Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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It's Guns vs. Butter (Again): How Do We Reconcile Expensive Cancer Treatments With The Need To Improve The Basics Of Cancer Care?

by Dr. Len June 03, 2013

As we walk the halls and sit in the lectures at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, there's an elephant in the room. It is right there in front of us, but not many of us seem willing to talk about it. Fewer still are making any commitments to do something about it.

So what is this ubiquitous juxtaposition that is right in front of us but we can't seem to see?

It is the contrast between incredibly sophisticated science and computer data that will help us understand cancer and its treatment vs. the reality that we can't have medical records that really work. It is the fact that we have million dollar machines to treat cancer but we have tens of thousands of lives lost to cervical cancer in underdeveloped and underserved countries that could be saved with saved using vinegar. It is cancer care's version of the "guns vs. butter" debate of the 1960s. More...

Maybe It Really Is Different This Time For Patients With Advanced Melanoma

by Dr. Len June 03, 2013

Every convention and large meeting has a theme, and at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago the theme is "Building Bridges To Conquer Cancer." But for me, the theme as articulated in my blog the other day is "Is it really different this time?" Some agree with me and some don't, but that's OK. I am wearing a badge that says I am a "35 year member of ASCO" (I actually have been attending these meetings longer than that) so I perhaps have a bit of a different perspective than those younger than me. And there is plenty of commentary to back up my well-meaning and hopefully thought provoking conservatism.

In one of the major "award" lectures yesterday, Dr. Charles Sawyers from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York pointed out the disappointment we have had with many of our newer targeted therapies that once held the promise of truly making cancer a chronic disease. They are exciting in the beginning, but for many patients the responses are not long enough. As Dr. Sawyers noted, cancer cells eventually win the battle, and become resistant to the treatmentIn this context I was having another one of those ubiquitous hallway discussions with one of my friends and former colleagues who now runs a major advocacy/research organization focused on melanoma when she touted the new research and drugs available to treat advanced melanoma. And I said the words, "Is it really different this time?" to which she responded, "Yes, it is." And I said I wasn't so certain. So at her persistent urging, I went to the melanoma session yesterday to see for myself. And I sent my friend an email where I wrote, "You win" and to which she responded, "Told you so."

What changed? What made me eat the proverbial crow? Why is it different this time? More...

Genomics And Personalized Medicine: Is It Really Different This Time?

by Dr. Len June 01, 2013

Another year and another annual meeting for the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago. This is a meeting that regularly attracts many thousands of doctors, researchers, pharmaceutical folks and others interested in the science and business of cancer from around the globe to learn, to discuss, to persuade, to educate on the progress being made in clinical cancer research and treatment.

And like every year, there are themes that emerge, that tend to dominate the discussions. And there are other themes that aren't so visible, that don't get as much attention yet in my mind are equally important as they reflect not only on the item of the moment but on how we deliver on the promises we have made in the past and the hopes we all have for the future.

Clearly, the dominant and visible theme at this year's gathering is personalized medicine.

What strikes me about this topic is that over the past year it has gone from a "niche" discussion to a dominant theme not only here at ASCO but everywhere I turn. I am even seeing routine television news shows and commentators talking about the promise of personalized medicine. A talk that I planned six months ago to deliver in a couple of weeks from now in Boston where I was going to discuss (once again) the promise of personalized medicine in cancer care is now passé. Everyone knows about it, thanks to the incredible coverage it has been receiving literally everywhere. Now anyone who has been paying attention to the evening news could give that talk. The topic is ubiquitous.

So what is personalized medicine? At heart, what this is all about is harnessing our exploding knowledge of the human genome and applying it to the treatment of severe disease for individuals based on genetic analysis. Our focus today is on cancer, but other diseases such as degenerative brain diseases also will be impacted by our knowledge of the human genome.

As I sat in a lecture yesterday afternoon on the topics of genomics and personalized medicine, I was amazed about how much knowledge we have garnered in what appears to be such a short period of time. We now are hearing about new approaches to analyze how cancer cells work to discover master regulatory cells. The promise, of course, now that we have insight into the pathways of how cancer cells work internally is that we can target our efforts to those master regulators and conquer them, thus converting the cancer cell back to normality. Sounds simple, but it's not. And it has taken a lot of research to get us to that point.

So one comes away from those discussions imbued with a new enthusiasm that the cure is around the corner. We are almost there. We will succeed--hopefully in the very near term.

But then I pinch myself and say, "Really?" More...

American Cancer Society Celebrates Its 100 Year Anniversary Today With A Vision Of Making This Century Cancer's Last

by Dr. Len May 22, 2013

One hundred years.

That is a long time. And although thriving, remaining relevant and engaged for 100 years is a remarkable accomplishment for any organization, the American Cancer Society today takes pride not only in reflecting on the accomplishments of the last 100 years but also in our commitment to continue the fight, and make this century cancer's last.

