Sept. 27, 2021 –Sept. 29, 2021 — Many patients with cancer, as well as doctors in fields other than oncology, are unware of just how much progress has been made in recent years in the treatment of cancer, particularly with immunotherapy.
This is the main finding from two studies presented at the recent European Society for Medical Oncology annual meeting.
The survey of patients found that most don’t understand how immunotherapy works, and the survey of doctors found that many working outside of the cancer field are using information on survival that is wildly out of date.
When a patient is first told they have cancer, counseling is usually done by a surgeon or general medical doctor and not an oncologist, said Conleth Murphy, MD, of Bon Secours Hospital Cork, Ireland, and co-author of the second study.
Non-cancer doctors often grossly underestimate patients’ chances of survival, Murphy’s study found. This suggests that doctors who practice outside of cancer care may be working with the same information they learned in medical school, he said.
“These patients must be spared the traumatic effects of being handed a death sentence that no longer reflects the current reality,” Murphy said.
After receiving a diagnosis of cancer, “patients often immediately have pressing questions about what it means for their future,” he noted. A common question is, “How long do I have left?”
Non-oncologists should refrain from answering patients’ questions with numbers, Murphy said.
Family doctors are likely to be influenced by the experience they have had with specific cancer patients in their practice, said Cyril Bonin, MD, a general practitioner in Usson-du-Poitou, France, who has 900 patients in his practice.
He sees about 10 patients with a new diagnosis of cancer each year.
In addition, about 50 of his patients are in active treatment for cancer or have finished treatment and are considered cancer survivors.
“It is not entirely realistic for us to expect practitioners who deal with hundreds of different diseases to keep up with every facet of a rapidly changing oncology landscape,” said Marco Donia, MD, an expert in immunotherapy from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, said.
That landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, particularly since immunotherapy was added to the arsenal. Immunotherapy is a way to fine tune your immune system to fight cancer.
For example, in the past, patients with metastatic melanoma would have an average survival of about 1 year. But now, some patients who have responded to immunotherapy are still alive 10 years later.