One of the most stunning realizations that I’ve had since being diagnosed with cancer is how much cancer impacts the whole person—the disease can undermine almost every aspect of a person’s life. The field of oncology acknowledges this, at least more than it did four decades ago when my grandmother survived her breast cancer diagnosis. Today most cancer patients, including myself, have access to social workers, psychologists, dieticians and other skilled professionals. Treating the whole person and recognizing that each patient has unique issues and needs have become firmly entrenched and are part of the philosophy of cancer care.
At my cancer centre there are now two forms that patients are asked to fill out at every checkup. The first contains questions to gage a patient’s physical wellbeing as they go thorough treatment, but a second questionnaire was recently added. This latest form is used to gather information about the various psychosocial issues that are associated with cancer. Certain social, financial or mental health issues may need to be addressed. While I sometimes resent having to answer what I consider highly personal questions, I realize the importance of asking cancer patients about almost every aspect of their lives.
Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden, one of Canada’s preeminent ovarian cancer researchers, recalls that when she began her work she was one of the only people in Canada researching the disease. Over a decade ago Vanderhyden started the Canadian Conference on Ovarian Cancer Research and now the community has grown from three people to more than 60 ovarian cancer researchers across the country. This flourishing research community has led to a number of recent discoveries. For instance, it is now known that ovarian cancer is not one disease but a spectrum of diseases with different responses to treatment.
I’m frequently amazed at the lightening speed at which new cancer treatments are being discovered and implemented. For example, immunotherapy is an emerging approach to treatment that boosts the immune response to cancer. It enables the body to target and destroy cancer cells. There are three main areas of immunotherapy that are showing promise.
- Vaccines that enhance immune system response
- Inhibitors that affect how the immune system regulates itself
- Adoptive T-cell transfer, which removes a patient’s cancer-fighting T-cells and activates them before returning them to the bloodstream
Although gynecological cancers, such as mine, have seen only modest breakthroughs in immunotherapy, melanoma and lung cancer are areas that are witnessing great progress.
New Targeted Treatments
According to many scientists a new era of cancer treatment is beginning in which patients get drugs matched specifically to their tumour. Patients experience longer survival and fewer toxic effects through this approach, which is being made possible by advances in genetic profiling of the tumour itself. Conventional chemotherapy and radiation treatments have both short-term and long-term side effects and can be absolutely brutal for patients to endure. These treatments kill a significant number of healthy cells in addition to the cancer cells. “At the moment it’s more like using a cannonball to kill an ant – and creating a whole lot of damage at the same time,” explains professor Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Centre.
Meanwhile a UK trial, called Optima, is being run by University College London and Cambridge University and funded by Cancer Research UK. Beginning this summer, it will recruit 4,500 women with breast cancer. The women’s tumours will be genetically tested as soon as they are diagnosed to establish which will respond to chemotherapy and which will not. Of the 50,000 or so women diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year, about 40 per cent, or 20,000, are currently given chemotherapy but only half of them do well as a result of it; in the other half, the benefit is unclear. The researchers hope to find out which of the latter group actually need chemotherapy. As one oncologist emphasized: “In some ways it is simple – it means that you can make sure you are giving the right drug to the right person at the right time. In others it is very complex, because there are so many pieces to the jigsaw. We need to put the puzzle together.”