Researchers around the world are searching nonstop for safer, more effective cancer treatments. Yet many people who are diagnosed think they have only three choices: chemotherapy, radiation or open surgery. That’s not always true. For many patients, other treatment options are available.
Be sure to ask your doctor to discuss newer therapies that may be available. To help you understand all of the options, oncologist Nicole Schmitt, M.D., from the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, explains the latest cancer treatment breakthroughs — and their benefit to patients.
Advancements You Should Know
Q: What is immunotherapy?
A: Unlike bacteria and viruses, cancer cells are good at evading your body’s natural defenses. Immunotherapy helps rev up your immune system to recognize and attack malignant cells.
Immunotherapy has become one of the biggest game changers in the cancer world. Within my own specialty, we’ve seen significant improvements in survival rates. Before immunotherapy, the survival rates for head and neck cancer hadn’t changed in over 30 years.
Q: What is targeted therapy?
A: As the name implies, targeted therapy drugs focus on specific genes — or “targets” — used by cancer cells to grow and spread.
Because targeted therapy drugs work so precisely, patients avoid some of the unpleasant side effects and toxicities of traditional treatments. Head and neck cancers, for example, are often treated with platinum-based chemotherapies, which can damage the liver and kidneys. For many patients, targeted therapies may be safer and easier to tolerate.
Like immunotherapy, targeted therapies can also be used to treat cancers that didn’t respond to other therapies first or have come back.
Q: How have surgical techniques improved?
A: Some cancer centers now offer robotic, minimally invasive procedures. These robotic systems allow doctors to better access hard-to-reach parts of the body. Patients who choose robotic surgery typically have smaller scars and faster recoveries.
For some cancers, robotic surgery is a standard practice. For others, it’s a new advancement. In particular, there’s been exciting progress for oropharyngeal cancers, which are located in the throat and are difficult to remove without newer tools and techniques. Before, patients with oropharyngeal cancer had only chemotherapy and radiation therapy, or larger, more invasive surgeries.
Q: What is precision medicine?
A: Precision medicine care is tailored to an individual’s background, genetics, lifestyle and disease type. Using these data, doctors create a personalized treatment plan.
Precision medicine is particularly interesting for salivary gland cancers, which are quite rare. Several studies have sequenced these tumors’ genes, which has allowed us to identify better, more effective drugs.
Q: How do I know what cancer treatments are available to me?
A: Keeping up with the world of cancer research can be overwhelming. Start with your doctor, who can act as a gatekeeper to new information and connect you with other experts. Feel empowered to ask him or her:
Do you know of any clinical trials nearby that might be right for me?
Are there other specialists I should be seeing?
What are the pros and cons of my treatment options?
If you were in my shoes, which course would you take?
I think the key is to be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team. Medical oncologists, social workers, radiation oncologists, surgeons and nutritionists all play an enormous role in cancer care, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t seek your full range of options.
Seeing more than one doctor may sound stressful, but I actually hear the opposite from patients. They’re often relieved that they have an entire team looking out for their well-being.
Leisha Emens, M.D., Ph.D., at the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, is working to move the science of immunotherapy forward for faster and longer lasting treatment responses.