A lot will be written about the remarkable accomplishments of the Society over the past century. The American Cancer Society takes pride in the fact that it has been able to serve millions of people during that time. It has put its mark on numerous improvements in the science and treatment of cancer. We have made incredible strides in understanding cancer, what causes it and what influences it, including the role of tobacco and overweight/obesity. We have funded 46 Nobel Prize winners at some time during their careers, frequently when they needed a start to develop their theory which led to great discoveries. And we have funded numerous investigators who have made other important and lifesaving contributions to understanding cancer and reducing its burden.

But the list is not complete. There is still too much we don't understand about cancer, its causes, and its impacts on patients, their families, their communities. We have come to a "tipping point" in the cycle where we have unlocked the genetic code of cancer and are just beginning to transform that information into lifesaving treatments. We wrestle with the early detection and prevention of some cancers, at a time when we thought--incorrectly, as it turns out--that simply finding cancer early was enough. We struggle with finding a way to get access to lifesaving or life comforting treatments to those who are diagnosed with cancer but don't have the resources to follow their journey in the best way possible. We have millions of survivors, yet understand too little about the problems they face long term, let alone being able to provide them with a system of care to respond to their needs. We have made remarkable progress in keeping children with cancer alive, free of disease into adulthood, but we haven't acknowledged the terrible price some of them have to pay from the side effects of their treatments. More...

Dr. Len Says: When It Comes To Skin Cancer, Do As I Say, Not As I Do

by Dr. Len May 14, 2013

So May is skin cancer awareness month. No time like the present to come out with the news: I have been diagnosed with skin cancer.

There really isn't much special about that, since it is a distinction I share with over 2 million Americans who have a skin cancer removed every year. Fortunately, for most, it is a cancer that is not of particular concern since most can be removed. But even those "simple" surgeries--as I have learned from my own experience--can be a bit problematic.

Occasionally it helps to find some humor in difficult situations, and this is one of those times. And since I am generally pretty open about what goes on in my aging body--in an effort to help others understand that they are not alone on some of these issues--I have to hold myself out as an example of what NOT to do when it comes to taking care of yourself.

You see, I am supposed to know this stuff about skin cancer. I know the risks, I know how to prevent it, I know what it looks like, and I know what we are supposed to do when we see a suspicious lesion. Not only do I know these things, I talk and write about them frequently. I am supposed to have a certain level of expertise about skin cancer. In fact, this very month if you happen to be in a doctor's office and they have a closed circuit program from CNN's Accent Health, you will see my smiling face telling you what you need to know about skin cancer.

And if you look closely at my chin in that segment, you will see the little nodule on the left hand side that I chose to ignore--until some friends of mine would not let me ignore it any longer. More...

A New Genomic Test To Guide Prostate Cancer Treatment: What We Know And What We Don't

by Dr. Len May 09, 2013

Coming to an office near you: a new test that can "confidently" predict whether or not you need to have aggressive therapy for your newly diagnosed prostate cancer.

Really?

That's what the press reports would lead you to believe. And it's really going to catch your attention if you're one of the tens of thousands of men who will have to decide what to do if you are diagnosed with prostate cancer that has what we call "favorable characteristics." And with the test coming to market, you would assume that your doctor would have a good understanding of whether or not it works based on the available studies and information. But guess what? The likelihood of that is pretty low, because your doctor has probably been reading the same press reports as the rest of us, since the scientific studies that doctors should rely on to make decisions about this test are simply not available. But the website promoting the test is there for all to see.

Do I sound a bit skeptical? Well, maybe I am. Because if the PSA experience has taught us anything about testing for prostate cancer, it is that we should learn the evidence before we leap. And in this current circumstance, we don't have much-if anything-to learn from outside of company press releases and promotional materials and media reports coming from the scientific meeting where an abstract (#2131) of the research supporting the test was presented this week. More...

National Minority Health Month Is A Call To Action

by Dr. Len April 18, 2013

April is National Minority Health Month.

That's the "dry" statement. The impact statement is that-unfortunately-for many in this country, this is more than a phrase. It's a reality that their health and their health care are in crisis. And the sooner more of us understand this, the sooner we can make a genuine effort to implement effective strategies that will address the sad state of affairs many people find themselves in when it comes to their health, and preventing and appropriately treating their diseases.

This is about more than high blood pressure and diabetes. It's about heart disease and stroke and cancer and the list goes on. This is about neighborhoods were residents don't have a place to walk or may even have fear of walking outside their homes. This is about people living in communities where they can't find affordable, fresh vegetables and healthier foods. This is about not having access to a regular source of medical care, or getting timely treatment for conditions such as breast cancer which many of us take for granted. It is about assuring equitable and quality treatment once diagnosed. This is about the lack of trained health professionals from these communities who have roots and understanding of their cities, towns and neighborhoods where they might be able to make a real difference in the lives of so many people. More...

