6 Myths About Chemotherapy

Scott Tagawa, M.D.

dr-scott-tagawaChemotherapy often gets a bad rap due to the perception that the side effects of this cancer treatment are severe. What many people don’t know is chemotherapy refers to an umbrella category for different medications that work in a similar way. Just as different cancers are unique, chemotherapies are also unique and use different formula compounds. They also have brand and generic names.

I want to dispel some of the things I hear from patients about chemotherapy. Here are 6 of the most common chemo myths and misconceptions:

  1. It doesn’t work. False! While new cancer treatments are continuously being researched and developed, chemo remains the treatment gold standard for many types of cancers – including testicular cancer and metastatic prostate and bladder cancers – because it works. Through rigorous research, chemo has been shown to improve survival and increase the cure rates for many cancers, especially genitourinary (GU) cancers. Testicular cancer now has an approximately 99% cure rate which was not possible before chemotherapy. Additionally, chemotherapy increases the cure rates for bladder cancer and was more recently shown to have one of the most significant increases in survival compared to any other prior therapy for prostate cancer. Unfortunately, chemo doesn’t always work on every single type of cancer. In addition to the development of novel therapies, work is ongoing to help us select patients that will have more or less benefit from chemotherapy.
  2. It has significant side effects. This is partially true depending on what type of chemo you’re taking and what you perceive to be a negative side effect. Some chemotherapies cause hair loss as they attack the cancer cells, and this is one of the most “visible” side effects of treatment. What many people don’t realize, however, is that chemo can make patients feel better almost immediately because of its ability to control the cancer. For example, the first chemotherapy approved for prostate cancer (mitoxantrone) was approved because it made men feel better. The next generation chemotherapy (docetaxel) made men feel even better when compared to mitoxantrone. Moreover, the impact chemo has on quality of life is often short-term. Longer term, patients who undergo chemo report feeling better. A recently presented study showed that while overall quality of life was worse at an early time point during chemotherapy, men with metastatic prostate cancer had a superior quality of life a year later. This is likely due to the combination of better long-term cancer control and the fact that most chemo-related side effects are temporary. Additionally, while new treatment options, including immunotherapies, hold promise for many types of cancers, these do not work for everyone and are not without side effects either.
  3. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. There are over 200 types of chemotherapies, each differing in function and specific use. For example, platinum-based chemotherapies are mainly used for bladder cancers while taxanes are used for prostate cancer.
  4. It isn’t a targeted treatment. Chemo is targeted in certain ways because it acts on specific receptors. For example, taxanes, which are one type of chemotherapy agent, have the ability to stop cells from growing by targeting structures inside the cell that help it multiply. In prostate cancer specifically, taxanes kill cancer cells by blocking the movement of specific receptors that promote cancer growth. At Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, we are able to analyze the tumor for genomic mutations that can tell us whether you are more or less likely to respond to this type of treatment.
  5. It is painful. When you are receiving cycles of chemotherapy, it should not hurt. Some patients receive chemo through an IV (intravenously), while other chemos are given as oral medications that you can take at home. Most genitourinary cancer patients undergo treatment on an outpatient basis. If you experience discomfort, burning, or coolness speak to your nurse or another member of your cancer healthcare team.
  6. Chemo suppresses the immune system. I commonly hear this from patients as a reason to avoid chemo. While there is an infection risk associated with chemotherapy if blood counts are low, current data indicates that combining chemo with immunotherapy (either together or sequentially with one followed by the other) may be better than immunotherapy alone.

Oncologists and researchers are always looking for the best treatment options to bring cures to the greatest number of cancer patients. For many patients, chemo remains the best option at controlling the cancer growth and ultimately curing the cancer. For some patients, newer approaches such as immunotherapy or other biologic agents are more tailored to fighting their disease. At Weill Cornell Medicine, we continue to work on identifying which chemotherapy is best for the right tumor in the right patient at the right time, as well as developing strategies to deliver chemotherapy preferentially to tumors (sparing normal organs), and continuing to develop new immunotherapies and biologic-based approaches to treatment.

Moonshot Summit: Changing Cancer As We Know it

DAVID NANUS, MD

DrNanus_Cancer Moonshot Summit
Photo credit: Ira Fox

On June 29, Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital joined more than 270 institutions across the country in holding a Moonshot Summit. These summits were held in conjunction with Vice President Biden’s Moonshot initiative to fight cancer. On this national day of action, cancer experts throughout our institution, survivors, and advocates came together to share their ideas for increased collaboration and cures.

The summit conversation started with a constructive dialogue about clinical trials and the unfortunate fact that for many cancer types, the “standard of care” chemotherapies are not good enough. At Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, immunotherapies and precision medicine are opening new doors in cancer treatment, but sadly not all patients currently have access to these types of cutting-edge treatments.

