Keeping You Informed

What is on your care team's mind?
A lot of progress has been made in early detection and treatment for many cancers, but it is still a frightening diagnosis. Connecting with your care team at Nebraska Cancer Specialists through our care team blog will help you to learn more. Keep reading to find out more about our passionate care team as we share some of our thoughts on cancer with you.


Cancer Genetics - What Does It Mean?
By Dr. Margaret Block
June 5, 2017 

Cancer is not one disease; it is many different diseases with different causes, characteristics, and treatments. For some, the cause is known, such as hydrocarbon induced lung cancer (usually cigarettes, but can be cooking fires 🔥 and other hydrocarbon sources), asbestos induced mesothelioma, radiation induced leukemias and sarcomas. For others there are known risk factors that impact the incidence of those cancers, but are not the direct cause, such as association of red meat with breast, colon and prostate cancers.

Genetics, the genes you are born with, play a role in some cancers depending on the gene and the mutation. For instance, many (but not all) mutations of the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes (two genes that all humans have but only a small percentage of the population have harmful mutations of these) are associated with a high risk of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer. CHK2 mutations are associated with increased risk of breast and colon cancers. P53 mutations are associated with a large variety of different cancers as well as increased susceptibility to radiation induced cancers.

A clue to possible genetic mutations is the number and type of cancers in a family. Knowing your family history is important, including history of second degree relatives (aunts, uncles, grandparents) and more distant relatives, if possible. Other indicators of possible genetic mutation causing cancers in a person or family is age at diagnosis, having multiple cancers in one person, and certain types of cancer (such as triple negative breast cancer).

Until about 4 years ago, genetic testing was extremely expensive. Newer lab methods such as NextGen DNA sequencing, and a US Supreme Court ruling have made genetic testing much more available. In June 2013 the US Supreme Court ruled that human genes could not be patented since they are a natural human entity. Up until that time only one laboratory could test for BRCA 1&2 mutations. Following that ruling many other labs started to offer genetic testing, opening up competition and thus greater affordability 😊 .

I frequently come across the mistaken belief that genetic testing is for the benefit of a person's children. It is actually usually of great benefit to that individual. Results of cancer genetic testing may influence the surgery that the patient chooses (e.g. prophylactic hysterectomy in persons found to have Lynch syndrome after a diagnosis of colon cancer or prophylactic oophorectomy in carriers of harmful BRCA mutations), what screening tests they undergo to detect cancers at an early stage (e.g. more frequent colonoscopies for those with CHK2 mutations). Of course siblings, children and parents may also benefit if the patient chooses to share their medical information with them as well.

Unfortunately, genetic testing does not change the risk of future metastatic disease from an already diagnosed cancer, but it can lead to more prompt and earlier diagnosis of a new cancer.

So...if you or your family have a history of cancer, talk to your physician 👩‍⚕️ to see if you should consider testing for a harmful gene mutation.

 

Placebo Pills and Clinical Trials
By Dr. Margaret Block
December 29, 2016

Most people have heard of placebos but may not have a clear idea of exactly what is meant by this word. Placebo medications are medications with no active ingredients in them, what used to be called "sugar pills".

Many active drugs being developed are studied and compared to placebos to verify if the new drug works and to study what side effects may happen compared to placebo. What is surprising in many of these studies is HOW STRONG the placebo effect is. 

In some studies of antidepressants for example, the placebo effect was often as high as 75%, meaning that 75% of patients who took the "sugar pill" thought they were having significant benefit and reported such.

At the recent San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, a study of Cymbalta (duloxetine) vs placebo for treatment of muscle pain due to taking aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer treatment (such as letrozole and anastrazole), found 69% of patients reported improvement in their joint and muscle pains with Cymbalta. BUT so did 60% of patients on placebo, a difference of only 9%. Considering the side effects of the “real pill” the benefit of 9% is questionable at best.

Placebo pills can also "cause" side effects. In the study mentioned above, 70% of patients experienced side effects from the real drug but 50% had side effects from the placebo! I have a patient who started on a study (letrozole vs placebo) several years ago which was the pivotal trial leading to proof of benefit and increased length of being cancer free from breast cancer when letrozole was given for 5 years after tamoxifen. We all thought she had received the real drug as she was experiencing side effects, severe enough to drop out of the study. However, later when they released the study results, it was discovered she had actually been taking the placebo. At that point, to thank the patients who had been on placebo for being on the study, the study offered 5 years of free drug to the placebo patients since the study showed so much benefit. This patient went on to take the real drug without significant side effects for 5 years (and remains cancer free now for many years!)

The need for careful controlled placebo trials is self-evident. Without these trials, the placebo effect may be occurring and the drug or supplement may not only be ineffective but harmful. Always look for results of controlled scientific studies before deciding to take something for your health (including over the counter medications and supplements), be open to participating in trials yourself which bring new and better drugs to our cancer patients and don't forget about the placebo effect which can be deceiving to all!

 

Protect Your Skin
By Kari Cunningham
August 9, 2016

Summer is here and with that comes more outdoor activities and sun exposure. I remember looking forward to hot, sunny summer days working as a lifeguard when I was younger. I would lather on baby oil, lay out for hours at a time and never used sunscreen. My goal, along with many others, was to be the darkest lifeguard by the end of the summer! I had heard about people getting skin cancer, but never thought I would be at risk because I wasn’t “pale” and I hardly ever “burned”. However, a few years after graduating from high school a former lifeguard that I had worked with was diagnosed with skin cancer. She had the same skin type as me. I honestly panicked and went in to my doctor at age 22 and had my first head to toe skin exam. My primary care doctor at the time was the first person to really educate me on skin cancer and now I try to educate others. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States and it can happen to individuals of any skin color. It is also one of the most preventable types of cancer and easily treatable, if caught at an early stage. Staying out of the sun during the peak times (10am-4pm), using a broad spectrum sunblock, and staying out of tanning beds/tanning lights are ways to lessen you chance of getting skin cancer. If you find a suspicious area, have it checked out by a health care provider. And remember, treat your skin with respect…it is your largest organ!

 

Cancer Treatments: How Things Have Changed Over the Years
By Dr. Margaret Block
June 8, 2016

It's not always easy to read the news. Lots of bad things happening near and far. But sometimes there are stories that can warm your heart. I felt that way recently when I learned that former President Carter had been successfully treated for metastatic malignant melanoma. This was a disease that almost all therapy we had didn’t work for until recently. Sure, there were occasional ‘success stories' but few and far between. But recent advances in research with immune therapy with drugs that are stimulate the immune system have changed the world for the better for people whose melanoma has spread. All those many years of basic science research on cells and mice, research that seemed silly to many is now paying off big-time with successful drugs. Not to forget the patients who volunteered to be part of these studies when these drugs were ready to be tried in humans. But the story about Carter warms my heart for another reason as well. Carter is 91 years old. When I was in medical school the cardiac surgeons would not do bypass surgery on people over 70 because they were "too old". Really??? No one would dream of that today. Is 91 old? Most people would say yes. But will we still think that in 20-30 years? It's all relative. When a former president like Jimmy Carter gets treated successfully at his age he sets an example for us all: Treatments are better than yesterday and do work and, perhaps, just perhaps, I'm not as old as I (they) thought!