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

Mini Organs: What Organoids Can Tell Us

Historically, cancer research has been conducted using cell lines that grow in a petri dish. We’ve been able to learn a lot and make much progress in the fight against cancer using this approach, but it also has some limitations, as the environment is not truly reflective of the way cancer cells grow and metastasize within the human body – a three-dimensional (3-D) environment. Additionally, cell lines can mutate over time and then sometimes no longer reflect the genetic and molecular variants of cancer cells.

Over the past 10-15 years, medical research has evolved and grown (literally and figuratively) – what used to only be possible in sci-fi movies and imaginations is now a reality as we create mini-models of bodily organs in the laboratory. These 3-D structures are also known as organoids, and an exciting area of this research is related to cancerous tumors.

Cancer biopsies remove tumor cells directly from the body. Often these biopsies are conducted when a primary tumor is found and removed, and sometimes also if the cancer has grown and spread to other locations throughout the body. This is because tumor cells evolve and change over time, especially as they try to develop workarounds in response to treatment. From the tumor cells that are removed in a biopsy, we’re analyzing the pathology and learning about the cancer on the molecular and genetic level, including any mutations we may be able to target.

Another way we’re able to use these tumor cells is to grow organoids in order to replicate the tumor outside of the body. This 3-D representation of the tumor allows us to conduct research in a way that better addresses the complex structure of the cancer. It is a form of precision medicine or personalized medicine, and allows us to test how an individual patient’s cancer cells may respond to a wide range of treatments.

This video created by the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine provides an overview of how this process works:

Top 5 Diet and Cancer Myths

By Shayne Robinson, RD, CSO, CDN and Jackie Topol, MS, RD, CSO, CDN

RefrigeratorWe know that there is a great deal of conflicting information about nutrition that patients may receive from various sources. As Registered Dietitians who are board certified in oncology nutrition, we are here to clear up some of the confusion. Here are some of the most common nutrition myths we hear from patients:

Myth # 1 – Sugar feeds cancer.

Within the body, all carbohydrates break down to sugar which both healthy and cancer cells use for fuel. Research shows that the body responds to a high sugar intake by making more insulin and related growth factors, which influence cancer cell growth. However insulin levels also depend on genetic factors, physical activity, BMI (body mass index), metabolic syndrome (a group of medical conditions linked to insulin resistance) and the type of sugar you eat. Therefore just avoiding sugar is not the right plan for everybody. It’s important to maintain healthy blood sugar and insulin levels during cancer treatment and in general. In prostate cancer, hormonal therapy is associated with weight gain and the way the body processes sugar, so it’s important to be mindful of this when making dietary choices. Ongoing research is looking to target some of these pathways.

The key question to ask is “How much and what type of carbohydrates should I eat?” A Registered Dietitian who is specially certified in oncology nutrition (RD, CSO) can help you design a well-balanced eating plan that best fits your needs.

Reference: https://www.oncologynutrition.org/erfc/healthy-nutrition-now/sugar-and-cancer/

Myth #2 – I need to avoid raw fruits and vegetables.

Raw fruits and vegetables that have been washed can be eaten while you are receiving chemotherapy and/or radiation. If you have a very low neutrophil count (known as “neutropenia”) or a recent bone marrow transplant, your doctor or dietitian may recommend a low microbial diet. On the low microbial diet, you can eat most raw vegetables and most raw fruits that have a smooth skin or a thick peel. The fruits and vegetables we advise not consuming on the low microbial diet are the ones you cannot wash thoroughly or those that may have mold such as raw mushrooms, sprouts, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, grapes, peaches, and plums. In the current era of treatment for genitourinary cancers, most targeted therapies do not suppress the immune system or require a low microbial diet. Not all cancer patients will have to follow these guidelines since they are specifically for leukemia and bone marrow transplant patients. If you are not sure whether you should be following a low microbial diet or how long you should follow it for, we encourage you to speak to your doctor or dietitian. Additionally, there are certain oral treatments for kidney cancer that are linked with gastrointestinal side effects such as diarrhea. There are ways to include fruits and vegetables in the diet while taking these factors into account. There are many health benefits that go hand-in-hand with eating fruits and vegetables, so make sure to include them in your diet! If you are concerned that you may not be meeting your nutritional needs, you can make an appointment with one of our dietitians who can help.

