Thinking Beyond Survival – Cerebrovascular Complications of Cancer

Babak Navi_headshotBabak B. Navi, MD, MS
Stroke Center Director
Assistant Professor of Neurology
Weill Cornell Medicine | NewYork-Presbyterian

Over the past decade, there has been tremendous progress in cancer therapeutics. This includes targeted agents that act on specific receptors in cancer cells, immunotherapy which harnesses the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells, and personalized medicine whereby oncologists use different combinations of cancer drugs to optimize the chance of success based on the molecular profile of the tumor. These amazing scientific advances have led to prolonged survival for people with several cancer types, and it is possible that in the not-too-distant future, cancer will become more of a chronic disease with periodic flare-ups similar to what has occurred with diabetes and HIV. However, with this paradigm shift, long-term quality of life and well-being has become more important, and preventing diseases and complications that can affect these factors is paramount.

Stroke is the leading cause of disability in the United States. In addition, in many parts of the world, including Asia, it is the leading cause of death. In the United States alone, 800,000 people each year suffer stroke and this number is expected to rise as average life expectancy increases. Many factors can increase a person’s risk for stroke including age, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, and smoking. Besides these traditional stroke risk factors, we now know that cancer and its treatments also increase the risk of stroke. In particular, patients with certain types of cancer, such as lung, pancreatic, and bladder cancers, as well as patients with metastatic disease, tend to have the highest risk. For instance, elderly patients with newly-diagnosed lung cancer face roughly an 8% risk of stroke in the first year after being diagnosed with cancer. In addition, cancer patients’ stroke risk varies with time and is highest in the first 3 months after diagnosis, when some cancer patients face up to a 3-fold higher risk of stroke than usual. It also turns out that certain necessary and potentially life-saving cancer treatments, including some forms of chemotherapy and radiation, can increase stroke risk.

At the moment, the exact reasons why cancer patients face a heightened risk of stroke are unclear. It is well known that circulating cancer cells can alter individuals’ clotting systems to promote clot formation but exactly how they do this is uncertain. Furthermore, doctors know that certain chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments can damage blood vessels, but once again, the exact mechanisms underlying these processes are poorly understood.

At Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, my team is actively working to determine what the exact risks of stroke are in people with newly diagnosed cancer, what clinical factors and biomarkers in blood can help doctors identify high-risk patients, and what the optimal strategies are to prevent and treat stroke in cancer patients. One particular study that we are currently enrolling into is entitled MOST-Cancer. This study uses cutting-edge ultrasound and blood tests to evaluate the predictors and mechanisms of stroke in people with cancer. If you or a loved one has cancer and are interested in learning more about these studies, please email our team at stroketrials@med.cornell.edu or call 212-746-6757.

May is National Stroke Awareness Month. The main intent of this campaign is to raise awareness about the symptoms and signs of stroke and to educate the public to call 911 if they suspect stroke. The most popular campaign is FAST, which stands for Face, Arm, Speech, and Time – Time to call 911.

If you or a companion develops unexplained facial asymmetry, arm weakness, or speech changes, you should call 911 immediately so that an ambulance is activated to provide rapid delivery to the closest stroke center. This is imperative as there are medicines and surgical procedures that have been proven to improve outcomes after stroke but these are only effective in the first few hours after stroke onset. Therefore, if stroke is suspected, do not hesitate, call 911, as it could be life saving!

Furthermore, I recommend that cancer patients have a frank discussion with their doctors about their individual risks for stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, as well as potential strategies to reduce their risks through medicines and lifestyle modifications.

We’ve made great strides in oncological care so that patients routinely get cured or live many years with their disease. Therefore, it is now time that we turn our attention to long-term quality of life, and in particular, to preventing stroke and the other secondary complications of cancer.

Stroke_BE FAST SIGN NEW

8 Tips for a Healthy Mouth During Cancer Treatment

Four different colored toothbrushes in toothbrush holder.We grow up learning certain truths regarding the need to brush our teeth at least twice a day and visit the dentist on a regular basis, but during cancer treatment, our mouth needs can change.

Cancer treatment is designed to fight the cancer cells in your body, but in doing so can have a wide range of side effects. One of the main side effects of chemotherapy, the standard treatment for prostate, bladder, and testicular cancers, is changes that occur in the mouth. Chemotherapy can lower white blood cell, platelet, and red blood cell counts throughout the body, so patients are at increased risk for infections. Gum diseases, dental abscesses, and cavities are all infections that are prone to worsen during treatment.

While killing cancer cells, cancer treatment can also harm normal cells, such as the cells in the mouth. This can cause problems with your mucosa and gums (the soft lining of your mouth) and the glands that make saliva. Additionally, both chemotherapy and radiation treatment can cause mucositis, a side effect that involves an inflammation of the lining of the mouth and can lead to red, painful sores.

