Category Archives: Patient Resources

Clinical Trial for NEWLY DIAGNOSED–Surgery Now or Later with an Immune Therapy Option

Kidney cancer patients are stunned by their diagnosis, anxious to make a treatment decision, and  simply not know what to expect.  If you are struggling with the issue of surgery to remove the tumor/kidney or to start with a med, you need to read this.  Deb Maskens, Kidney Cancer Patient and Patient Advocate, our guest writer is a valued member of our disease community and currently serves on the Renal Task Force for the National Cancer Institute.  A series of links below will also be helpful.  (My extra comments will be in italics, like this. )Welcome aboard, Deb! 

Clinical Trial Opportunity for Newly Diagnosed (Non Metastatic) Kidney Cancer

As a community of kidney cancer patients, we  hear from newly diagnosed patients  looking for treatment options. This is written for those patients, and for patient advocates who help patients navigate through their treatment decisions.

The challenge: this clinical trial is available at many locations across the U.S. and Canada, but patients must ask about it BEFORE they have a nephrectomy. Their own doctors may be unaware of the trial and how to work with the trial centres.  In many places, patients get booked for surgery prior to learning about this option.  That would be too late for a trial like this–it gives a drug therapy before the surgery for a brief period.  (In one of the t wo arms, there is medication before the surgery.)

Why Might Patients Consider this Trial?

For years, the standard of care for early stage kidney cancer has been to remove the tumour surgically, sometimes with the entire kidney–either a partial or full nephrectomy. That was the end of treatment and the beginning of surveillance to watch for any signs of recurrence.  (And early stage tumors can be quite large–up to 7cm or about 2 3/4″.)

Now we hope to prevent a recurrence of disease. Since advanced or metastatic kidney cancer is still incurable for the vast majority of patients, this is a worthy goal. With preventive or ‘adjuvant’ treatments, maybe we can stop the disease before it gets to the lungs, liver, bones — to those places where it begins to threaten our lives.  Other cancers use this approach and offer patients a real chance to avoid recurrence.

Adjuvant – and Perhaps One Step Better to Neo-Adjuvant

We’ve seen trials for “Adjuvant” (or preventative) therapy which hope to prevent recurrence (treatments given immediately after nephrectomy). But one trial goes one step better – it’s for “Neo-Adjuvant” (before nephrectomy) as well as Adjuvant (after).

Patients may want to rush to surgery to “get it out”. In reality, those tumours have generally been  growing slowly, undetected for many years. Kidney cancer surgery is rarely an emergency. There is usually time for a second opinion and to check out any newer approaches.

Here’s the thought: given that the tumour cells have gone undetected and tolerated by the immune system for so long, can put those millions of cells to work and make them “show their calling cards” to our immune system before we take them out?

Combining Neo-Adjuvant and Adjuvant Treatment – PROSPER-RCC

The Phase 3 clinical trial called PROSPER-RCC (NCT03055013) is  for patients whose tumors are 7cm (2 ¾”) and larger in size, but not spread beyond the kidney area.  These patients are at greater risk of spread of the cancer than those with Stage I or with smaller tumors.

Based on earlier studies, nivolumab (Optivo) is now approved for advanced kidney cancer. This is a trial to test whether there is a benefit when nivolumab is given immediately before and after a nephrectomy when tumor cells might have spread outside the kidney but are too small (microscopic) to see on scans.  (Typically a patient without spread of disease would not be treated, but monitored.)

