial is typically an earlier stage trial.

Looking at either a drug that has not been tested in humans before or a drug that has not been tested in a particular combination in humans before. And so, those trials are done only in select institutions, usually academic institutions as opposed to private hospitals. And they often have what’s called a dose finding phase and then a dose escalation phase. So, the earliest part of those trials is actually looking at, what is the safest dose to give to patients?

So, they start the first patients at a low dose of the compound. And if those patients do well, the next patients that’re enrolled get enrolled at a slightly higher dose. And then up until they reach the highest dose they can find where people are tolerating it and doing reasonably well. And in those Phase I trials, doctors and investigators are also evaluating efficacy, is this drug working. But the primary goal of the early phase trial is actually to find the right dose to then study in larger groups. And so, if they find the right dose and there’s good biological rationale for the compound, then the trial would go on to a Phase II.

Which might be just what we call single arm Phase II study, where every patient is getting that experimental drug. And we monitor them to see, is the drug effective, or is it less effective than the standard of care? Or sometimes they’re what we call, randomized Phase II trials where patients are randomized to either get the experimental drug, or to get what the standard of care would be in that situation. I think a lot of people get afraid about the idea of a randomized trial because they’re afraid they’re going to be randomized to a placebo. And that is really not done in the metastatic setting, because it wouldn’t be ethical to give a patient with active cancer a placebo.

So, usually the randomization would be either to the study compound or to a standard of care drug. And then if things look good in a Phase II trial, then a Phase III study is done which is usually what the FDA requires to allow a drug to go on and be administered outside of a study for approval. And those Phase III trials tend to be larger studies that’re done in larger groups of patients with more statistical validity because of their size, to determine, is this drug really better than the standard.

Katherine:

Right. We have another question we received earlier, this one from Eileen. She asks, how will I know whether my treatment is working?

Dr. Meisel:

That’s a really good question. So, I think for patients who have symptoms from their cancer, they often will know the drug is working because their symptoms improve. Say if you have lung metastases and you are short of breath and your shortness of breath gets better. That’s a really good sign that the treatment is working. I would say that often what we are doing, and it depends a little bit on the regimen and what the patient is getting and how often they’re coming in.

But we’re checking labs as well and sometimes there are lab abnormalities when a patient is diagnosed with metastatic cancer that can then improve over time. So, for example, if someone has a heavy burden of bone involvement with breast cancer, there’s a lab value called the alkaline phosphatases that will often be elevated. If that starts elevated and comes down, that’s a really good sign. And some of their liver function tests that we check and if a patient has liver metastases, we often will see those come down if a patient is responding.

There are also, what we call tumor markers that we can check in patients with metastatic breast cancer. Those would be proteins in the blood basically that can be made by the breast cancer in abundance. And those are called CA27-29 and CA15-3. Some doctors check both of them. Some will just check one depending on which one their laboratory at their institution is running. But typically, I will check those at diagnosis of metastatic disease. And then if it’s elevated, I know it’s a good marker to follow for my patient. And then I’ll follow that monthly or every three weeks, depending on when the patient is coming in to see me.

And if I see that marker start to go down, it’s not an absolute, but it can be a good early indicator of improvement with the treatment. And then I think it varies a little bit from practice to practice and based on patient preference. But often there will be scans done when a patient is initially diagnosed to determine the extent of the disease. So, usually a CT scan of the chest and the abdomen and the pelvis or a PET scan, which some of you may have heard of. Either one of those is good.

And that can be done about every 12 weeks usually in the beginning, to make sure a patient is responding and once you feel confident that they are, those can be done sell frequently. So, I would say the scans and the lab work and then the patient’s overall condition are usually the way that we look to see, are we having a response or not.

Katherine:

We’ve talked about several key tests. Some patients may be confused about whether they’ve received these tests. So, what questions should they ask their physician to make sure they’re getting appropriate testing?

Dr. Meisel:

I think it’s probably useful because not everybody needs every test, and I think there are often things you hear about online or from friends or even in a webinar like this, and there may be a good reason why you haven’t had that particular test. So, I wouldn’t assume that if you haven’t had everything that we’ve talked about today even, that someone’s made a mistake or that you need that and aren’t getting it. But I would ask. I think it’s always helpful to know more, knowledge is power. And so, if you have never had a CT scan or a CA27-29 level or a genomic testing.

I think it’s not a bad thing if you’re curious about it, to just ask your treating team, “Hey, I heard about genomic testing, is there a reason I haven’t had that? Or have I had that?” Maybe you have, and they called it something else. I think it is complicated, but I think it helps to understand what you’ve had done and what you haven’t had done. And sometimes, asking about something like that may prompt the team to do things that my benefit you.

Katherine:

Before we wrap up, Dr. Meisel, how do you feel about the future of breast cancer research and what would you like patients to know?

Dr. Meisel:

Yeah, I think one of the most important things and I actually said this to a family this morning where a loved one had received a new diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer is that the field has evolved so much over the past five years. I think often when people get a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, it’s the most dreadful feeling they ever had. They remember that day for the rest of their lives. But we are seeing so many people do so well for so long now and tolerate treatments well because the treatments are better tolerated.

And there’s I think more attention being paid now to symptom management. That people really can do so much better than they’ve been doing. And I would say really, every year, even every six months, when I go to give a lecture on a topic in metastatic breast cancer, I can’t just give the same talk. I’m always having to update my slides because there’s so many new things coming out, so much new research on the table.

And we’re seeing so many new drug approvals now that we’re starting to unlock some of these new mutations and reasons for progression and understanding new drug classes. So, really think it is a bright time to be in breast cancer research, and there’s never been a better time to be a patient if you have to fall into that category.

Katherine:

It all sounds so promising, Dr. Meisel. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Meisel:

You’re so welcome. Thank you for having me.

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners. If you would like to watch this webinar again, there will be a replay available soon. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. Also, don’t forget to take the survey immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan future programs.

To learn more about breast cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit PowerfulPatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell, thanks for joining us.

 

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How Can I Get the Best Lung Cancer Care No Matter Where I Live?

How Can I Get the Best Lung Cancer Care No Matter Where I Live? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can those living with lung cancer ensure they get quality care even if they live in rural areas? How can lung cancer patients gain confidence in voicing treatment concerns and in communicating with their healthcare team? Watch as Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya shares key points about such vital topics for the lung cancer community.

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Transcript:

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Hello and welcome. I’m Dr. Nicole Rochester, your host for today’s Patient Empowerment Network program. Today we’re going to be talking about how long cancer patients can truly get the best care no matter where you and your family live. We’re going to talk about things like how can I remove roadblocks in my care to gain access to state-of-the-art treatment? Will my insurance limit me if I want to get a second opinion? As a care partner, how do I best advocate for my partner, and is a clinical trial right for me? The answers to some of these questions we’ve received revolve around awareness, feeling empowered to ask questions, and connecting to the right resources at the right time. In this program we’ll be learning just that as we meet our guest expert. It is my honor and privilege to be joined by Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya, he is an assistant professor of Thoracic Surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Okusanya. 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you for having me. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Now we’re gonna start with talking about some of the barriers to lung cancer care. We know that there are many factors that can negatively impact outcomes for patients and families facing a lung cancer diagnosis, including things like social stigma for smoking, geographic location, socioeconomic status, insurance and access to care, financial hardships, and access to transportation. So, my first question to you, Dr. Okusanya is, what are some of the barriers that both lung cancer patients and their care partners face when they are seeking care? 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

First of all, thank you very much for putting a spotlight on lung cancer care, we really need more people to help us treat this really terrible disease. 