Here are 8 tips to maintain good oral hygiene and ease mouth pain during cancer treatment:

  1. Visit your dentist early in treatment. See if your doctor can identify potential sources of dental infection or irritation prior to starting chemotherapy. Get any dental cleanings, teeth extractions, and fillings at least 2 weeks before starting treatment. This will help to prevent mouth problems so that you can get the most out of your cancer treatment.
  2. Brush your teeth. During treatment, do not neglect brushing your teeth at least 3 times a day. Use a brush with soft bristles and be gentle on your gums. Consider using a toothpaste designed for sensitive teeth and gums, and make sure that your toothpaste contains fluoride to prevent cavities and tooth demineralization, especially if you have a dry mouth. If you wear dentures, make sure that they are adjusted properly with a comfortable fit. Brush and rinse your dentures after meals and do not wear them while sleeping.
  3. Keep your gums healthy. Floss regularly as long as your platelet count is above 20,000. This is to minimize inflammation of the soft tissues in your mouth which can lead to dental disease, bleeding and infection if your blood counts are low. If possible, start a good flossing routine prior to starting chemotherapy so that your gums are healthy going into treatment.
  4. Pay attention to what you eat. What you put in your mouth matters, and not just in terms of maintaining a balanced diet during treatment. Read package labels to find out what’s in the foods you’re eating, as this will help determine what may irritate your mouth. Hot and spicy sauces can increase pain and sensitivity, especially if you have sores in your mouth. Caffeinated beverages and alcohol can increase mouth dryness, and vinegars, citrus and tomato juices have a lot of acidity which can also irritate the mouth. Be in tune with which foods might be triggers, and if eating out, ask whether sauces and dressings can be omitted or served on the side.
  5. Modify your diet as needed. If your mouth is sore, eating soft, bland, room-temperature food may help. If your mouth is dry, you can add extra moisture to foods in the form of sauces, oils, milk or broth to aid in swallowing. Foods such as eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, soups, cooked vegetables, pudding, milkshakes and smoothies can often be tolerated when your mouth is sore or dry. If you experience taste changes, experiment with different foods at different temperatures.
  6. Cut down on sugar. Avoid foods that have a lot of sugar because your teeth are more vulnerable to infections and cavities during cancer treatment. Beware of sugar content in beverages such as soda, juice, coffee, tea and sports drinks.
  7. Rinse daily with alcohol-free mouthwash. Many types of mouthwash wash contain alcohol, which can burn your mouth and contribute to oral dryness. Keep your mouth moist with an alcohol-free mouthwash. If you suffer from dry mouth, suck on sugar-free lozenges to stimulate saliva flow. Keep your lips moist with a natural lipbalm containing bees-wax or lanolin to prevent chapping or cracking. Do not use petroleum based lip balms as these can contribute to lip dryness.
  8. Know when to speak up. Be sure to reach out to your healthcare team and dentist if you’re experiencing any of the following: Swelling or pain in the mouth or jaw, trouble swallowing, mouth ulcerations that do not heal within one week, white patches in the mouth, a burning mouth sensation, or severe oral dryness.

At Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, we provide supportive oral care before, during and after cancer treatment. To learn more about the services we offer, click here. To make an appointment with a dentist at our center who specializing in treating cancer patients, please call Dr. Heidi Hansen at 212-746-5115.

For additional information about oral care during cancer therapy, visit the below links:
  • NCI: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/mouth-throat
  • American Dental Association: http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/c/cancer-dental-health
  • American Academy of Oral Medicine: Information on Dry Mouth, Information on Mucositis
  • NIH (oral mucositis): https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000047.htm

Special thanks to Heidi Hansen, DMD for her contributions to this article.

You’re Invited: Celebrate the End of Movember!

Each November, we are proud to participate in the Movember campaign by growing moustaches and raising money to increase awareness and support for men’s health issues. The Movember Foundation is committed to funding research that will halve the number of deaths from prostate and testicular cancer by 2030. At Weill Cornell Medicine, we too are committed to reducing cancer deaths and increasing cures, and we’ve been fortunate to receive many Movember research grants over the past several years.

We hope you can join us for a happy hour to raise money for this important cause and to celebrate the end of Movember! It’s also your last chance to see our ‘staches until next year.

Where?
Draught 55
245 East 55th Street
New York, NY 10022
When?
Thursday, December 1, 2016
6:30pm  – 8:30pm

Buy your tickets today for the early bird special– $35 includes 2 complimentary drinks, food, a chance to win an iPad mini, and more!

All ticket proceeds will be matched and benefit our Movember team, the Wild Weill Cornell Mos.

Special thanks to Bill Foxx and Onco360 for sponsoring the complimentary food and beverages. 

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Learn more about our participation in Movember, why we’re so committed to the cause, and other ways you can get involved.