Moonshot Summit_23
A packed room at the Weill Cornell Medicine/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Cancer Moonshot Summit (photo credit: Ira Fox)

Clinical trials may have gotten a bad rap in the past, but they are a powerful tool to access innovative treatments. The speakers agreed that clinical trials should be easily accessible to all patients, but at times there are obstacles. These range from lengthy forms that deter enrollment, to bureaucracy that slows the timeline for opening new clinical trials, to disinterest and concerns about the treatments’ effectiveness. On a global scale, there has been a lack of adult participation in cancer clinical trials, while for children we actually see the opposite trend – very high enrollment. What can we learn from this information?

Moonshot Summit_14
(L-R) Dr. Gail Roboz and Dr. Susan Pannullo speaking at the Cancer Moonshot Summit (photo credit: Ira Fox)

One of my colleagues Dr. Gail Roboz wisely stated, “I always tell my patients, be afraid of the disease, not the treatment.” She’s right in that we need to reframe the conversation to focus on making strides in increasing cure rates through new research that leads to new treatment breakthroughs across disease states.

We also talked about access to care. Not all patients are able to get a correct diagnosis quickly. This can be due to a variety of reasons including a lack of access to specialists, living in a rural area, or financial limitations. By increasing government research funding, as well as making it easier for patients to reach quality care, we can remove some of these barriers nationally. If we increase the number of people who are diagnosed with cancer early on, we can increase the cure rates. Additionally, as a country, we need to provide comprehensive care for patients and families and always put the interests of patients first. This includes offering supportive services beyond just the best medical care.

I felt so empowered by my colleagues and our patients’ great ideas about how we can overcome the challenges we face in cancer care. The Cancer Moonshot initiative is giving high hopes to many and will help ultimately change the world of cancer care as our country stands together with common goals and a renewed commitment to collaboration. By bringing everyone together at an event like this, we hear diverse perspectives and glean new insights. The fight against this terrible disease truly unites us all.

Moonshot Summit_17
Photo credit: Ira Fox

Hi-Tech Blood Biomarker Signals When a Strategic Switch in Chemotherapy Will Benefit Prostate Cancer Patients

For men with metastatic prostate cancer that grows despite hormonal therapy (also referred to as castration-resistant prostate cancer), chemotherapy has been a mainstay. The class of chemotherapy that has consistently proved to improve survival for men with advanced prostate cancer is called “taxanes.”

Taxanes target microtubules, which are structures in cells that are involved in cell division, as well as the trafficking of important proteins. In prostate cancer, one of the main ways taxane chemotherapy works to kill the cancer cells involves blocking the movement of the androgen receptor (AR) along the microtubule “tracks” towards the cell nucleus, a mechanism we discovered here at Weill Cornell Medicine.

There are two taxanes FDA-approved to treat prostate cancer, docetaxel (brand name: Taxotere) and cabazitazel (brand name: Jevtana). While the drugs are similar, men whose tumors have grown despite taking one drug often respond to the other. The challenge for oncologists has been pinpointing when exactly to switch treatments.

ScottTagawa_ASCO2016_TAXYNERGYDr. Scott Tagawa presented exciting results from a phase II clinical trial at the 2016 American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting demonstrating the power of this treatment switch, and when to make the switch.

This research came to be because we thought that we might be able to increase the number of men who respond to taxane chemotherapy with an early assessment and by changing the drug for those who have a sub-optimal response. Simply put, those with no response or only an initial minor response had their drug changed at a much earlier time point then standard practice. This resulted in a higher response rate for the patients in the study.

Top Boxes_Taxynergy
In the photos from a sub optimally responding patient, almost all of the androgen receptor (AR, labeled in green) is in the nucleus (indicated by the arrow which is overlayed in blue on the right), meaning that the taxane chemotherapy treatment was unable to block AR from moving to the nucleus and thus unable to kill the prostate cancer cells.

In addition, it’s very exciting that we can examine cancer cells from a simple blood test, a process also referred to as collecting circulating tumor cells or CTCs. This allows us to assess the ability of a drug to target the pathway in real time and to tell us whether there is a positive tumor response or resistance.

These circulating tumor cells provide an opportunity for real-time molecular analysis of taxane chemotherapy and at Weill Cornell Medicine we’ve pioneered a way to examine the AR pathway with a simple blood test.

To do this we use an extremely specialized technology that captures the very small fragments or rare circulating tumor cells on a “chip.” From this chip we are able to determine which cells are responding to treatment.

Bottom Boxes_Taxynergy
In real time, we can see taxane chemotherapy kept the (green) AR out of the (blue) nucleus area in cells from a responding patient. 

In cancer care, we are always trying to maximize treatment response rates by targeting the right cells at the right time. This promising precision medicine approach offers us one more tool to better personalize treatment and improve outcomes.