Precision medicine treatment update for advanced NSCLC (Dec 2016)

If you have been diagnosed with advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), please read this blog post.  It could buy you months or years of good living.  Lung cancer treatments are advancing so fast that your cancer doctor may not know this information–even if they are at a major academic cancer center.

Scientific evidence is accumulating that genomic testing and targeted therapies for cancer patients who have advanced non-small cell lung cancer make a significant difference in outcomes.  By “significant difference,” I mean a year or more of survival with good quality of life.  Genomic testing and a targeted therapy have given me no evidence of disease for four years despite my metastatic lung cancer.  Now THAT’s is a significant difference!

Genomic testing looks at the cancer cells DNA for alterations in certain genes that may be driving the cell to act like cancer.  FDA-approved drugs are available that can target some of these driver genes (EGFR, ALK, and ROS1) and inhibit the cancer–these drugs are called “targeted therapy.”  Targeted therapy for other driver genes are available through clinical trials.  These drugs do not cure, but they are usually more effective and more tolerable than chemo.  Not every NSCLC cancer will have a driver gene, and not every driver gene has an effective treatment.  However, it’s worth investigating, because about 60% of NSCLC adenocarcinoma patients likely DO have a driver gene that can be targeted with an approved or experimental drug (per the LCMC II study).

Guidelines from the College of American Pathologists (CAP), the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC), and the Association of Molecular Pathologists (AMP) recommend analyzing either the primary NSCLC cancer tumor or a metastatic tumor for EGFR and ALK, regardless of patient characteristics (such as age, race, or smoking history). The National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines for metastatic non-small cell lung cancer strongly recommend testing for alterations in EGFR, ALK, and ROS1 genes, as well a broader genomic panel to look for driver genes that might have clinical trials available.

A recent article is a great reference on this subject for both physicians and for patients who want to learn more about their options.  It discusses evidence-based molecular testing options, driver genes, and available targeted therapy options, including off-label use of FDA-approved drugs for patients whose cancer mutation does not yet have an approved treatment. It also provides references to professional society guidelines and key journal articles.  The authors are Lecia V Sequist, MD, MPH (Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School–an EGFR superdocs and a member of LUNGevity’s Scientific Advisory Board) and Joel W Neal, MD, PhD (Assistant Professor of Medicine–Oncology, Stanford University/ Stanford Cancer Institute).

Those of you with advanced NSCLC might want to share the article with your cancer doctor.

Personalized, genotype-directed therapy for advanced non-small cell lung cancer by Lecia V Sequist, MD, MPH, and Joel W Neal, MD, PhD

Research and new treatments are moving faster than most cancer physicians can track.  Patients with advanced NSCLC can increase their chances of survival if they learn more about their disease.  I hope this blog helps you do that.

Guest Blog by Dann Wonser: Do I stay in my clinical trial?

My friend and fellow lung cancer patient Dann Wonser recently blogged an update about his treatment status.  In it, he shared how he made his decision about whether to stay in his targeted therapy clinical trial after the drug received FDA approval.  It’s a worthwhile discussion–an increasing number of cancer patients will face such decisions as more targeted therapies are approved–so I asked his permission to share it on my blog.  The entire text is listed below.

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NEW SCAN RESULTS + CLINICAL TRIAL DECISION

published December 17, 2015 by 

Friends and Family,

After our usual pre-scan hyper-sensitivity to every indigestion burp, cough, or body ache, I kicked my anxiety into overdrive by getting a cold/flu. It gave me all the symptoms of lung cancer gone rampant: Difficulty breathing, heavy chest, cough, feeling not so great. Then we flew to San Diego, where Dr. Patel gave us the good news: No new growth! We’re celebrating!!! We are now a couple of months past the average time that Tagrisso usually remains effective, which leaves me even more grateful. I have another six weeks of sweet life, and have bought another six weeks of time for the next new drugs to be developed before I need them. Clinical researchers out there, you are my heroes! Keep up the great work!

A couple weeks ago I asked what you would do if you had the choice of ending the clinical trial, but continuing to get the same medication in my home town. I thought I had probably covered the major topics pretty well, but found that there was much more to consider after listening to your thoughts. Thank you for contacting me through every means imaginable to share your thoughtful contributions! If you just want to know what I decided, skip straight to the bottom of this email. If all the facets of this decision fascinated you as much as they have me, keep reading and I’ll share what I learned from you.