There are a number of barriers for our patients in order to get the best care possible. Number one, we actually find at diagnosis, we find that a lot of patients have lung nodules that have been seen because maybe they got a chest x-ray or a CAT scan for some other reason, and maybe they don’t get followed up on because they don’t have a steady source of healthcare, they don’t have a PCP or someone who regularly follows up on their health information. We have trouble also sometimes getting patients in the appropriate diagnostic studies that they need, oftentimes, we find patients that may show up in the hospital that have a significant problem and they may need a special kind of CAT scan or a biopsy, and they simply do not have the resources to get to said CAT scan or get to said biopsy, which is critical in making the appropriate diagnosis so we can get them to the right therapy. One of the biggest things that you mentioned is finding a specialist in terms of all aspects of lung cancer care, whether it is surgery, medical oncology, or radiation oncology, there are medical practitioners that mostly specialize in lung cancer care, and because of that, they’re gonna have access to different resources, they’re gonna think differently about the disease process and they’re gonna approach each patient differently because of the disease process So finding someone who really thinks and works in the lung cancer space all the time, I think it’s a barrier to patients getting really good care. 

We also find that one, cancer care has a lot of hurdles, apart from proper CAT scans, biopsies, work-ups, actual interventions, there are a lot of steps that patients have to go, to get from even just getting a diagnosis to getting treatment and having patients move through that period of time, which is we hope usually four to six weeks in a sort of step-by-step manner can be extremely eliminating. So we really are trying to condense those things so patients can meet all the specialists, they need to get all the tests that they need to get in maybe one or two concise visits and then get into care, and lastly, as you mentioned, not having access to what we call multidisciplinary conferences is a limitation because there are more and more nuanced ways that lung cancer is presenting and being treated, that needs to be discussed between a surgeon and radiation oncologists and the medical oncologists, preferably all in the same setting, all at the same time. So having access to those clinics where we can have a really high-level discussion about the best thing to do for a patient, I feel is a significant barrier, especially for our patients with advanced disease. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Thank you so much. Wow, you have given us so much to think about and I appreciate your thorough answer. One of the things that I’m struck with as you talk about all of these steps and the fact that ideally, they need to be undergone within a certain time period, of course, it’s time-sensitive. And you mentioned navigating, and certainly, that’s something that I deal with on a regular basis, just the challenges of navigating through each one of those steps can be extremely difficult, you’ve gone through a lot of the barriers that patients and their family caregivers may face. Let’s talk about some of the solutions. Are there a few solutions that you can suggest for overcoming some of these barriers that you just described? 

 
Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

Yeah, I think from the patient’s perspective, there are a number of things you can do to really help yourself. Number one is a good healthy dose of research, that means getting online, Googling, finding lung cancer experts, preferably in your region, finding out what their interests are, what are the things that they typically research and take care of, and then finding a way to get in contact with them. I think that is really step number one, it’s finding someone who specializes in the disease, and then to find someone that you actually get along, someone who you have a relationship with, a truly therapeutic relationship and invest in that person, and if they’re the right person for you, whether it be personality fit, whether it be background, you will find a relationship with them that will actually help you get through that process. I would also say many programs actually have nurse navigators who are people that help you navigate this process, that is quite literally why they are part of the health system, so if you can find programs and have nurse navigators, they can really be instrumental in setting up appointments that are either overlapped right after one another, all in the same place, things that really help smooth the edges of getting all the work I’ve done at on time. 

And again, I would also recommend the patients, I would try to stack your appointments or stack your visits so that they are not quite so spread out over space and time, because a visit, usually it takes a few days to get a result, which then takes a few days to get a course of action, which then can sometimes provoke another test. 

So, the more times than things are stacked together and information just a get to get in big packets, I think really the better for moving through the process. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester:

I appreciate that. I think what I’m hearing in your answers is really the importance of patients putting themselves in the driver’s seat, which is another thing that I strongly advocate for. I think many patients and family members don’t see that as their role, and they don’t understand and appreciate the value of doing these things that you just talked about, doing your own research and finding providers with whom you connect it’s so incredibly important, especially when it comes to cancer and other serious diseases. So, I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about racial and health disparities, ethnic and health disparities, specifically in lung cancer care. I know that you have done some research in this area, and certainly being a person of color, this is something that I would imagine you relate to, so we know that the CDC and many other healthcare organizations have now declared racism a public health crisis, and certainly in 2021, we continue to see worse outcomes for cancer and many other chronic illnesses in people of color, so I’m curious, what do you think are the notable health disparities that are consistently seen in treating BIPOC patients living with lung cancer? 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

Yeah, unfortunately, this is an area of interest of mine. And it turns out that the disparities are literally every single stage. There’s not an aspect of lung cancer care, which there is not a significant disparity that hinders the ability of minority patients to get better care, period at all stages. So overall survival for lung cancer for black patient is worse than white patients, even though black patients get diagnosed on average two to three years younger than their white counterparts. Black patients are less likely to get surgical therapy for early-stage disease, which is the actual care for an early-stage disease dates than black patients, than white patients, that gap has been narrowing over the last 20 years, but it is by no means closed. Black patients are unfortunately less likely to get an appropriate work-up to get the indicated tests. They are also less likely to get the chemotherapy when it is indicated, and they are less likely to be enrolled in clinical trials. So, literally at every step there is a significant inequity that affects black patients, and I think it’s really disheartening to see in a field where lung cancer is the most common killer and cancer, and frankly, there are lots and lots of patients who have options, who have good options that never get investigated and never get delivered. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

That is extremely heartbreaking, and it’s sad to hear that we see the same disparities in lung cancer that we see with every other chronic condition, with every other cancer, certainly what we’ve seen recently with COVID-19 as well, and it really underscores what you said previously, which is the importance of being an advocate for yourself and doing your research and making sure that you really are getting the best care, which could be difficult when you’re struggling with your cancer diagnosis. Sometimes I get angry, I feel like we’re putting so much responsibility and so much burden on the patient. With that said, what are some things that patients of color can do in order to protect themselves from these inequities that you’ve talked about, starting with diagnosis and treatment, what can we do? What can patients of color do? 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

So, I think the number one thing is to ask questions, the number one thing is to say, what are my options? What am I dealing with? What should I do or what shouldn’t I do? And to really make sure you get the most at that time when you see a physician, because that is really what we’re there for apart from the surgery, I’m really there to be an educator. I teach as much as I operate on a daily basis whether it be the medical training is whether in my patients, my job is to communicate information back and forth, so you really want to spend the time asking questions and getting as much information out, as much as you can. Number two is, see a specialist. There’s also very good data to indicate that as a black patient, if you see a board-certified thoracic surgeon, you are more likely to get lung cancer surgery than if you were to see a surgeon of unknown specialization, a general surgeon. So clearly the training gives specialist the ability to make finer determinations and discernments that I think in large part favor black and minority patients, so you wanna find someone who deals with these disease processes all the time because they’re gonna look at it in a much higher level and look at it with a lot more granularity. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Just have to repeat what you said, you said, I teach as much as I operate. That just really resonated with me, and I think that… That’s so incredibly important. Doctor means teacher, right? I think that’s the Latin… We are obligated to teach our patients, so I just really appreciate that that’s something that you incorporate in your daily practice. If we shift gears a little bit and talk about access and some of the concerns about treatment access for lung cancer patients, which you’ve actually alluded to, we know that sometimes these barriers that patients face actually limit their access to treatments, and you indicated surgery as being the mainstay and some difficulties with that, so how can we empower patients so that they don’t feel limited in their care, and how do we make them aware of these treatment options that are available, so that if they are in an office and maybe something’s being offered, but that’s not actually, the standard of care, how do we empower them to get that information and then to act on it? 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