The Rationale for PROSPER-RCC: Why It Might Be Helpful

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Checkpoint inhibitor treatments with PD-1 blocking drugs like nivolumab seem to work best when the immune system may be being turned off by this cellular growth pathway. Cancer is deceptively clever and some tumours can express a protein, PD-L1. This protein can turn off our immune cell responses that recognize and fight the cancer.  There was a hint of this  with some positive data that indicates that these drugs work best in patients whose tumors were “PD-L1 positive”.  (PD means Programmed Death and PD-L Programmed Death Ligand or connector.  Death to the cells, and the signalling loop that hinders the immune response.)
  • In theory, when the kidney tumour is in place, there are millions of cancer cells. All of those tumour cells send off multiple negative signals to the immune system to stop it from working. However, if a checkpoint inhibitor was used and stopped those blocking signals, the immune system would have a big wake-up call – e.g., lots of targets with which to build an army of T cells. In theory, these newly educated T cells would later turn into memory cells. (If the body can maintain these memory cells, they would continue to fight any return of disease.)This is much like what happens when we are exposed to certain bacteria or viruses. Once we get exposed to the bug, we don’t usually get it again. Our immune cells have learned (“immunity”) how to kill it more quickly the next time before it turns into a full blown cold. Similarly, if these anti-RCC immune cells ever see one of these tumor cells anywhere in our bodies again, they would know to attack and kill them even if there is no drug in the patient and has not been for some time.
  • Surgery is still the main treatment to control early stage kidney cancer. But it will also remove the majority of targets (PD-L1) that the checkpoint drug uses to rev up the immune system. Giving the checkpoint inhibitor before surgery may maximize/optimize the drug’s ability to wake up the immune system and build that T cell army.
  • So the surgery is important. But let’s assume a few cells might be still circulating and have gone undetected for some time. They could still show up later on a scan as an enlarged lymph node or spot somewhere. A boost of the same checkpoint inhibitor right after the surgery could then be used to remind the immune system to continue to look for those cells and kill/eliminate them when they are small. In theory, the immune system will remember what the past “trouble” was: “Hey, haven’t I seen you before?”

From what I understand, this theory worked well in mice. The checkpoint inhibitors worked better if the primary tumour was there to help provide “a target” to activate the immune system first before the tumor was removed.  While we’re not mice, this  makes sense, no?

Trial Design: What Really Happens to the Patient in the Trial

PROSPER-RCC will place patients randomly into two groups:

  • Group One gets two infusions of nivolumab before surgery (at about 28 days and 14 days before surgery). Following that nephrectomy, the patient will receive more infusions of nivolumab. This is for 9 months post-surgery altogether, with 12 more doses.
  • Group Two gets the usual standard of care: upfront nephrectomy, partial or radical nephrectomy, and will be followed by close observation at an expert centre.
  • Two arms/groups:  BLUE arm with surgery  and monitoring by the trial team, the standard of care; the RED arm with  medication before to surgery, followed by more after the surgery.

It is important to note that no patient on this trial receives any intravenous placebo/inactive treatment. Every patient is treated.  Each patient will have either the experimental treatment or the standard of care.  All are under close observation at the trial centre. This trial has been designed and discussed with patient advocates and is supported by the NCI.

For More Information

Patient-friendly explanation herehttp://www.10forio.info/clinical-trials/prosper-rcc

For contact information at over 100 trial sites, dig a bit in the site below:

https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03055013

or call the office of the Principal Investigator, Dr. Lauren Harshman, at: 617-632-2429

Deb’s Disclaimer:

As a patient and advocate for kidney cancer patients, I have been delving into the world of clinical trials and trying to understand as much as I can. I’m not a scientist, but I am a patient with this disease, so I bring that lens, along with some abilities to translate science into understandable terms. As a volunteer, I have no financial interest in this trial or any specific medications. @DebMaskensKCC; dmaskens@rogers.com

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Filed under Clinical Trials, FDA Medications, Immune Therapies Old & New, Making a Plan, New Trials, Newly Diagnosed, Patient Resources, Surgery, Therapies, Uncategorized

Kidney Tumors & Diagnosis? Size Matters–Big Surprise

Kidney cancer is generally a very silent disease. It is sneaky, hides out for years, and is often assumed to be something else.  In my case, my doctor essentially decided I was just a menopausal women with the ever-popular “stress” as a an extra.  The stress of carrying about a 10 cm tumor and wasting away  was probably part of it.

That slow diagnosis, often delayed for years is far too typical.  Only the greater use of CT scans has been significant in finding kidney cancer at an early stage. And just what is early or small? Looking for a cracked rib, or the dislocated shoulder has often revealed kidney cancer, and in the case of the shoulder, lung mets.  And then the hunt is on!  By the time this diagnosis is made, nearly 30-40% of kidney cancer is already metastatic.