Reference: https://www.foodsafety.gov/risk/cancer/index.html and NewYork-Presbyterian’s “Guidelines for the Low Microbial Diet”

Myth # 3 –  Certain foods will increase my white blood cell count.

Chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy, and cancers of the blood and bone marrow can damage bone marrow and lower white blood cell counts. These cells recover with time.  Blood counts are low because the bone marrow isn’t working properly, not because the body lacks the nutrients to make blood cells.

No specific foods or nutrients increase production of white blood cells, but if you have low blood counts it is very important that you eat well because a well-nourished person recovers quicker from treatment than a malnourished person. Specific foods or nutrients won’t speed up the recovery of your bone marrow, but you do want to eat well so that when your bone marrow recovers all the nutrients that are the building blocks for cells are available for your body to make the white blood cells. A Registered Dietitian specially certified in oncology nutrition (RD CSO) can help you ensure you are eating well and in turn optimize your white blood counts.

Reference: http://www.oncologynutrition.org/erfc/eating-well-when-unwell/white-blood-count-diet/

Myth # 4 – Cancer survivors must eat only organic produce.

Organically grown produce have lower pesticide residues and synthetic (man-made) food additives, but following an organic diet does not guarantee a healthy diet. In fact, avoiding conventionally grown produce may eliminate some healthy food options. In a study looking at 50 years of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventionally grown foods, the researchers concluded that organic and conventionally grown foods are not significantly different in their nutrient content. There have not been any direct studies on humans to show that organically grown produce can prevent cancer or other diseases any more effectively than conventionally grown foods.

What does this mean in terms of your grocery list? If you go into the market to buy a fresh organic apple, and they only have conventionally grown produce, don’t walk out with a bag of processed organic chips or cookies… A conventionally grown apple is a better choice than organic processed foods.

References:  www.mayoclinic.com/health/organic-food/NU00255
www.foodnews.org  (from the Environmental Working Group)

Myth # 5 – I need to avoid soy foods.

It is safe to eat soy! Research has shown that moderate consumption is safe for women with a history of breast cancer, including women previously diagnosed with estrogen receptor positive breast cancer, and that soy consumption may even decrease the likelihood of breast cancer recurrence. Confusion about soy arises from the term “phytoestrogens.” Some soy nutrients have a chemical structure that look a bit like the estrogen found in a woman’s body. This is where the term phytoestrogen originated. However, phytoestrogens are not the same thing as female estrogens. Soy foods do not contain estrogen. Men with prostate cancer who are taking hormonal therapies also commonly inquire about the impact of eating soy, but again, soy is okay to eat. If you consume soy products, we recommend choosing whole soy foods such as such as soymilk, tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy nuts, and miso. You can have up to two servings per day.  One serving would be 1 cup of soymilk; ½ cup of tofu, tempeh, or edamame; ¼ cup of soy nuts; or 1 tablespoon of miso paste. It is best to get soy directly from foods sources; we do not recommend taking a soy isoflavones supplement.

References: http://www.oncologynutrition.org/erfc/hot-topics/soy-and-breast-cancer/; http://www.oncologynutrition.org/erfc/hot-topics/soy-and-hormone-related-cancers/

Nothing replaces the individualized counseling you will receive from working with an RD on a one-on-one basis. We’re here to help you.

shayne Robinson_head shot 2Shayne Robinson RD, CSO, CDN is an oncology dietitian at New York-Presbyterian.  To make an appointment, call the Outpatient Nutrition Practice at (212) 746-0838 (physician referral required). 

Jackie Topol RD_Headshot_jgt9003
Jackie Topol, MS, RD, CSO, CDN is an integrative dietitian at
Integrative Health at NYP – Weill Cornell Medicine, located at 211 East 80th Street. To make an appointment, please call: 646-962-8690.