Yeah, so number one, which is something I think people do and they don’t realize how valuable it is, bring a friend to the appointment, don’t come by yourself, because you are in an incredibly vulnerable position, you’ve learned or are learning something incredibly emotionally charged and usually very scary. So, you want to bring someone who obviously is gonna love you and care about you, but has enough emotional distance from it that they can be your advocate, they can ask those questions in the room that you may just not be there mentally to ask. Number two, never be afraid to get a second opinion, if you’re lucky enough to live in a populous area with multiple health systems, get a copy of your chart, get a copy of your data, get your disc, make an appointment to see another specialist in another health system and see what they say. Because at the very least, if the information is concordant, then you’re gonna feel pretty good about saying, okay, then I should just go where I think I feel best or who I have the best sort of relationship with. And again, if you are not lucky enough to have that opportunity, I would be very aggressive about seeing if telehealth is an option to reach out to someone who is a specialist, I’ve had not happened to me in the past, I remember I had a woman who telehealth, me from Ohio, because she’d actually read one of my papers about lung cancer, and she sent her scans, uploaded them, I looked at them and I gave her my opinion, and this is the new age or medicine. 

This is where we’re at now. This is a viable option, and even if telehealth isn’t an option, you can always just get on the phone. As a lung cancer specialist, a lot of the information I need can be garnered from test scans and images, so frankly, the physical exam has some role, but is not the mainstay of how a lot of the decisions are made. So even if I see your scans and I talk to you, I can give you an opinion over the phone, it takes me 15-20 minutes, and a lot of times, those visits may not even be charged, depending on who you actually ask to give you an opinion. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester:

Wow. Free of charge. Okay, I see you’re teaching me something that I didn’t know. I’m a huge proponent of second opinions, I’ve talked to so many patients and family caregivers who think that they’re offending their doctor if they ask for a second opinion, so I appreciate that you brought that to the forefront and you deserve to have multiple opinions as you’re making these very important life-changing decisions. So, thank you for sharing that. This is a perfect segue. You mentioned telehealth, and we know that one of the barriers to receiving care, and you’ve indicated that in terms of having access to a multi-disciplinary team, having access to thoracic surgeons as opposed to general surgeons, so we know that that is impacted by where we live, and that often our geographic location can actually be a barrier to the receipt of quality care, so I’d love for you to just talk a little bit about how patients who may be in more remote locations can make sure that they are also receiving appropriate care for their lung cancer. 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

Yeah, I think this is a very substantive challenge, I think this is one of the holes in healthcare, there’s these regions in the country where you just are not gonna have access to any number of surgical sub-specialist or radiation oncologist, or lung cancer specific oncologists. I think that is a really big challenge. I think we have actually learned through the pandemic that these physical barriers really are not the reason to not get the best care, so I think those patients should be exquisitely interested in telehealth and in phone calls, and I think most healthcare systems now, because the reimbursements have been approved for telehealth and actually now built infrastructure to support it as an ongoing concept. So now, if you are a patient that’s in Arizona and you want to talk to a doctor who’s in New Jersey, you can do that, you can make that happen. If you find someone, you Google them, you find a friend in that area who know someone, you can call their office and say, I want to have a telehealth visit, and as long as you have broadband internet and a phone, you can do it. You can have that conversation. 

So, I would advocate for people to really make sure that you at least feel like people in the sort of local regional area that you can perhaps get to maybe two, three hours away, but you can imagine a scenario where you can get there, you can try and establish some level of care and some level of rapport with them. I think that’s something that has really opened, has been one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

I was gonna say the exact same thing. That is one… There haven’t been a lot of positive things, but that certainly is one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic, is this surge, and it’s not that we already had the capability, but it certainly was not being used to its maximum capacity. I appreciate that. So, speaking of telemedicine and COVID, think one of the challenges that patients and often care partners have is understanding when is a telemedicine or telehealth visit appropriate versus when do you actually need to go see that doctor in person, so… Can you help clarify that? 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

Yeah, so I think in general, even if you start with the telehealth is, I think there’s very little downside to telehealth for almost anyone in general, because a lot of the information can be garnered from the patient record, from their scans. I think in general; it gives you 85% of what you need out of that interaction, and it may be more convenient for the patient, a lot of times it’s actually more convenient for the doctors, doctors have now found ways to work from home. They do have to have their clinic from home, it’s a much more relaxed environment than more efficient. I think there are times like for instance, I have to make decisions about offering surgery to patients who I consider to be moderate or high risk, I think there is a benefit and having that patient come and see me in the office because they have to somehow pass what we call the eyeball test, and that is a little bit of where this disparity comes in in lung cancer surgery, because it depends on who’s eyeball is looking at you, making your determination about what they think is gonna happen with you in surgery. 

I remember… Actually, one of my favorite patients ever. She had data that did not look like she would tolerate surgery, everything about her data did not look favorable. And I saw her, I remember seeing her in person, and you could see the spark in her eye and energy that she had, and I said, you know what, we’re gonna do it. And she did great, she did phenomenally well. And that is a case where if you’re in the population of patients that may be slightly more moderate, slightly more high risk, and you need someone to really look you in the eye and you say, I’m going to do what it takes to get through this. I think that’s the patient where the in-touch, in-person visit really is that extra touch that can be benefited.  

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Wow, I love what you said about the spark in her eye and also how you connected that to health disparities, and I don’t know the race or ethnicity of the patient that you’re describing, but we certainly know that that makes a difference, and I just wonder if that had been a different physician, would they have seen that same spark? And I think it just goes back to what we were talking about earlier, and the importance of finding a physician or health care provider with whom you connect, someone that actually respects you, someone that listens to you and see you as a whole person. So, the fact that you were willing to go beyond that data on her chart, which screamed, this is a poor surgical candidate, met her in person, and something about her let you know that she was gonna be okay. 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

Agree. And that’s why in medicine and surgery is still art at the end of the day, it’s still an art. You make decisions, best informed decisions, but there’s a lot of it that is still really special and mystical in a way, and I think having that in-person interactions will let you practice that and it’s exactly what you said, you want to have a really nice relationship with the physician, especially anyone that’s gonna be doing anything that might be invasive or dangerous because for the most part, you meet someone for 45 minutes and then you sign up for what could be a life-threatening event. So, you, the physician and the patient should feel really good about that interaction and whatever that energy is, it’s really important, it’s a little bit kind of sacred, I think, and I think it’s really valuable to invest in that if you don’t like the surgeon, you really don’t feel like it’s a good fit or you don’t like your oncologist, find someone else. You’ll do better in the long run, for sure. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

That is so incredibly important. I agree, 100%. So much of healing is beyond just the nuts and bolts of the medical care that we provide, or in your case, the surgical care, there’s so much more to that, that’s not really well studied, but that relationship and that connection is key. 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

Critical, and that’s not to say that necessarily the person has to be like the warmest, friendlies, the most fun person you ever met, some people prefer a more yes ma’am, no ma’am, clear cut, well-defined boundaries of a relationship. Some people prefer a big hug and a laugh and a joke, so if you’re getting what you need, that’s exactly what you need, and if you’re not getting what you need, you should think about your other options. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Love it, love it. Alright, Dr. Okusanya, so we’re gonna talk now about staying on that theme of empowering patients, we know that all of these barriers that we’ve been discussing can impact and limit treatment options, and we know that late diagnoses or not getting the proper care at the outset will lead to more complications and unfortunately, even death in some situations, and as you’ve alluded to, we know that patients who are educated about their illness, patients who take an active role in their medical care receive better care, they have better outcomes. So, what are some key questions that patients and care partners should ask at the very beginning when they are first beginning this journey with lung cancer? 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

So, I would say… Question number one that I would ask is like, do you specialize in this? Is something that you do on the regular basis? What percentage of your practice is lung cancer care? You would really like an answer that’s more than 50%, you would like someone who sees lung cancer patients and take care of lung cancer patients as a matter of routine. And something I would also say as a patient, you kind of want your care to be routine, you don’t wanna be someone where things are just being figured out for the first time, you really wanna have someone who does this all the time. The other questions I would ask are, can you tell me what all the options are, not just the one you’re offering to me, I really wanna know what all the options are, and I always tell patients the options are really very broad. A physician chose the option is one, you may wanna not do anything that is an option, you know saying We know it’s there; we understand and we’re gonna watch it or not do anything is a very reasonable option they should tell you about biopsies or surgery or non-invasive therapeutic modalities. 