First, Tagrisso is so new that the insurance company may not cover it, or may not have a contract with a pharmacy that carries it. They may also have a much higher co-pay for a new drug. This could critical, since the reported cost is $425 per pill. That’s right: $425 per day. I am very fortunate to have an insurance plan that has a maximum out-of-pocket expense. I usually meet that annual maximum out-of-pocket around January 7th, 🙂 and then I’m covered 100% for the year.

But what about those who do not have such great coverage? Fortunately, Astra Zeneca has a patient assistance program. See  http://www.astrazeneca-us.com/medicines/help-affording-your-medicines/ if you are in this boat. I believe other drug companies have similar programs… Worth checking out.

Several people told me they would get out of the clinical trial as soon as possible, to cut radiation exposure in half, by having half as many CT scans. Ashley, my clinical trial coordinator, petitioned the study sponsor to decrease the scan frequency for everyone. I’m impressed, and very grateful! Thank you, Ashley! Hey, I know it’s a long shot, but I appreciate the advocacy!

A friend and fellow blogger, Linnea Olson, actually contacted her study sponsor herself. Way to be your own advocate, Linnea!

But how much radiation is too much? Fortunately, I know someone who has spent years measuring radiation levels in workers at a nuclear-related facility. She can’t give an accurate response without knowing the radiation dose levels of the CT scans, but her best estimate is that the dose is still less than the daily level of radiation considered safe for workers in the nuclear industry. I don’t know whether that makes me feel relieved, or worried for the nuclear workers. All the same, it would be helpful to get dose info from a radiologist who does CT scans. I’ll work on it.

Several people mentioned the advantages of staying close to clinical researchers who are on the cutting edge of treatment. How could I replace that?

The length of the clinical trial was questioned. Dr. Patel has no idea how much longer the trial will continue. However, I have the choice of exiting the trial at any point.

Several of you mentioned the importance of contributing to research that affects the lives of so many. More data will help guide more research, and benefit more people.

The travel expense is not the biggest issue, but one that seemed reasonable for the drug company to cover at this point. The cost is roughly the equivalent to the price of one pill ($425) every six weeks.  UCSD told me that they never go back to the sponsor to ask for travel assistance. So…. I bypassed the system! I have my own Astra Zeneca connections, so I made my own request. We all have to be our own advocates.

I asked Genevieve how this impacts her, since she makes every trip with me. She dismissed the question as trivial and irrelevant. That says a lot about love, doesn’t it? She’s a keeper!

One friend, Joe, had a more noble take. He said that it’s good to stay with the girl that brought you to the dance, and make sure she gets home safe. In other words, since this clinical trial saved my life, perhaps loyalty should be a consideration.

Thank you  all for making me consider so much more, and in so much more depth. It makes me feel more comfortable with my decision… to stay with the clinical trial. You helped me crystalize that my biggest concern was the radiation, which I feel a little better about now. You also helped me to decide just how important it is to contribute to the research, and to realize that the most important factor for me is sticking close to Dr. Sandip Patel. He is the most cutting-edge oncologist that I know about for my situation, and I have direct access to him. That is irreplaceable.

Wishing you happy holidays, and decisions you can live with.

Love,

Dann

Alive for Thanksgiving

Today those of us in the USA celebrate Thanksgiving.  I have much for which to be thankful.

I’m thankful I beat the lung cancer odds and lived to see this day. No matter how much longer I may have, each day is a gift.

I’m thankful for my family (whether related by blood, marriage, or adoption)—husband, children, siblings, nieces and nephews, cousins, and companion animals. I’m grateful for the time I get to spend with each of you.

I’m thankful for my friends, who became family through shared interests and experiences. You bring me joy whenever we’re together.

I’m thankful for the beauty and majesty of the Pacific Northwest, and the wondrous, awesome, fascinating universe in which it fits.  I never tire of learning how it all works.

I’m thankful for the arts.  They stimulate my senses and inspire my imagination, often when I most need it.

I’m thankful to have a home and enough resources to live comfortably. I know many people locally and globally are not so lucky.

I’m thankful to live where I’m allowed to say what I think freely.

I’m thankful for the researchers, healthcare professionals, organizations and techies that made it possible for me and other patients to live another day.

I’m thankful for people who care for lung cancer patients.  If a friend or loved one has metastatic lung cancer, ask if you can help them learn about mutation testing, targeted therapies, and clinical trials. You might help buy them more time. And more time is precious.

Happy Turkey Day, everyone!