The ‘classic triad’ of symptoms, are 1) blood in the urine, 2) flank pain, and 3) palpable mass in the abdomen. There are doctors who will consider kidney cancer only when the patient has these three symptoms, but that happens in fewer than 10% of patients.  The cancer has to be pretty far along to be found this way.  Meeting a pair of new doctors who were aware of my kidney cancer, they were obviously bewildered to hear that I had had none of the these symptoms.  “But those are the usual symptoms,” one said.  Maybe ‘classical’, but not ‘usual’.  Unfortunately that expectation is a barrier to good diagnosis.

Beyond the diagnosis and the staging of the disease is the pretty obvious question of what to do next. (Staging: another of those words used one way in English, and quite another in medicine No wonder we are confused.)  Getting treatment is derived from that ‘staging’.  To be told your cancer is at Stage I seems the only  bright spot of a cancer diagnosis,  but not so reassuring with kidney cancer.  The  “SMALL” Stage I kidney tumor is one which is confined to the kidney (good news) and is 7 centimeters or less.  Maybe Europeans react with the required, “Yipes!”, but few Americans would until they know that this is almost 3 inches in size!

Ain’t so small in my world, or in my kidney!, or anywhere else. In my previously-naive patient world, I thought a ‘small’ tumor was the size of a pea, or maybe a peanut.  In any case, these so-called small tumor are Stage I, of four Stages.  Don’t even ask about Stage V.  Calling a near-three inch tumor small reflects the history of many very large tumors being found in the early days.  Even in 1997 there was discussion about whether a 5cm (2 inch) tumor should be the ‘small’, and in the 1987 system, it had to be 2.5cm to be small, ie, about one inch a T1 stage.  I do not understand why this basic staging was so dramatically changed, but it may well be that there were so few truly small tumors found in this early CT era.

In any case, we now have a system which lumps all tumors 7 cm or smaller into TI category, re-divided into T1a if under 4cm, and T1b, up to 7cms.  This minimizes the sense of risk that comes with these larger Stage I tumors, despite clear evidence of much greater risk at about as they grow.  That shift to a more aggressive tumor, capable of having metastatic potential, seems to start just over 1 inch, about 2.8cm.  There is a measurable increase in risk of about 62% at this size, so waiting around for a mass to be palpable (ie, it can be felt) puts us all at risk.  And of course, that metastatic potential has likely started even earlier, prepping the body to accept new cancer in new locations.

Thus, the absolute need to monitor patients who have had large ‘small’ tumors far more carefully and for a longer time.  The reality is that even truly small tumors have the ability to start the metastatic process.  Tiny and invisible even to a CT, they can grow unnoticed for several years.  There is no magic ‘five years/safe at home’ for kidney cancer patients, sad to say.

So, if your doctor tells you not to worry, that he got it all, that it was small, that there is no need for further monitoring, you might just find another doctor who keeps up with the kidney cancer literature.  If you got this far with this post, you may be ahead of your doctor.

Re the above risk stats, seehttp://www.cancertherapyadvisor.com/renal-cell-carcinoma/renal-cell-carcinoma-larger-tumors-high-grade-pathology/article/415189/

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Filed under Guidelines, Newly Diagnosed, Patient Engagement, Patient Resources, RCC Basics, Uncategorized, Your Role

Lenvima/Lenvatinib with & without Everolimus–New FDA approval

Another new drug for those of us with ‘unresectable and advanced” kidney cancer!  YEA or is is just, yea? What does this mean to the patient in this situation as he struggles to get the best treatment possible?

The approval is for Levatinib in combination with Everolimus (Afinitor) for advanced kidney cancer or unresectable (surgery not possible) kidney cancer in patients who have had previous TKI treatment–Sutent, for example.  This was based on a Phase II trial, so a bit unusual in that regard.  Generally the FDA waits until there is a larger Phase III trial, so this reflects the  need for better second-line treatments.

It is always great to have another tool against kidney cancer, and on top of the recent approval of Nivolumab (Opdivo) and Cabozantinib (Cometryx), but do note that all three are for second line use, after the first line meds have failed.  Current first line drugs include high dose interleukin, Sutent and others.

All the patients in this trial had previously used and quit responding to the first line TKIs, and are compared in three arms

Arm 1)  Lenvatinib alone–52 patients—didn’t make the grade

Arm 2) Everolimus alone–51 patients—standard of care for second line

Arm 3) Lenvatinib & Everolimus in combo–51 patients–the new approval.