You really wanna say, I want you to give me the laundry list, all the things that are possible in the institution that I’m sitting in. And then I would also ask, what are the things that you are not considering before that might be options. What are the things that maybe you’ve ruled out in your mind and can you tell me more about that? Because we’re very physician, they’re very good at heuristics, really good at skipping steps and making next logical jobs, so it’s good to ask one of those steps that you skipped in your life and why did you skip them? And then the last thing I would ask is, Is this the kind of case that should be discussed in a multi-disciplinary clinic or conference? Is there anybody else I should talk to about this problem? And I think if you can ask those questions and feel very confident about asking those questions again, most practitioners who are high level and specializing, this will not be offended, they will be glad that you’re asking the question, it will be a relief for both of you. I think if you can ask those questions, you can really help to eliminate some of those ascites and really get on the right trajectory from the beginning. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Those are such important questions, starting with the first one you provided, which is… Do you specialize in this? I think that we spend a lot of time sometimes betting, other professionals, even hair stylists, or if we wanna get our car fixed, we wanna go to the person that specializes and whatever is wrong with that particular problem, but we don’t always take such care with our most precious commodity, our body. So, I think that’s so incredibly important that we ask that question, and it’s not to make bad comments about those who don’t, but people like yourself have trained for many years, and there’s something to be said about that when this is your area of focus, and this is what you do day in, day out. So, I love that, I also really love what you said about kind of getting inside of the brain of the doctor, because you’re right, we’re skipping steps and we’re going through algorithms, but we don’t often bring the patient into that process, and so I really love the idea of the patients questioning, are there things that you didn’t consider and why? And really having a full understanding of all of those treatment options, and maybe if the doctor has erroneously ruled out one of those possibilities based on maybe an assumption that gives the patient an opportunity to clarify that. 

That is very powerful. 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

And I would say, as a patient, oftentimes, we wanna describe very positive feelings towards your physician, it’s a notch a very natural thing to do because you want them to be good, so that eventually you’ll be good and they’ll take good care of you. You wanna ascribe those positive thoughts, and I think that’s very reasonable, but we should approach that with a little bit of question because this is someone who has a lot of information and a lot of knowledge, and you wanna make sure you are getting everything in the middle, so it doesn’t get lost in translation. You wanna make sure you’re there for that conversation. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Absolutely. What advice do you give to patients that you see so that they can feel empowered Dr. Okusanya? Is there any specific advice that you give when you see patients and things that just helped them to take this active role that you’ve been describing? 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

Number one, I tell patients to bring someone with them to their appointments, someone who can stand by as within reason someone who can be there to listen as well, ’cause usually I say, if I tell you 100 things in an appointment which can legitimately have, I could give you 100 unique points of information and in 1 45-minute visit. If you catch 30 of them or 35 of them, you really understand that. I think that’s a lot because they’re very emotionally charged. So, hopefully someone else, it’s with you, maybe catches another 30 or 40, and that gets you to a point where you can really sit down later and understand. I encourage patients to take notes to write things down, and if they want to, to record, to have audio recording of the session, I wouldn’t say anything to you now that I wouldn’t say in a month or in a year, or anywhere else. I’m gonna tell you exactly what I think and I… And if I have uncertainty, I will expose that uncertainty, I will let you know that this is a case that could go either way. And this is a piece of information that I’m looking back and forward between these two options and that really helps the patients later on go back and say, Did I really hear that right? Did I really understand it, right? So that you can feel like you’re getting the best care, and I really think that you have to make sure that you feel comfortable with the provider. 

I think that’s just the number one thing. Are you happy with them? Do you like the way they comported themselves? Did you like the way they spoke to you? Did you like their staff? Also remember, you’re likely gonna be interacting with their staff as much as you interact with the physician, so the other people in the office, the front desk people, the nurse practitioners, the medical assistants, those are the people that you’re gonna spend a lot of time talking to. Did you have a good rapport with them? Also, all that stuff counts to make sure that you’re getting the best experience possible and that you can really be an advocate for yourself. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

That is incredible. Well, it’s just about time for us to wrap up, I just wanna reiterate, you share so many pearls today, but I just wanna reiterate a few of them, and they really resonate with me as a former caregiver and as a health advocate, but that’s the importance of asking questions, the importance of bringing a buddy, and I appreciate that, particularly in your field, when we go into a doctor’s office and the word cancer is stated, everything else goes out of the window, and even in less threatening situations, there’s data that shows that… I think about 20% to 25% of what we say as physicians is actually retained, so certainly when you get a bad diagnosis, that number is even lower, so bringing somebody with you who is not necessarily emotionally detached, but they can literally kind of be the note taker, and they may even pick up on some nuances and things that you may have missed as a patient is so incredibly important. I love that you’ve offered the option of recording, I think that’s also another tool that many patients and family members aren’t aware of, and I think there’s an assumption, and it’s true to some degree that doctors don’t wanna be recorded, but knowing that that is an option. 

The fact that the care that we receive really is impacted by whether or not the person specializes in lung cancer, a thoracic surgeon, and being empowered to ask that question, is this your specialty? How often do you see patients like me and being empowered to ask those questions that ultimately won’t lead to improve care is just so incredibly important, and I think just everything that you’ve shared that really allows the patients and the caregivers to understand just how important their role is you’re the one that’s going to take out the cancer and you’re the one that’s going to get them better, but there’s so many things that happen before that step, before they are on that operating room table that is so important. Do you have any closing thoughts that you’d like to share with us, Dr. Okusanya? 

Dr. Olugbenga Okusanya: 

I think for patients and their advocates, I think it’s really important number that you’re putting together a health care team. You’re putting together a group of people like the avengers. You’re putting together a bunch of people to come together to help you deal with this health problem. You are entering into a therapeutic relationship, so that relationship has to be healthy in order for you to have the best possible outcome, you should feel good about, you know, your doctor is gonna be very skilled, became very knowledgeable, and just like we talked about before. You really wanna find someone who has the heart of a teacher, someone who can sit down and explain it to you in a way that’s gonna be digestible and that is gonna be actionable. So I think if patients and advocates remember that you wanna build a really solid, a really healthy relationship with someone who’s gonna help you take care your health, I think if you do that, you’re going to be in excellent care.  

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Awesome. Well, I really enjoyed this time. Thank you so much, Dr. Okusanya, you have given us so much useful information, and I wanna thank all of you again for tuning into the Patient Empowerment Network program.  

Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Safe and Effective for People With Colon Cancer?

Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Safe and Effective for People With Colon Cancer? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi, a colon cancer specialist at Cleveland Clinic, provides vaccine safety information and discusses the effective immune response after COVID-19 vaccination in patients with colon cancer.

Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi is a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Krishnamurthi here.

