Some information just released is creating a lot of enthusiasm about the use of cold caps to prevent hair loss from chemotherapy in women with breast cancer. But a deeper look into the data shows that this welcome news is not nearly as clear-cut as it might seem. And I’m afraid doctors explaining the potential limitations of these devices to patients hearing enthusiastic reports are going to be left holding the bag if this new treatment doesn’t work as intended.
Let’s face it: losing one’s hair is traumatic, to say the least. For some folks, the risk of hair loss may affect their decisions about which chemotherapy treatment they should receive for their cancer, or whether they should receive it at all. No question: this is important to many women (and men) when faced not only with the trauma of treatment but with the very diagnosis of cancer itself.
When it comes to our health and our health care, we love the numbers. Sometimes, we even fall in love with the numbers, assuming that the numbers tell us the whole story when in fact that may not be the case. Cholesterol numbers, blood pressure numbers, body mass index, whatever. As patients and consumers, we are frequently defined by our numbers.
But what happens when those numbers and other medical tests such as CT scans really don’t tell the story we think they do? The recent evolution of prostate specific antigen (PSA) is a case in point: for decades we believed the numbers saved many lives. Turns out PSA did save some lives, but not as many as we thought and at the considerable financial and human expense of treating many men who probably did not benefit.
Perhaps more than most, doctors struggle with memories that mark sad moments in their careers. For me, one of the most indelible was about a wonderful young man with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).
When I started my oncology career in the early 1970’s, CML was almost always fatal. It would start with a chronic phase which was treated with pretty simple medications. But those medications didn’t cure the disease.
The “almost always” scenario with CML was that several years on, it would morph into an acute phase, or “blast crisis,” that almost always ended in an untimely and frequently very premature death.
I came into contact with this young man just as he was diagnosed with CML. A couple of years later, he entered that acute phase. Rather than face the rigors of intensive chemotherapy, a regimen that was almost always futile, he took his own life. Moments like that live with us forever.
Decades later, (2003 to be exact) a prominent oncologist—who at the time was the director of the National Cancer Institute—made an audacious promise. Andrew von Eschenbach said that by 2015 we would end the suffering and death from cancer and convert it to a chronic … Continue reading →
Right now, when we want to know everything we can about a tumor, we do surgery: a biopsy to take a sample of it and look at it under a microscope and determine as best we can how to treat it. But what if instead you could get a blood test, and learn even more. That’s the promise of the relatively new science of what is called cell free DNA (cfDNA). It holds the hope of helping us better understand cancer, its behavior in our bodies over time, and even offering clues on how to better treat cancer in ways we would never have imagined even a few short years ago.
It was an important area of discussion at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting this week. It’s a meeting where, every year, we get a sense of the future of cancer treatment before it becomes a reality. From genomics, to immunotherapy, to targeted therapies–you name it—promising areas appear on the scene, then either become part of our reality or lose luster as the process unfolds over the course of several ASCO annual meetings. This year, several studies presented on the topic of the so-called “liquid biopsy” illustrate how … Continue reading →
Here at the at annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, we are beginning to see the future of cancer therapy—and it raises a provocative question: will precision medicine become so precise, we risk turning off the much-needed investment of human, intellectual and financial capital that keeps progress flowing?
The sheer number of new drugs and new combinations of drugs being reported here at the world’s biggest, and most relevant cancer conference is staggering. Not all of them are ready for prime time, and some may never be successful in the clinic for large numbers of patients, but it is clear the era of old fashioned chemotherapy is diminishing and newer forms of therapies (targeted and immunotherapies among others) are on the rapid ascent.
But with progress, it’s becoming clear that a changing paradigm in cancer care that was predicted a number of years ago is now coming to life.… Continue reading →
The Food and Drug Administration this week approved a device to reduce hair loss in women receiving chemotherapy for the treatment of breast cancer. The media attention has been extensive and highly favorable. But taking a closer look at this, there are a couple things, as yet unreported, that have me more than a little concerned.
The machine is a form of a cold cap, and is designed to reduce the blood circulation to the scalp while a woman receives treatment to either reduce the risk of breast cancer returning, or to treat recurrent disease. The theory—which has been around for decades—is that if one reduces the circulation of blood to the scalp you also reduce the circulation of the drugs that can cause hair loss to the hair follicles. The result is that the hair doesn’t fall out, a common and very sad side effect of some chemotherapy drugs.
It is that same phenomenon, reducing chemo’s attack on the hair follicles that has always been the concern, as well: by preventing the chemotherapy from reaching the scalp, are we creating a “safe haven” for tumor cells that may cause a problem years or even decades later?
I just noticed this blog celebrated its 10th anniversary this September. So I hope you won’t mind me taking this opportunity to share some observations and reminiscences of what it’s been like to document by blog a decade of the changing landscape of cancer.
The first blog was published on September 9, 2005 when I introduced the blog and my vision for what i hoped it would represent.
The blog originated with a concept developed by our media relations team. Social media was just coming into prominence, and the Society was looking at ways to get into this space. Bob Lutz, a senior executive at General Motors at the time, was the model: he wrote a regular blog himself, and was pretty open in sharing his thoughts. It was clearly not one of those ghost written, pre-packaged types of things. How he found the time to do a blog was an interesting question, but the concept was intriguing: if we could have one of our senior folks write something similar, perhaps it would get some recognition in this rapidly expanding means of communicating.
So we ventured into the space and I started writing “Dr. Len’s Blog”. One of … Continue reading →
A couple of months ago I was invited to participate in a symposium conducted by the National Cancer Policy Board at the Institute of Medicine in Washington DC. The topic was cancer in dogs, and how we might find ways to benefit dogs, their owners and science to better inform the treatment of cancer in humans through what is called “comparative oncology”. It was an unusual topic in my experience and that of my colleagues, so I eagerly anticipated learning about something I hadn’t given much consideration to in the past.
Little did I know at the time how personal this journey was going to be for me and my family.
Shortly after I accepted the invitation, we received sad news: our Golden Retriever Lily-who has been a member of our family for 11 years-developed swelling in her face. Our vet saw her the next day and told us she had lymphoma. The outlook without treatment wasn’t good, and with treatment wasn’t much better.
Tears flowed in our home that evening.
A week later we found a mass on Lily’s back leg. Another trip to the vet, another needle biopsy, and another … Continue reading →
When it comes to personalized/precision medicine we should never forget it’s all about the people, particularly the cancer survivors whose very lives depend on us getting it done quickly and getting it right.
That was the message from a discussion I had the privilege to moderate on Monday evening with cancer survivors and representatives of advocacy organizations, professional associations, government agencies, and industry at a session held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), now wrapping up in Chicago.
There has been an incredible amount of big science presented at this meeting that relates very directly to the care we provide cancer patients. Some of that science has immediate application to cancer care. On several occasions, acknowledged experts opined in front of thousands of physicians, other scientists, and health professionals that new treatments-particularly immunotherapy-were new standards of care in the management of patients with certain cancers.
Running in parallel to the development of new approaches to the treatment of cancer is the science that is helping to define and personalize which patients would benefit most from which treatments. As an example, for the new immunotherapy drugs there are biomarkers that may eventually … Continue reading →