Not a very big trial, so harder to make broad judgements!

Everolimus is already approved for second line use, and Lenvatinib alone was NOT approved except in combination with Everolimus.  With that, just ignore Arm 1.  The big news is that the combo improved median Progression Free Survival (PFS) in the combo to 14.6 months vs 5.5 months with Everolimus. The median gives us the POINT in time at which half got “progressed” on their disease, ie, the damn stuff grew, while the other half had not yet had progression.  Not an average, so half of the combo patients had PFS by 14.6 months, and the other combo half did not have PFS until after that time.

The median Overall Response Rate (ORR) was not very high–but quite typical–and important to understand.  The combo patients had a 37% ORR, so about 1 in 3 had a measurable response.  That compared to just 6% with everolimus.  The most important measure to patients is median Overall Survival. This is usually measured when one-half of a patient group has died, so there are always patients who live beyond that median point. The combo OS was 25.5months vs the Evero alone OS of 15.4 months.  There was no mention I could find whether there were patients alive at this point, but assume there were. Love to know if there are very long term survivors in the combo group, and what makes them more likely to have that response!

In the combo, 29% of the patients discontinued treatment due to side effects and with Everolimus alone, 12% discontinued.  However, both groups had large number of reduced dosages and/or dose interruptions, 89% in the combo group, and 54% in the evero group.  Read: some tough side effects.

The most serious side effect in my opinion was that renal failure occurred in 11% of patients in the combo, 5 of the 51 patients.  Grouping ‘renal impairment with failure”, the combo caused such problems in 18% of those patients, 12% i the evero group. Not good news for those of us with one kidney, so something to be monitorly VERY carefully.

The other ‘usual suspects’ in the side effects in the combo were hypertension 42% vs 10%, diarrhea 81% vs 19%.  Not surprising was a fairly high rate of ‘hemorrhagic events”, ie, bleeding problems in both groups, 32% vs 26%. And more.

Again, not easy, better than no treatments,or using everolimus alone.  All these meds demand good communication with the treating team and patients.  Sadly missing in this trial and in every other one is any real guidance as to which patients might best respond to this combo. Neither is there a neat comparison to the second-line use of Nivo or Cabo.  Practice, practice, and be aware of your own health issues as to side effect potential as you look at these trials and your own situation.

http://www.multivu.com/players/English/7690031-eisai-lenvima-fda-2/  for the company’s review and videos by Dr. Sumanta Pal at the City of Hope and a spokemans from Esai.

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Filed under Clinical Trials, FDA Meds & Trials, Medications, Patient Resources, Targeted Therapies, Therapies

We hear of “patient engagement” as a topic, but it can be misused in a self-serving way! For some hospitals, it comes in the form of a survey that asks your opinion of the newly-remodeled lobby, but never asks if you were properly treated while in the hospital.  That is my least favorite and most cynical use of ‘patient engagement’ efforts.

We patients must be engaged, especially needed in this cancer world.  But that is a huge challenge when we have not be taught by experience or the medical world to do so.  Just how does the nervous or bewildered patient do that when the problem is confusing or terrifying?

Starting with what we know about ourselves and knowing HOW to explain it is obvious, but not easy.  Just how to do that?

See what doctors are learning, as in the following short article.  There is a link to a Patient ToolKit  http://www.patient-experience.org/PDFs/Patient_Toolkit_v4A_Fillable-Format.aspx developed by others who work with me to improve diagnosis.  This is available for anyone to use, can be filled in online or printed out as needed.

Simply, it helps the patient organize his symptoms, concerns and history in a way that MIGHT be more acceptable to the doctor.  It can remind you well ahead of the appointment what to do so that the appointment is more useful and efficient.

Your ideas gratefully requested.

http://www.patient-experience.org/Resources/Blogs/DM-Blog/Blogs/July-2015-(1)/Engaging-Patients-Before-You-Even-See-Them-Tools-t.aspx

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by | July 30, 2015 · 9:58 am

Oligometastases?! Patients Changing the Rules

Kidney cancer is the focus here, but I can’t resist writing about the empowered and determined lung cancer patients who changed the rules–the NCCN guidelines–in treating their  cancer.  With this, there is  support for treatment for their newly established metastases which was previously lacking.  Translation for the patient was, “It’s come back, so just go home. End of story.”