See More From The Pro-Active Colon Cancer Patient Toolkit


Related Resources:

Should Your Family Members Be Screened for Colon Cancer?


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Is the COVID vaccine safe and effective for people with colon cancer?

Dr. Krishnamurthi:

Yes. The COVID vaccine is safe. We have no data that patients with colorectal cancer or patients who are undergoing chemotherapy are at any increased risk of any side effects from the vaccine. People should be able to make a good immune response. Patients who are not able to make a good immune response are those who are getting very high-dose chemotherapy, like a bone marrow transplant or an organ transplant. But chemotherapy for colorectal cancer should not be problem. We basically advise – I ask all my patients to get the vaccine. They should just get it whenever they can. They don’t have to worry about timing in regards to their chemotherapy.

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. Dr. Krishnamurthi, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Krishnamurthi:

Katherine, thank you so much for having me. It’s been such a pleasure.

Colon Cancer Treatment and Research News

Colon Cancer Treatment and Research News from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What’s the latest colon cancer treatment and research news from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting? Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi shares updates about research findings that were presented at the meeting along with exciting ongoing research in colon cancer.

Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi is a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Krishnamurthi here.

See More From The Pro-Active Colon Cancer Patient Toolkit


Related Resources:

Should Your Family Members Be Screened for Colon Cancer?


Transcript:

Should Your Family Members Be Screened for Colon Cancer?

Should Your Family Members Be Screened for Colon Cancer? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When should members of your family get colon cancer screening? Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi from Cleveland Clinic shares screening guidelines for family members and discusses the necessity of genetic counseling.

Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi is a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Krishnamurthi here.

See More From The Pro-Active Colon Cancer Patient Toolkit


Related Resources:

How Is Colon Cancer Treated?


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

If you’ve been diagnosed with colon cancer, what is the guidance for screening family members, such as children and siblings?

Dr. Krishnamurthi:

Yes, this is an excellent question. We tell all our patients who have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer that their first-degree relatives should start screening by age 40, but also 10 years younger than the youngest affected member of the family. So, whichever is younger.

If my patient is 45, definitely that person needs to have genetic counseling because they’re young for colorectal cancer. Then we’d recommend at least start by age 35 for their children or siblings, even if no inherited cause is found.

Katherine Banwell:

Okay, all right.

What Should Be Considered When Choosing a Colon Cancer Treatment Approach?

What Should Be Considered When Choosing a Colon Cancer Treatment Approach? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi, a colon cancer specialist from Cleveland Clinic, reviews considerations when choosing therapy, including staging and test results, as well as how clinical trials fit into treatment planning.

Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi is a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Krishnamurthi here.

See More From The Pro-Active Colon Cancer Patient Toolkit


Related Resources:

 

Newly Diagnosed With Colon Cancer? Key Advice From an Expert

Your Colon Cancer Care Colon Cancer Toolkit: Office Visit Planner

How Speaking Up Can Positively Impact Your Colon Cancer Care

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

What are the main factors you take into consideration before a treatment approach is decided on?

Dr. Krishnamurthi:

For treatment of anyone with colorectal cancer, most important, of course, is the stage because stage determines whether it’s surgery alone or do we need to use chemotherapy or radiation? Or if it’s metastatic, is it systemic treatment only? We also look at the biologic features of the cancer, which we’re learning more and more are very important.

For example, we want every patient to know their DNA mismatch repair status. This is basically, is the cancer missing a gene that repairs damage to DNA? Then if that’s true, then we say they are DNA mismatch repair deficient. Or another term is “high microsatellite instability.” Mismatch repair deficient or microsatellite instability high, or you might hear MSI high.

That’s very important that we test that on all patients with colorectal cancer because in the early stage setting, it’s important because this is a way to identify patients who may have Lynch syndrome, the most common type of inherited colorectal cancer.

And also it impairs their prognosis. We know these patients tend to have a better prognosis. For example, for stage 2, we wouldn’t even have a conversation about chemotherapy if we know the patient has abnormal DNA mismatch repair or is MSI high. Then for patients of metastatic disease, it’s very important to know this upfront because those patients do better with immunotherapy as their first treatment.

So, we want to see those results for each patient. Then for our patients with metastatic cancer, we also need to see some other genetic mutations such as RAS, KRAS and NRAS gene mutations, because that affects what treatments we use.

Also, BRAF gene mutations are very important because of the particular regiment we use for treatment of that type of cancer.

We’re looking at the extent of the disease, what are the molecular features, and then also, of very importantly, what can the patient tolerate? What are the patient’s goals? We have a discussion about side effects and help them make the best choice for themselves.

Katherine Banwell:

Where do clinical trials fit in?

Dr. Krishnamurthi:

That’s an excellent question because clinical trials actually could be appropriate at any step along this pathway.

There are clinical trials that may be looking at tests to diagnose cancer better or detect it earlier.

There are treatment trials where they may be looking at standard treatment versus something investigational or standard plus investigational. Those sorts of treatment trials may be very interesting as the initial treatment or they could be used when a person has gone through all the standard treatments. Then there’s nothing left to do but try investigational. There are also studies that are looking at supportive care – a new treatment for nausea, for example. There are studies that are looking at the biologic factors of the cancer. Maybe asking a person to donate blood or give permission to use their tumor sample. By participation in these studies, people who volunteer for that are being so generous with their time and their lives.

But that’s how the field advances, especially for treatment trials. This is a way to access cutting edge treatments because the study is being done because the drug looks promising.

I think it’s very important to ask about clinical trials from the beginning and every time there’s a decision point made in the treatment.

How Is Colon Cancer Treated?

How Is Colon Cancer Treated? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi, a colon cancer specialist from Cleveland Clinic, shares an overview of colon cancer treatment and which approaches are used for each stage for optimal patient outcomes.

Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi is a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Krishnamurthi here.

See More From The Pro-Active Colon Cancer Patient Toolkit


Related Resources:


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Can you provide us with an overview of how colon cancer is treated?

Dr. Krishnamurthi:

Yes. Colon cancer is treated based on the stage. It’s a disease that, for the vast majority of patients, is only cured with surgery.

If it can be surgically resected, that’s how this disease is cured. So, it’s very important that we do all we can to maximize early detection because it’s a highly curable cancer when it’s caught early. For early-stage colon cancer, patients are treated with surgery. So, stages 1, 2, and 3.

If it’s rectal cancer, we do some treatment before surgery. We give some chemotherapy and radiation for stages 2 and 3 beforehand to maximally shrink down the tumor to enable the surgeon to take the tumor out of the pelvis with normal tissue all around, like negative margins. Rectal cancer tends to be more complicated surgery because of its location in the pelvis.

So, it’s a little bit different from colon cancer in that we do that chemo radiation and chemotherapy up front. Whereas, for colon cancer, patients who have early-stage disease have surgery. And then, if it’s just stage 1, and this is true for rectal also, they’re done.

Excellent prognosis and go on to surveillance.

But if it’s a stage 2, then in colon cancer we have a discussion about chemotherapy afterwards because that could increase the cure rate for some patients. But for stage 3, we absolutely want to offer chemotherapy to our patients with colon cancer because of this very long, proven track record that chemotherapy can increase the cure rate for stage 3 patients, so when it’s gone to lymph nodes. Then if the disease is metastatic, meaning it’s spread to other distant organs like liver or lung, chemotherapy is the mainstay of treatment, generally speaking.

But there are subsets of patients who benefit from surgery. So, if the cancer is metastasized to just the liver or the lung or both organs, but in limited fashion, there is a track record for patients being cured with surgery.