Is Cancer Research and Treatment Moving From Evolution To Revolution?

by Dr. Len April 09, 2013

Is our evolution becoming a revolution? Am I in danger of becoming a victim of the same "hope and hype" that I derided as a young oncologist in the 1970's and 80's and is currently the focus of some vocal critics of recent glowing media reports on the successes of cancer research and treatment?

Those are the questions I am asking myself as I reflect on the experiences I have had over the past two weeks. And although I may be proven wrong, I am becoming even more convinced that we are truly at the tipping point, the place where the sweat and tears of failure and slow progress give way to truly significant change in how we view, diagnose and treat cancer. More...

Maybe It's Time To Rethink Patient Safety When 1/3 Of The Cancer Professionals Would Have Prescribed The Wrong Treatment In Response To A Lecturer's Question

by Dr. Len March 20, 2013

I was sitting in a large lecture hall with about 1000 of my oncology colleagues this past week when I had one of "those moments." It wasn't a spectacular moment, and I doubt that anyone else in the room really paid much attention to the moment, but for me it was a significant moment--and frankly a bit chilling if not frightening.

In short, in answer to an audience response question--which admittedly is not a scientifically valid survey--over 1/3 of the oncology professionals sitting in the audience would have prescribed a treatment for advanced colon cancer that not only has been shown not to work, but also shorten lives. At that moment, I became very concerned about the implications of that response and what it may mean for patient care.

Maybe I am overdramatizing this a bit, but what happened pointed out to me that we may have a serious problem in cancer care, and it is imperative that we do something about it. More...

Two New Reports From eHealth Initiative Provide Valuable Information On eHealth Tools For Cancer Patients

by Dr. Len March 08, 2013

Since we have started the conversation about eHealth tools in my previous blog this week, I thought it might be worthwhile to explore some of the other applications and internet based programs that may be useful to cancer patients.

As I wrote in early February, I have become (and remain) infatuated with apps that have helped me track my activity and my diet. They have made a big difference for me and others I know, and continue to keep me motivated and on target. The larger question, however, is whether we can harness electronic media to help us live healthier lives, get better control of our health, or if we have an illness or disease, become more informed and more empowered.

For some diseases-like heart disease and diabetes-there appear to be no shortage of such efforts either to prevent illness or help manage illness once it occurs. However cancer is a different animal: it is not one disease but over 200. And it is far from uniform, even within particular cancer diagnoses. We have a lot to learn about cancer, its treatment, helping care givers and improving quality of life for cancer patients among many other topics. But actually harnessing social media and the internet to help our patients remains in very early stages of development for cancer compared to some other more common and perhaps more straightforward situations such as heart disease and diabetes.

So imagine a world where a patient has access to immediate information about their disease, its treatment, the side effects of the drugs, and how they can better manage the inevitable problems that arise during the diagnosis, treatment and recovery from cancer treatment. And further imagine harnessing that information to learn more about the disease and the treatments, the patients' reactions to the drug and the illness, how to connect caregivers, and then uploading that information in a useful digest so health care professionals can spot progress or problems, and help their patients in a more effective manner than is available through a short visit to the office.

That is the type of future we should all hope for. But we are not there yet, and we have a long way to go. The American Cancer Society is proud of its electronic health media offerings, which include our web information at www.cancer.org, our Cancer Survivors Network which links survivors from across the country to help guide each other with information and support, our "WhatNext" service which matches patients with other patients who have similar situations and demographics to learn more about their illness and treatment, and validate their own experiences with their cancer, and finally (and not least) our Circle of Sharing where patients can enter their information about their illness, let friends know how they are doing, and otherwise participate in their process of care.

All of those are good and worthy efforts. But what else is available and where can you get information? And more important, what is the current status of eHealth in cancer care, especially compared to other diseases?

Some answers to both questions were recently provided by an organization called e Health Initiative, or more fondly eHI. eHI is a collaboration among committed stakeholders from industry and non-profit sectors which brings together hundreds of organizations who are interested in promoting eHealth and making it a feasible and effective part of our health care in this country. (I have a special place in my heart for eHI, since the American Cancer Society has been involved with them for a number of years and I currently serve on their Leadership Council and board of directors).

The reports I referred to above are available on their website, and include one review of currently available eHealth programs from a variety of sources around the country. The second report was commissioned by the California HealthCare Foundation to address the availability and utilization of mobile health applications by underserved populations being treated for cancer, but in fact serves as a guide to the current status of mobile health in the larger context of cancer care. More...

About Dr. Len

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP - Dr. Lichtenfeld is Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society.

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