What does this mean for kidney cancer patients, or for others?  For that matter what does “oligometastases” mean anyway?

” Oligometastases are defined as 1–5 distant metastases that can be treated by local therapy to achieve long-term survival or cure.”

Earlier, some doctors felt that there was no reason to treat a patient who was initially diagnosed with metastatic disease.  If the cancer had already metastasized, nothing that could be done, not even the removal of the primary tumor.  Oddly enough, patients often got no treatment and the self-fulfilling prophecy worked again.

We kidney cancer patients know better. (My 10cm tumor and the lungs full of mets would have NOT been treated by many doctors.)  Removal of the primary tumor can have real benefit, even when there is no treatment for the metastases.

Similarly, the emergence of mets post-surgery was also seen as a “game over” by many doctors.  The “got it all” surgery that was welcome news was suddenly a forgotten phrase. How many sad visits a year or two after of misplaced confidence? Kidney cancer will come back far too often, suddenly emerging near the old tumor or in some of the favored spots.  With kidney cancer, that is the lungs, bones, adrenal gland and the brain.

These new mets, generally in the area of the primary, are those oligomets.  Hard enough to say, and harder yet to be told that the docs will do nothing–because the guidelines say it is not worth it.  That was the situation for non-small cell lung cancer patients with new mets.

But these cancer patients were NOT having that kind of non-help!

They gathered all the data, showed the value of going after these mets and convinced the NCCN to make significant changes in their guidelines.  Now doctors and the insurance people cannot deny these treatments on the basis of these guidelines.

Patients helping patients, patients helping doctors, patients helping create better guidelines, patients living longer…might be a trend we can emulate.

LITTLE BACKGROUND:

Keep in mind that most doctors and insurance companies want to use treatment guidelines based on some acceptable medical standards.  One guideline comes from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.  This establishes the working rules for what kind of treatment or monitoring is thought appropriate for any stage of cancer.  For example, the treatment for a Stage I tumor is quite different from that of a Stage IV tumor.  There are guidelines for shifting to new medications, and for monitoring of primary tumors or mets after surgery.

Since kidney cancer most often metastasizes to the lung, I monitor some of their sites, and was thrilled to see this.  Power to the patients, people!

http://www.curetoday.com/community/tori-tomalia/2015/03/empowered-patients-change-national-cancer-guidelines

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Filed under Guidelines, Patient Activism, Patient Resources

Recurrence? Is There an App for That–or a Medicine?

Being diagnosed with kidney cancer is a stunner.  Facing surgery and endless, oft unanswered questions changes your life.  Patients with small tumors, easily removed, are often told not to worry about it coming back.  Of course, there is ALWAYS the possibility that even small “I got it all tumors” can recur.  Sadly, the current guidelines fail to catch about 30% of recurrences, using the 2013, 2014 guidelines.  These guidelines were from an earlier era, where there were fewer small tumors found, so there was data lacking on long-term follow-up.

We patients ask? “Why not just take the meds that the patients with metastatic disease do?  Wouldn’t that prevent it from coming back?  If it works to fight the mets, why wouldn’t it prevent new ones from getting a foothold? “

Why not use the meds that they use now against metastatic disease? Why wouldn’t that work?  Have they tested that idea?

In February of 2015, a study was released which comparing patient response to 1) sunitinib (Sutent),2) sorafenib (Nexavar), or 3) placebo (no real medicine).  This  three-arm study included 1,943 patients who had locally advanced clear cell and non-clear cell histology RCCs. They were thought to be at high-risk for recurrence of their cancer, and might benefit from “adjuvant” therapy.  The researchers hoped that they would see a 25% improvement in time to recurrence of disease with the meds vs no meds.. That would means that the typical 5.8 years median Disease Free Survival (DFS) would go to 7.7 years.

Sadly, there was no benefit to taking the active drugs compared to the placebo.  More sad is that the patients had side effects associated with the drug, referred to as “adverse events”. In fact, many dropped out of the active agent arms into the placebo arm, certainly knowing that the med they were taking were anti-cancer meds.  Those “adverse events”, severe fatigue, hypertension or hand-foot reactions, were observed in those taking the active agents and rarely in the placebo patients.