We always are considering that when we have patients with metastatic disease. My first thought is, is this cancer potentially curable? Then we go from there. In some cases, it’s clear that it’s not curable; it’s widely metastatic. Then there’s no point in subjecting a person to surgery and we know that chemotherapy or drug therapy would be the mainstay of treatment.

What Are the Stages of Colon Cancer

What Are the Stages of Colon Cancer from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Colon cancer specialist, Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi of Cleveland Clinic, provides an overview of the stages of colon cancer and how these stages are determined.

Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi is a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Krishnamurthi here.

See More From The Pro-Active Colon Cancer Patient Toolkit


Related Resources:

How Is Colon Cancer Treated?


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Let’s start with a basic question. What are the stages of colon cancer?

Dr. Krishnamurthi:

Colon cancer is categorized in four stages – stage 1, 2, 3, 4. This takes into account the tumor itself, how thick it is. These tumors start on the inside of the colon, like as a polyp. Then they can grow through the colon wall. The tumor thickness and has it spread to any of the lymph nodes? and has it spread further to a distant organ like liver or lungs?

That’s a tumor node metastasis. Considerations that go into the staging. Stage 1 colon cancer or colorectal cancer would be a very shallow tumor, maybe just in a polyp and hasn’t spread to any nodes or anywhere else. Stage 2 is when the tumor is thicker. It may be involving the full thickness of the colon or rectum but has not spread to any nearby lymph nodes. Stage 3 is when the cancer has spread to regional or nearby lymph nodes. Stage 4 is when it’s metastatic or it’s spread to another organ.

Katherine:

Okay. Thank you.

Which Prostate Cancer Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know

Which Prostate Cancer Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What do you need to know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR prostate cancer? Dr. Maha Hussain discusses the role of key tests in choosing therapy, including biomarker testing, provides tips for partnering with your care team and reviews recent research news.

Dr. Maha Hussain is the Deputy Director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more about this expert here.

Download Guide

See More From INSIST! Prostate Cancer

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How Do Genetic Mutations Impact Prostate Cancer Treatment Options?

What Is a Prostate Cancer Genetic Mutation?

What Is a Prostate Cancer Biomarker?

 


Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today, we’re going to discuss how to access the most personalized prostate cancer therapy for your individual disease and why it’s essential to insist on key testing. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. 

The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click on that link to access information to follow along during this webinar. At the end of this program, you’ll receive a link to a program survey. Please take a moment to provide feedback about your experience today in order to help us plan future webinars.  

Finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. 

All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Maha Hussain. Dr. Hussain, would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Hussain:

Sure. Thank you, Katherine. 

It’s my pleasure to join you. And to the audience, nice to meet you all virtually. My name is Maha Hussain. I am a genitourinary medical oncologist with a focus on prostate cancer and bladder cancer. And I am a professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Department of Medicine, and endowed professor there. And I also serve as the deputy director for the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. 

Katherine:

Wonderful. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us today. 

Dr. Hussain:

My pleasure. 

Katherine:

I’d like to start by asking about developments in prostate cancer research and treatment. Experts recently gathered at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, also known as ASCO, to share their research. 

So, what were the highlights from that meeting that you feel patients should know about? 

Dr. Hussain:

I think probably perhaps I can focus on two major – what I would consider major highlights, and those were the results from two randomized Phase III clinical trials. 

One of the trials is called the VISION trial. And the VISION trial was a Phase III randomized trial evaluating lutetium-PSMA-617 treatment in patients with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer. And the delightful thing about this study is that that study was positive. The PSMA story has been really going on for a few years now. And there’s the PSMA for purposes of scans, imaging, to assess the cancer. And the FDA just approved a PSMA PET imaging this year. 

I think it was in May when it was approved. And that would help better define if the cancer is spread or not, and it help with the decision regarding treatment. But the second part is treatment purposes, so identifying the cancer location and trying to attack it with a specific sort of targeted attack to the tumor is really important. 

And so, the FDA is currently looking at this particular agent. And I am hopeful that we will hear soon from the FDA, hopefully before the end of the year, and maybe – who knows? – maybe by summer, middle summer or end of summer. Because I do think that would be a major benchmark in there. And so, that’s one thing. 

The other clinical trial that I thought was interesting from a data perspective – and for disclosure, I am one of the investigators on this study. And this was an intergroup Southwest Oncology, or SWOG, sponsored clinical trial. So, it’s a federal study that Dr. Aggarwal presented. And this was a study that was aiming at maximizing, again, the anti-tumor therapy with the use of a drug which I call is the younger brother of abiraterone. 

So, abiraterone is a drug that is FDA-approved and has been around for several years right now for both castration-resistant prostate cancer and certainly hormone-sensitive metastatic disease. And so, TAK 700 (Orteronel) is a younger brother, I call it, of abiraterone. And one of the potential advantageous when this trial was designed was the fact that you don’t need to use prednisone. And the trial was completed. It was a national clinical trial. And what was interesting is that there is certainly what appears to be a potential benefit, but not in terms of the conclusive based on the way the study was designed.

Having said that, what I thought was remarkable is that patients who basically were only on the control arm was LHRH therapy, so this could’ve been like Lupron, Zoladex, or something like that plus bicalutamide, which is what we call combined androgen deprivation. And that was sort of like the strongest control arm we could do at the time when the trial was designed. 

Remarkably, the patients who were on that arm had a median survival of basically 70 months. That’s the median. That’s the bell-shaped curve with the number in the middle. Seventy months is probably the longest ever in any other randomized trials in this disease space, in the hormone sensitive space. So, that tells us is that men are living longer with prostate cancer, even though it’s metastatic disease; and, yes, it’s not necessarily curable, but men are living longer. And it’s a function of all of the better treatments that are supportive care and everything that was going on.  

And so, the control arm, as I mentioned, was the 70.2 months. The actual experimental arm was about 81.1 months. And again, I don’t know where things will go from this. Obviously, I’m not the sponsor not the FDA. But the point here is that men are living longer, and so wellness and health become even more so important than we ever did. And as I tell my patients, every day you’ll live longer. The odds of living longer is there because of better treatments coming on. 

So, to me – not to take too much time from the interview – to me, these were the two highlights: new, approved – I’m sorry, new treatment that I’m hoping will be FDA-approved and, obviously, the fact that men are living longer.  

Katherine:

How can patients keep up to date on the research that’s going on? 

Dr. Hussain:

I’m a bit biased, obviously. I’m a member of ASCO. 

And what I would recommend to my patients is to look at the cancer.net website. The cancer.net is a website that is an ASCO-generated website specifically for patients and families to review. It is vetted. The committees are not run just by physicians, oncologists, a multidisciplinary team, but also patient representative. So, the lingo and the presentation are lay-friendly, I call it, there. 

The other part I would say, the NCI website, and the American Cancer Society, the American Urological Association. I would say there’s a lot of stuff on the media. The difficulty is vetting what is sort of fake, what is not so accurate, or bias versus there. I also think that the NCCN has also some resources for patients. 

And one thing I always tell patients: explore, look, but make sure that you talk to your doctor about the meanings of everything because sometimes it can be not – it could be misleading, I should say, or maybe not very clear on what the implications are. 

Katherine:

Right. One thing that’s a topic on the mind of many people right now is COVID. 

Dr. Hussain:

Yeah. 

Katherine:

Is the COVID vaccination safe and effective for prostate cancer patients? 

Dr. Hussain:

The answer is yes and yes. So, I have to say, by default, I deal mostly with older men. Age brings in other comorbidities. And certainly, while I see all kinds of shades of gray in terms of the disease extent, going all the way from newly diagnosed all the way to end-stage disease, the bulk of the patients I end up seeing tend to have more systemic disease and have other issues going on. And I have to say, surprisingly, less than a handful of my patients had the infection. 

