Cancer Care During Extreme Weather: Precautions and Considerations

Blizzard on the road.With winter upon us, it is important for cancer patients to be prepared in the case of severe weather. During severe weather, such as a blizzard, it may be difficult to get to Weill Cornell Medicine. All of our physician practices have coverage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so if you have any urgent questions or concerns, please call the regular number and you will be able to reach the on-call physician.

If you are due for an infusion or injection during an episode of severe weather, we can discuss the risks/benefits of finding a safe way to get to the treatment center vs. delaying treatment vs. finding an alternative temporary treatment center.

Storms can cause travel delays, especially on roads, so consider allowing for extra time and taking public transportation whenever possible. Drive slowly, and remember that injuring yourself in an accident may also impact your cancer care. It may also be an option for you to stay in a hotel near the hospital to avoid hazardous road conditions.

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center is open to serve patients 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In the event that the outpatient center is closed or unavailable due a natural disaster (which is rare), the emergency department will likely be open.

If you are uncertain about travel conditions, the emergency hotline is 212-746-WCMC (9262). Travel alerts for road conditions are released by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). If you are having a medical emergency or need an ambulance, dial 212-472-2222 or 911.

For people undergoing cancer treatment, blizzards and cold winter weather can impact more than just the ability to travel to treatment. Patients are more susceptible to hypothermia since side effects of treatment can be dehydration, fatigue, and anemia. Patients undergoing or having previously received certain types of chemotherapy can experience extreme sensitivity to the cold. Other chemo patients can actually feel less sensitivity to the cold and a decreased sensation in the hands and feet. This may lead to a major problem because it puts you at risk for frostbite since you are unaware of how cold it really is. Also, patients with lower than normal amount of platelets in the blood, might result in more serious bruising or bleeding with an injury or fall.

It’s important that patients feel safe and prepared to “weather the storm” during severe weather, including a loss of power or blackout. When weather or other issues can be anticipated, make sure you have enough medication and food/supplies on hand.

In general, but especially after severe inclement weather, be sure to communicate with your physician and healthcare team if anything out of the ordinary happened. For example, close the communications loop if you ended up going somewhere else for treatment or ran out of medication. This way we can make sure we update your medical records.

Most importantly, trust your instincts and don’t panic in bad weather. Wishing everyone a very safe rest of winter!

Immunotherapy and Prostate Cancer: What You Should Know

Cancer CureImmunotherapy, broadly defined as using the body’s own immune system to fight cancer, is one of the most exciting developments in cancer care. In oncology, for some patients using an immunotherapy treatment approach has resulted in some deep and prolonged responses.

The field of genitourinary (GU) oncology one was of the first sub-specialty areas to utilize immunotherapy and compared to many other tumor types, GU oncology has been using it for the longest amount of time — particularly for kidney (renal) and bladder cancers. There have been more recent advances across the board in immunotherapy, including the approval of atezolizumab by the FDA for bladder and urothelial cancers, marking the first new treatment for that tumor type in nearly three decades. Additionally, in select patients who have advanced urothelial cancer that has not responded to platinum-based chemotherapy, adding immunotherapy with pembrolizumab to the treatment regimen improved survival.

In the modern treatment era, prostate cancer was one of the first cancers to show a survival advantage with immunotherapy, specifically sipuleucel-T. Also known by the brand name Provenge, sipuleucel-T stimulates the immune system to seek out cancer cells and attack them. It represents the first therapeutic cancer vaccine in any cancer (treatment-focused as opposed to prevention-focused), and is FDA-approved for men with metastatic hormonal-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC). Unfortunately, not all men respond to this treatment. At Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, we are looking to improve responses to sipuleucel-T with our Newlink-sponsored study of sipuleucel-T followed by indoximod/placebo. In addition, since it is difficult to tell which patients are the best fit for this treatment and which ones are responding to sipuleucel-T, we continue collaborations with other researchers to work on developing blood tests to find biomarkers to help men in the future.

Additionally, recent data from the 2016 European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO) annual meeting demonstrated promising results for using pembrolizumab (also called Keytruda) in metastatic hormonal resistant prostate cancer. This immunotherapy that works by inhibiting the PD-1 pathway and has been recently approved in other tumor types, such as melanoma and lung cancer. An initial study of the drug across different tumor types was highlighted at the ESMO meeting with significant responses in a proportion of men with prostate cancer whose cancers grew despite essentially all known therapies. In addition, a study influenced by and subsequently performed by different groups of WCM collaborators demonstrated that five men with progressive metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer had major responses to this immune therapy, with PSA’s dropping by more than 99% and tumors greatly shrinking on scans. While all types of immunotherapy can lead to serious side effects, the treatment was generally very well-tolerated with minor side effects.

We are continuing the work to further define the subsets of men with advanced prostate cancer who can benefit from immunotherapy and we have a newly opened study of pembrolizumab for men with mCRPC. In this study, three groups of men will receive open-label (i.e. no placebo) pembrolizumab to test efficacy as measured by tumor shrinkage. We will also assess PSA changes and duration of tumor response, as well as biomarkers to help us determine in the future which men will receive the greatest benefit from this treatment.

Another promising immunotherapy-based prostate cancer treatment uses the monoclonal antibody (mAb) J591. J591 can recognize a protein antigen known as PSMA (also known as anti-prostate-specific membrane antigen) that is expressed on virtually all prostate cancer cells, and more heavily expressed in men with treatment-resistant metastatic forms of the disease. At the recent ESMO conference, we presented two clinical trials of J591 immunotherapy that are currently in progress here at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. One is for men with advanced prostate cancer and high (unfavorable) circulating tumor cell (CTC) count and the other delivers two doses of J591 prior to prostatectomy for men with intermediate and high risk prostate cancer. These trials are based upon the prior track record of this antibody in men with prostate cancer, including the fact that in initial pilot studies, men with advanced prostate cancer and a high number of CTCs had a decrease in tumor cell counts after J591. In addition, a prior study of J591 in combination with low-dose interkeukin-2 (IL-2) indicated that men with biochemically recurrent prostate cancer (rising PSA) did not develop metastatic disease as would have been expected without this intervention, and those with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer lived significantly longer than expected.

We also continue to utilize antibodies to deliver chemotherapy or radioactive particles to tumor cells with the intent of sparing normal cells. Three of these types of immunotherapy studies are currently enrolling for men with advanced prostate cancer, with others in development.

  • IMMU-132: This compound consists of a drug attached to an antibody which recognizes Trop2, a target that is over-expressed on prostate cancer cells. The antibody carries SN38, the active ingredient in irinotecan, which has shown prior responses in solid tumors. The drug has shown promising activity in breast and bladder cancer and is now being studied in prostate cancer.
  • Rovalpituzumab Tesirine “Rova-T” in Delta-Like Protein 3 (DLL3)-Expressing Advanced Solid Tumors: Our research has demonstrated that neuroendocrine prostate cancer (NEPC), one of the most aggressive and treatment-resistant prostate cancer subtypes, highly expresses DLL3. Rova-T uses an antibody to hone in on cells with DLL3 and take along a potent toxin to target those specific cells.
  • 177Lu-J591 + ketoconazole: In this clinical trial, J591 is radiolabeled with 177Lutetium, (177Lu) in order to deliver the drug directly to the prostate cancer cells. It is given in combination with an oral hormonal therapy drug which both attacks prostate cancer and at the same time, increases expression of PSMA, which is recognized by J591, leading to more targeting of the otherwise invisible tumor cells.

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.