The median time on the drugs was 8 months.  That means half the patients  were on drugs more than 8 months and half were on the drugs less than 8 months.  Even those patients starting with lower doses of the drugs fared worse than the placebo group.

Despite taking the medications and enduring the side effects, the recurrence was about the same.   With medication or without, these patients, as groups, did the same.  Those taking the meds had Disease Free Survival of 5.6 or 5.7 years, similar to those not taking any real meds.  There was no real added benefit to these patients.  Certainly the quality of the life was affected by the side effects, and the constant reminder of the spectre of more cancer.

What can patients learn from this study?

The fear of recurrence is real. After all, the expected time until the disease progressed (love using that term for cancer!), was about 5 1/2 years.  These patients were carefully monitored with CTs on a regular basis, which caught their recurrences as soon as possible. Had they not been in this trial, it is reasonable to expect that many would not have received those scans and not know of the recurrence as it happened.

The reality is that the typical patient may or may not continue to be monitored. Even those who passed the 5 1/2 year mark without recurrence may not realize that RCC can come back.  Again, 30% of recurrences in small, non-metastatic disease are not caught.  One can assume that the higher risk group in this trial would also be at risk for that level of recurrence.

Take-home message: At present, nothing has been shown to prevent recurrence of this locally advanced disease. Even the non-metastatic small tumors that have sent out invisible “wanna-be mets”, and no one can yet guess who is at the most risk.

The best approach is to monitor yourself and your general health and to demand CT scans, especially in the lungs, where metastatic RCC is most likely to start.  That does NOT mean an x-ray, as those mets would have to be about 1/4″ in order to be seen.  My own lung mets were under that size when first found, but there were hundreds of them, and they grew quickly.  Not visible on an x-ray, but growing every day.

Despite the disappointing study above, the ASSURE study, more clinical trials are recruiting patients for similar studies using drugs that have already been shown to be less active than those in the ASSURE study.  I would be cautious in getting into such a trial, and would spend my energies seeing that my monitoring is extended at least until 10 years past my surgery–even with those “got it all” primary tumors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SmartPatients; Patients Helping Other Patients

Though I was lucky to receive good care, after eight precious months working with a specialist trying to figure out why I went from healthy to damned ill, it was more than good medical care that saved my life.  Being diagnosed with a terminal illness is terrifying and isolating.   I felt alone in a wash of pink ribbons, without anyone who understood my disease process and how to deal with it.  Who gets kidney cancer?!

By some internet miracle, and at the depth of my horror at the prognosis I faced, I found ACOR–Association of Cancer Online Resources–now called www.SmartPatients.com. http://www.smartpatients.com/kidney-cancer    These were other patients who provided both TLC and education that I so desperately needed. Moderated by intelligent and experienced patients and caregivers who knew what had happened to me.  What I did not get was someone telling me that I had gotten sick for failure to buy their supplement or for leading a dissolute life!

I wrote a simple distress call online, that I just had a nephrectomy and was being advised to consider HD IL2 for my countless lung mets. I needed help. Within forty minutes, another patient offered his quick story with the disease, that he was working, in a clinical trial and doing better.  He gave me his number and said it was a good time to call.  I did call, and found a real person on the other end, who immediately let me know that I was not alone, that other options were emerging from the research, that my doctor was considered to be excellent and so on.  Not only this call, a clear signal that I was not alone, but he gave me his cell number, his work number and his pager.  “Call me anytime you need to talk.”  With that, my head cleared every so slightly, and I began my journey to this world, one which has lasted nearly ten years.  And it has led to you.

Through www.SmartPatients.com I have come to offer my own knowledge to others, and hope you will find this a valuable resource as well. You will be welcome, and given tools to make you more capable of dealing with kidney cancer.  Other cancers have similar groups, of course, as we all need to be SmartPatients.

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Into the Abyss: Becoming a Patient

My first foray into the world of “patient” began the day I was diagnosed with kidney cancer.  All my other visits with the doctor, my hospitalizations to have children, and even the odd time I received IVs of blood never had turned me into a patient.  To be deemed a patient was for other people, for those who were sick, or chronically ill.