Only one required hospitalization with supportive measure, but not even needed incubation; however, he needed a lot of CPAP and other respiratory support. I’m not aware of any of my patients or my colleague’s patients who deal with prostate cancer that have died from COVID. So, I would say that’s the good news and that we have not seen a big hit in the population that I deal with. 

I also know that I would say 99.9 percent of my patients have opted to be vaccinated, and they have tolerated the vaccine just fine. There’s only one case, which I actually even saw just this week, who had been vaccinated but have a very, very severe end-stage disease with significantly compromised bone morrow, who got infected but hospitalized for a few days and is recovering. 

And so, I would say just by the pool of patients I see, my answers are yes and yes. 

Katherine:

Very good. Thank you. 

Dr. Hussain:

And I would encourage all the audience to go get vaccinated. I myself am vaccinated. And I’ve advised all my family members to be vaccinated, just to clarify that too. 

Katherine:

Good. Good to know. Dr. Hussain, we’re going to spend most of this conversation talking about advanced prostate cancer. But before we move on, would you give us a brief overview of the stages of prostate cancer? 

Dr. Hussain:

Absolutely. So, with any cancer, we count sort of like four stages. But I would say in prostate cancer the biggest thing is when the cancer is newly diagnosed, which could be confined to the prostate or locally advanced, meaning the cancer has gotten outside the capsule of the prostate but still within that pelvic region. 

There is the group of patients who have pelvic lymph nodes at time of diagnosis. And of course, that is the patients who have systemic disease, which would be technically stage four. Now, the systemic disease implies any abnormality that is found on scans that is beyond the public region. So, that could be lymph nodes in the back of the belly. That could be thoracic lymph nodes. That could be neck nodes. That could be lung lesions, of course, or bone, or liver. 

Now, the most common area where the cancer goes to is really – when we talk about metastatic disease – is the bone. And then lymph is another area where the cancer goes to. Prostate cancer that is confined to the prostate is curable in the vast majority of patients. There is a category of men who undergo surgery or radiation, and then their PSA begins to go up afterwards. 

And this is what we call biochemical relapse. And this is a situation where we know that, in all likelihood obviously, especially of the patients who have had their prostate out, that the cancer has spread. With the current imagine, a good chunk of times, we do not find anything because we’re able to pick up PSA that goes from undetectable to 0.2 to 0.3, but there’s not enough cancer to show up on the scans. We’re hoping, obviously, the better scans, the PET Axumin scan, the PSMA scans are going to help us to identify sites of metastases. 

But this is a group of men where if there is no cancer visible and the only thing we’re dealing with is PSA that’s going up, if they’ve had surgery, then there’s room for what we call salvage therapy with radiation and hormonal treatment. The case is a bit different if there’s only just the prostate – if radiation was given previously. And of course, we talked about metastatic disease. 

Katherine:

Yeah. Once someone has been diagnosed, what tests are used to help understand the aggressiveness of their disease and their overall prognosis? 

Dr. Hussain:

Well, I think there is different basic things, as in, what was the extent of the cancer? How did it look under the microscope? And what is the PSA levels? So, these are the general things. There are different sort of genomic panels that the urologist will use to kind of decipher and other things to kind of help with figuring out aggressiveness and things like that. What I would say is this, is a patient who is diagnosed and has a cancer, and at a minimum has what we consider a Gleason 7 prostate cancer – so, that’s the scoring system that is done with the original Gleason score, or the new patterns where it’s talking about intermediate risk to high risk – to me, this is a cancer that needs to be treated. 

And again, that’s all to do with if a person has other comorbidities, they have some other terminal condition that’s a separate story. But talking generically, that would be when we would recommend. And these are the patients that are generally not seen by the medical oncologist. They’re seen by the urologist, and then they can refer them to radiation oncology also for consultation. 

Katherine:

Now that we understand how test results can help inform a patient’s cancer and how it may behave. Let’s discuss how they can affect treatment options for men with advanced disease. First, let’s do a brief review of the treatment types currently available. There’s hormone therapy, right. What else? 

Dr. Hussain:

Perhaps, it’s simpler if we focus on advanced disease, specifically metastatic disease. 

So, if that’s the deal, then the backbone of treatment is hormone treatment. And it really is. We call it hormone, but technically it’s an anti-hormone. What we’re trying to do is shut down the hormonal pathway that stimulate the testes, which is the factory that makes testosterone. So, we are looking at shutting down testosterone production from the testes in order to starve the cancer. 

Now, the male hormone is produced predominantly – somewhere about 95 percent of it is made by the testes, and then there are about 5 percent-ish that comes from other sources. These are, again, male hormones like the adrenal gland and so on. And there was a while ago some research – I want to say from the MD Anderson crowd, but this is two years ago – that suggested also that the tumor may start to make sort of in-house production of male hormone to support itself. 

Now, having said that, again, testes continue to be the source of the majority of the male hormone. And so, historically, the first data that showed benefit was actually by surgically removing the testes, which is what we call orchiectomy or bilateral orchiectomy. And then medications began hitting the market and were evaluated in the late ’80s and then 1990s, beginning with Lupron – which by the way, in the ’80s, it was an injection that the patient had to give themselves every day, which is remarkable. 

But even then, there is a personal preference by patients to go and take injections as opposed to go through surgery with orchiectomy. But still, I would say for some patients it may be an option until it ought to be discussed as an option. Then what we know is this, is because of the potential other sources for the male hormone, the concept of what we call combined androgen depravation was being evaluated. 

And again, this goes back to the ’80s when the first drug was flutamide and then bicalutamide, and there are other drugs that became. And they kind of added a sprinkle, I call it, to survival. But it wasn’t dramatic, huge differences in survival. And so, generally, while we used it, everybody believed in using it. Moving forward, the drugs like abiraterone, enzalutamide, apalutamide are the three hormonal drugs that have demonstrated conclusively really an advantage in terms of prolonging life when added to the Lupron. 

So, what I tell my patients is that, when it comes to hormone treatment there is really no way around it. You can delay it. Some people are exploring for some patients who don’t have a lot of cancer, maybe a couple of areas, maybe just do targeted radiation and then leave the person alone to buy them some treatment-free time. 

And, to me, this is where the discussion that has to happen with the patient. What is the objective? Is the objective to kind of be ahead of the game and maximally treat the cancer with the hope of prolonging life? Or is the objective to delay treatment? And I would tell you that, with these types of conversation, nine out of 10 or 9.5 out of 10 men opt for moving aggressively up front with management. So, that’s that. 

Now, the one thing I should point out, one of the trials that also was a landmark trial in this disease was the study CHAARTED, which was an intergroup clinical trial at the time it was designed, led by ECOG, and the PI was Dr. Chris Sweeney. I was part of the team that worked on the design also of the study. 

And that was a trial that looked at adding docetaxel to hormone therapy, versus hormone therapy alone, to try to see if it adds something. Historically, all the chemotherapies prior to that that were added to hormone treatment for patients with newly diagnosed metastatic disease had not delivered. And docetaxel did. 

However, one thing I should point out, based on that trial – and I don’t want to go into too much details for the sake of time – the patients that seemed to be benefiting were the patients that had more aggressive, more disease in their system. And so, liver metastases, lung metastases spread in the bone at different areas, not like few isolated areas in the spine or the pelvis, but much more than that. 

And so, for the patients who have what we call high-volume prostate cancer based on scans – and I’m happy to explain what that means if it’s needed – these are the patients that I would offer either the docetaxel plus hormone treatment, which is the injection, or the injection plus the hormonal pills that I mentioned earlier. 

