Waldenström macroglobulinemia (WM) is a rare slow-moving disease, so immediate treatment isn’t always necessary. WM expert Dr. Shayna Sarosiek discusses the “watch and wait” period and what criteria may indicate a patient is ready for therapy.
Dr. Shayna Sarosiek is a hematologist and oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where she cares for Waldenström macroglobulinemia (WM) patients at the Bing Center for Waldenstrom’s. Dr. Sarsosiek is also Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Learn more about Dr. Sarosiek, here.
I understand that many people diagnosed with Waldenstrom’s may not be treated right away. Why is that?
Yeah, so a lot of patients – actually, the majority of patients don’t need treatment right away for Waldenstrom’s. And even some patients, about 20 percent to 30 percent of patients a decade later still don’t need therapy. Because, as I mentioned, it’s really such a slow-moving disease that often patients will have no symptoms or very few symptoms for many years. And if that’s the case, we really don’t like to introduce treatments earlier than we need to.
One, because you might introduce a therapy that adds toxicity or side effects that are making the patient feel worse than they currently feel. Two, the other reason we don’t want to treat too often if we don’t need to, is because it’s possible the Waldenstrom’s might become resistant to therapies and then when we truly needed something later, the disease might become resistant to things we used earlier.
The other reason is, we don’t have any data that shows us that treating early improves survival. We know that patients with Waldenstrom’s have an excellent survival. And that’s only when treating when we need to. So, we don’t have any data that tells us we need to treat early. And so, really, the focus of Waldenstrom’s therapies is just to make sure that our patients maintain a good quality of life with their disease under good control. And we can do that in a lot of cases by not offering therapy early and just doing it when we start to see signs that there is something that needs to be addressed.
Many of us have heard this term “watch and wait.” What does that mean exactly?
So, watch and wait generally just refers to a plan to continue to monitor the patient. Often every three months or every four months in clinic, where we might just examine the patient to check for lymph nodes or an enlarged spleen. We ask about symptoms that might perk our ears up or make us think about progression of the disease. And we also check bloodwork.
That can tell us what’s happening with the Waldenstrom’s. So, really, the exam, talking with the patient, getting labs every few months is a good way for us to keep track of what’s happening with the disease. So, we’re watching closely, but we’re waiting and holding off on therapy until it’s needed.
Yeah. How do you know when it’s time to begin treatment?
Great question. So, we have criteria that were designed. That physicians internationally follow to tell us when patients need treatment. Of course, those are just guidelines, so it’s often based on the guidelines and also each individual patient. But, for example, one of the main reasons why patients might require therapy is if a patient has anemia.
So, we measure that with the hemoglobin. If the hemoglobin’s less than 10, and the patient has symptoms of anemia, then in that case we might need to offer therapy. Another common reason for therapy being initiated might be hyperviscosities. So, if the blood is getting thick, as Waldenstrom’s progresses and the IgM level is high, then in that case blood flow can’t happen appropriately. And so, in that case, we might need treatment.
Another side effect that patients with Waldenstrom’s can have is neuropathy. And so, that’s numbness, tingling, burning, loss of sensation. Usually starting in the toes and working its way up the feet and legs. If that’s progressing rapidly, if it’s causing the patient to not be able to do their usual activities, that’s another reason for treatment. So, we have these clear guidelines that tell us the things that we should be watching out for and then, it helps us to know when it’s an appropriate time to start treatment for patients.