That was never me until a wish for cosmetic eye surgery led me to get a blood test and the report of extremely low red blood cell count, a hemoglobin measure.   Mostly aggravated that low reading would hinder my plans to have new eyelids, I assumed my approaching menopause  had shifted things a bit for me.  Get “re-calibrated” with some blood, be a bit smarter about eating other than M&Ms for lunch, and all would be well.

Well didn’t happen that way.  Being told by my GP to go to the ER to be admitted to test for my low red blood cell count was more an annoyance, and bewildering.  The GP told me to be careful driving, as I could “bleed out”,  were I in an accident.  Had I taken him seriously, I might have been better off, but who wants to become a patient?

Three pints of blood, a colonoscopy, an endoscopy and a doctor assigned to me by the hospital later, I was sent home with a packet of iron pills, and reminder to eat very well, especially protein.  More liver pate and red meat, and fewer M&Ms, and an improved diet would fix it all, I was told.

Months and more tests later, looking less and less healthy, losing weight, being polite to the doctor, being on time and starting to fade away, I did not know that I was dying.  As I could later determine from the doctor’s notes, he thought I was an alcoholic in need of a liver biopsy to “confirm the cirrhosis”.  That biopsy required an ultrasound, and the race was on.

The ultrasound tech was chatty and friendly, until a sweep of her wand across my lower right belly. She turned herself and her screen away from me and stopped talking.  Knowing the liver was on the left, and her wand was on the right, I had a pretty good idea that the kidney was the new problem area.  Of course, my questions went unanswered, but was told that I would have a CT scan later than day.  But still no answers.

Still in the flimsy hospital gown, I discussed with my husband what was likely my new kidney cancer diagnosis, and figured I would just get a neat little incision, where they could take out the neat little tumor and I would get on with my neat little life.  Off to the CT scan, with more techs discussing me, carefully out of earshot, ignoring my pleas to explain what had been found.  “You doctor will talk to you” was the non-response.

But he was pretty non-responsive as well, waiting until late in the evening before telling me what I already knew, that I had a mass on my kidney.  Masses don’t belong there, so it must be cancer, but he was unwilling to affirm that.  He would find me a urologist the following day, he promised.

That recommendation given without further info, and in light of the frantic internet search, I was not enthusiastic about his recommendations, and especially when the urologist failed to mention any expertise with kidney cancer on his website.  Ain’t a good sign, says I, so plan B was to get to the Mayo Clinic.

I had grown up in western North Dakota and had learned that fancy health problems spurred a trip to Rochester, Minnesota.  Within a few days, I was in the Mayo Clinic, going through a series of new tests and imaging with the urologist appointment at the end of the day.  Try to coordinate that in less than 24 hours, and you will appreciate the miracle of Mayo.

At that appointment, my neat little tumor was now described as a malignant mass, about the size of a softball.  It had pushed the kidney up toward the liver, and thus caught the attention of the US technician.  Bad enough, I thought, but the subsequent CT had also shown my lower lungs to be full of tiny mets.  Mayo’s more thorough CT showed my entire lungs to be filled with tiny white metastases.  Not only did I have a huge tumor, my lungs were essentially a tumor colony.

Stunned, and nearly deafened by this news, I struggled to hear the doctor say, “I have a plan for you.”  With that hope and that plan, I began to breathe again.  And have been doing so for the last 10 1/2 years.

Thanks to so many people at Mayo, including Dr. Brad Leibowich, his staff, the angel nurses, and the Mayo brothers who created this wonderful place.

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Filed under About Peggy, Newly Diagnosed, Patient Resources, Your Role

“We Are All Patients.” True or the Latest Cliche?

  1. The lovely cliche, “We are all patients” is just that. At every medical conference, or in the new lobby of the hospital, that phrase is offered.  While it is true in a statistical sense, it has a snarky sound to the new patient, reeling from his induction into the medical world, foreign and threatening.  It can really seem snarky to those who know how poorly patients can be treated, how overwhelming the language of illness is, and how chaotic a hospital setting is for most.

    The patient experience for someone who speaks the language, whose  friend is a specialist, or can understands the imaging reports and lab values, is in stark contrast for those lacking such resources.  Not much we-ness in those two patient groups!