Katherine:

What about targeted therapy? How is that used? 

Dr. Hussain:

Okay. So, let’s begin with the molecularly targeted therapy. So, as we speak right now, for patients who have newly diagnosed metastatic disease that we call hormone sensitive, molecularly targeted therapy is not standard of care. So, I would encourage patients who may qualify for clinical trial to be involved in those. The flipside is – we can talk about it – is that molecularly targeted therapies, specifically with PARP inhibitors have pretty much entered in the space of prostate cancer with a couple of drugs that were FDA-approved. 

The other way of targeted treatment, which would be what we refer to targeted radiation, this would be a different story. This is not systemic treatment. This is a local treatment. And what is done is basically if patients do not have a lot of cancer in their body based on scans, and only certain areas, and they are starting systemic therapy, they can certainly consult with a radiation oncologist to target radiation to areas that are visible on scan. So, if somebody has a couple of, let’s say, pelvic bone lesions, maybe a lymph node, and they are already starting systemic therapy, they can consult with a radiation oncologist focal radiation. And so, that would be the general scheme. 

Katherine:

Many patients are confused about the role of genetics and biomarker testing in prostate cancer care. 

For people who haven’t heard of some of these terms before, let’s go into the definitions. So, what is genomic or biomarker testing, first of all?  

Dr. Hussain: So, I think there’s one thing. Maybe I can explain because the wording can be confusing. So, there is the genetics, and there is the genomics. The genetics would be what we inherit from our families. So, this would be present in our body. The genomics testing would be to look for what the structure of the genes of the cancer itself, cancer cells itself. Now, that doesn’t mean that this was inherited. It’s just that this is a renegade, and it evolved. And that is what is going to show up. 

The reason these two are important, both of them have implications potentially for treatment or perhaps clinical trials. And again, with the PARP inhibitors, the BRCA-like genes will have implications for treatment sort of for resistance cancers. 

With regard to the genetics, the implications are for, again, inheritance of family and potential risk for blood relatives. Now, there are panels that are FDA-approved for the purpose of genetic testing. And the requirement or the indications right now, anybody who presents with metastatic disease or an aggressive disease and diagnosis, the recommendation is to proceed with the genetic testing, certainly counseling and testing, because there are some people who prefer not to be tested. And that’s something else. 

What I tell my patients is this, even if the testing is done and it was negative for inherited genes that might put the patient family at potential higher risk, the fact that a person has prostate cancer by default puts potential, adds risks to family, to blood relatives. 

And the risks aren’t just for the males with regard to prostate cancer, but certainly breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer potentially, and things of that sort. So, this is where I think a patient needs to be discussing with their doctors. And certainly, there are many centers that have genetics counselor, and so that’s where I generally refer my patients to. I counsel them myself, and then refer them also for more discussions with genetics counselor. 

Katherine:

What exactly are genetic mutations? And how do they impact a treatment path? 

Dr. Hussain:

Well, I think, again, it’s the changes that happens in specific genes that may promote the aggressiveness of a cancer. And so, the BRCA gene is one of the oldest genes that have been identified in breast cancer. And essentially, the body regulates itself. 

And when cancer cells come up and they sort of – the body no longer sustains that regulation, the genetic regulation in those cancer cells. Those cancer cells will behave the way they want to. That means that they’re going to grow faster. That means they could be resistant to treatment and things like that. And so, that’s what we check for, these alterations. And there are certain medications that would allow – and again, in prostate cancer, it’s not a lot. It’s just, as I said, right now the only things that are proven is the PARP inhibitors. This is essentially to kinda gang over the cancer cell, preventing from allowing it to repair itself so it can continue to grow. 

Katherine:

Some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests. So, for patients that aren’t all that sure, what key questions should they be asking their physician or their specialist? 

Dr. Hussain:

So, I would say when it comes to the genetics testing, I believe a patient has to consent. 

Because again, we live in the U.S., and this is a private matter for the patient. So, this generally has to be the case. Otherwise, depending on the institution, sometimes some tests will require for the overall testing for looking for any genetic alterations, general tumor alternation. Different centers have different things. But the patient should ask and say to their doctor, “Have my cancer genes been tested? Have my genes been tested? And if they have, what are the results?” Because we generally share with the patients once it’s been done. 

The other things I should point out, some of the good things that have happened recently. Up until recently, when it comes to the tumor genomic testing, tissue was required. Nowadays, the FDA has approved blood tests that several companies now run that can actually collect blood sample and basically test it for circulating tumor cell genes there. 

Now, no testing is 100 percent perfect. But in situations like patients with prostate cancer who may not have recent tissue or adequate tissue for testing, certainly doing the blood test to verify if there is anything reflective of the genes of the cancer, and that may allow for potential actionable-type treatments. Again, up until now, this is more going to apply for potential clinical trials or resistant metastatic disease. 

Katherine:

Are there other important factors to consider, like a patient’s age, that can help them access the best treatment for their prostate cancer? 

Dr. Hussain:

Yes. And I think that age is one factor. What I say and what I tell my fellows, age is to be respected, but used to discriminate in terms of management. 

 We all age. And certainly, the body reserve is not the same. And so, that’s why I would say that has to be respected. But it doesn’t mean that we cannot treat patients. 

And I’ll tell you, it’s interesting. There are times where you have – I have a gentleman who used to run seven miles a day. He was 87 years old. This was in my days when I used to be in Ann Arbor at University of Michigan. And the gentleman came to me, and he said, “Dr. Hussain, I don’t feel good.” And I said, “Sir, why? What has happened?” “I can’t run like I did before.” And I said, “You’re not running?” “No, I am running. I’m just not able to do seven miles a day. I can do only four miles a day.” I’m like, whoa, that’s about 100% more than I do. 

Now, again, I’m bringing this as an extreme example. But for some of the oral agents, like the Olaparib trial, there were men in there literally late-’80s, early-’90s that were included in the clinical trials. Same thing goes for several of the other trials. 

I do think that functionality is important. So, if somebody comes to you so sick they are in a wheelchair, you really have to be very careful. And again, I’m just using kind of extremes. And so, you have to be careful by what you are able to do. And any time the doctor thinks the odds are going to be more harm than good, this is really where absolutely a situation where the physician needs to be careful about it, and the patient needs to understand it also. At the end of the day, it’s a shared decision. 

Katherine:

Before we close, Dr. Hussain, how do you feel about the future or prostate cancer research, and what would you like patients to know? 

Dr. Hussain:

First, let me say that I would love for the patients to know that they are a partner, a most critical partner in the process.  

That we need to continue the research and investment in research. It is research that will end up curing cancer. Wishful thinking will not do it. And patient volunteering, which I think is remarkable across all cancers. The business I’m in, the way that drug discovery and evolution often happen because patients volunteered. And without testing these new treatments and combinations, we will not be able to get better results.  

And I will tell you that, when I started my training, the median survival for patients with resistant prostate cancer was on the magnitude of about nine months. Now it is three years-plus. Now, you could argue, well, that’s not huge. But that is a huge change because, again, we’re picking up the cancers much earlier. And the patients who had, as I mentioned, metastatic disease, again, the longevity then at the time I was in training, but even afterwards, was give and take in the three years. And now we’re talking six-plus years. 

And so, there’s been tremendous progress. And really partnership with the patients and their families and supportive others is very critical, and investment in research. So, yes, advocate constantly for more investment in research. 

Katherine:

All sounds very promising, Dr. Hussain. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. 

Dr. Hussain:

My pleasure. And be well, all of you.  

Katherine:

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