    Certainly the medical people who suddenly become patients, or are thrust into being a caregiver, can offer their own colleagues insight into those new roles. But rarely is the newly diagnosed patient, one who has never “known” how the system works ready to take on this role. He is often the patient at the greatest risk–especially when told, “Be your own best advocate.”  Most of the time, that “Be your best” does not give the patient anything, but a reminder of how lost he is.

    The recent convert to patienthood who can navigate the system may be a wonderful translator of the dialect and the cultural mores of that system, but with limited impact.  If that medical pro turned patient is not also willing to change that culture, to be more open, to provide ready access to information, and to teach to the wider world, most patients will not be well-served by this new awareness.  As a society, we will continue to be inefficient in our care of the sick, have poorer individual and community health, and waste incredible sums of money.

    Patients could be given readable information about what the standard of treatment is for their disease. They can learn that the oncoloigst should recommend more frequent imaging, or that there are other treatments than the scalpel and chemotherapy. They can learn how to enhance their daily health, how to monitor side effects, to clarify their own health concerns.  Patients can be guided to credible online resources or patient groups so they can ask the new question, compare notes, learn the changing vocabulary.

    Doctors can tell patients that diagnosis is tricky and requires testing and feedback along the way. They can remind patients of the uncertainty and complexity of cancer, or a chronic disease. They can welcome questions about side effects, new studies, and treatment options.   The dynamic will shift as the patient becomes more knowledgeable, or has greater medical needs, and the doctor must shift as well.

    Patients and their providers need to partner with one another, with the patient at the center of all those relationships.  The patient needs ready access to his records, information relevant to his needs, and an atmosphere of collaboration, appropriate to the moment.  Anything less is damaging and wasteful, and we ain’t got time and money for business as usual.

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Filed under Glossary, Your Role

Gene Sequencing? What is it? Does it Matter? (* *YES***)

We hear about gene sequencing and personalized medicine, and yet few of us really understand what that means. All of this, despite the hype! We also hear about targeted therapy. As a minimum that should mean that doctors are targeting the tumor for destruction, but is not that easy.  As usual.

The University of North Carolina researchers have done critical reviews of clear cell kidney cancer. They questioned why there is such wide variation in the aggressiveness of clear cell RCC (ccRCC). Almost all ccRCC looks alike under the microscope, the usual “pathology” report, but tumors don’t behave the same. Some are shockingly aggressive in their growth, even the small ones.  They metastasize quickly, and break the surgeon’s “got it all” prediction.  The overall survival (OS–the longer, the better!) is wildly different, despite the similarity.

If this is the same kind of cancer, why does it behave so differently?

The obvious answer is that these tumors are not really the same biologically. That can be shown by an inside look at the tumor’s DNA and patient’s normal kidney DNA. This is what gene sequencing can do, i.e., help define what differences exist in the tumor cell. This is essential in “targeting” the treatment to the tumor. You have to see the recognize what IS the target to hit it with the right treatment.

This linked YouTube lecture below helps explain these new terms. It gives me appreciation for the challenge faced by researchers, clinicians and patients in getting proper treatment.  And nobody cares as much as we patients!

Dr. Kimryn Rathmell and colleagues at U of NC created a test which can differentiate the more aggressive form of clear cell kidney cancer from a less aggressive form.  Should one monitor a smallish tumor, monitor a patient more closely after surgery, or just assume everything is fine and dandy?  These tests help in that decision.  (PS Don’t forget that a “small” Stage 1 kidney cancer tumor can be the size of a golf ball.  “Regular” size Stage 1 tumor can be the size of a nice tomato.  Small, indeed.)

We’ve learned it isn’t just “cancer”. It’s not just “kidney cancer”. It’s not even just just “clear cell” or “papillary” or “chromophobe”! Instead it is a molecularly defined cancer which has taken up residence in one’s kidney. Different drivers, some more aggressive than others–big surprise.  Different strokes for different folks, and different targets for different testy genes in our tumors!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9HumO20GKc A transcription can be found in “Genetic Sequencing for Dummies and Me”

 

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Filed under Genomics & Genes, RCC Basics, Your Role