The Emperor of All Maladies’ New Clothes

Ken Burn’s series “The Emperor of All Maladies” from Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book of the same title ppbs logorovides an interesting and informative historical perspective on mankind’s efforts to confront cancer as a disease.

Beginning with ancient references to human malignancy, the series goes on to explore radical surgery and the earliest use of radiation but really gains traction in the mid-20th century with the discovery of the first chemotherapy drugs. While the nitrogen mustard derivatives were being studied under a veil of military secrecy, Dr. Sidney Farber in Boston explored the B-vitamin analogue, aminopterin, for the treatment of childhood leukemia. (You can read more about this in my book Outliving Cancer.)

Through the ensuing decades, seemingly stunning victories ultimately fell in crushing defeats, while the promise of single agents, then multi-drug combinations, followed by dose-intensive therapies, and finally bone marrow transplantation yielded few cures but delivered ever increasing toxicities. Clifton Leaf, a cancer survivor himself who created a stir with his controversial 2003 Fortune Magazine article entitled “Why We Are Losing the War on Cancer and How to Win It” described his own disappointment with the slow pace of progress.

Screen shot Emperor of All MaladiesThe last episode examined our growing understanding of human genomics and segued by interviews with Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute; and Harold Varmus, the current NCI director; to Michael Bishop, Eric Lander and Francis Collins who luxuriated in the clinical potential of human genomics and the coming era of big science.

The final part was an interview with Steven Rosenberg, one of the earliest pioneers in immunotherapy and Carl June whose groundbreaking work with chimeric antigen receptor T-cells is among the most recent applications of this important field.

The take-home message would seem to be that despite the fits and starts we are now at the dawn of a new age of big science, big data and genomic breakthroughs. What was missing however was an examination of where we had gone wrong. It would seem that the third rail for this community is an honest assessment of how a small coterie of investigators who championed only certain ways of thinking over all others commandeered all the money, grants, publications, chairmanships and public attention, while patients were left to confront a disease from which survival has changed very little, at ever increasing costs and toxicities.

Another thing that came through was the very human side of cancer as a disease and the kindness and emotional support that family members and parents provided to those afflicted. I couldn’t help but feel that these individuals had been cheated: cheated of the lives of their family members, cheated of the resources that could have pursued other options and cheated of the well-being that these poisonous and dose-intensive regimens rained upon them in their last days.

As science has become the new religion and scientists the new gurus, one message that resonated was that many of these gurus were false prophets. They are too self-absorbed to question their own dogmatic belief systems in dose-intensity or multi-agent combinations, all of which fell painfully by the way side as the next therapeutic fad emerged. Will our current love affair with the gene prove to be little more than the most current example of self-congratulatory science conducted in the echo chamber of modern academia?

Victories against cancer will be won incrementally. Each patient must be addressed as an individual, unique in their biology and unique in their response probability. No gene profile, heat map, DNA sequence or transcriptomic profile has answered the questions that every patient asks; “What treatment is best for me?” Dr. Mukherjee himself used the analogy of the blind men and the elephant. Unfortunately, there was little discussion of how much that parable may apply to our current scientific paradigms.

It is time for patients to demand better and refuse to participate in cookie-cutter protocols.
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Physicians should become more familiar with the fundamentals of physiology and biochemistry to better understand the principles of cancer prevention at the level of diet and lifestyle.

Finally, while we wait with bated breath, for the arrival of glorious gene profiles widely touted as the future answer to all of cancer’s most vexing questions, patients should throw off the yoke of one-size-fits-all approaches and demand laboratory platforms, such as the EVA-PCD assay, that are available today to make better use of existing treatments.

Cancer Centers and Advertising: The Truth Be Told

Screen shot 2014-08-06 at 5.08.23 PMSome of the most interesting literature on cancer comes from journals that are not directly involved in the field. I was reminded of this by an article that appeared in the June 17, 2014 Annals of Internal Medicine entitled “What Are Cancer Centers Advertising to the Public?”

The authors examined the types of clinical services that are promoted by commercial advertising. They reviewed advertisements that appeared in the top media markets during the year 2012, including both television and magazine ads. They excluded duplicates, public service announcements, fund raising and research subject recruitment. Of 1,427 total advertisements, 409 were considered to be unique ads that promoted clinical programs at 102 different cancer centers.

Screen shot 2014-08-06 at 5.13.29 PMTo analyze the content, the investigators developed a “code book” that included four domains; the types of clinical services, information provided, the use of emotional advertising appeals and the use of patient testimonials. Among the centers analyzed, 59% were for profit and the same percent were accredited by the Commission on Cancer. Sixteen percent were NCI designated centers. Advertising was also characterized by region of the United States. The results are interesting and instructive.

Of the 409 unique clinical advertisements, 88% promoted treatment. This was demonstrably higher than the percentage promoting cancer screening at 18% or supportive services at only 13%. While the benefits of therapies were described in 27% of the ads, the risks were only mentioned in 2%. Emotional appeals were frequent with 85% of the ads evoking hope for survival. Cancer was often described as a fight or battle, and the use of fear (of death, etc.) was found in fully 30% of the advertisements.

Screen shot 2014-08-06 at 5.15.28 PMIn their discussion, the authors pointed out several interesting findings. Among them, the “frequent use of emotional appeals and scarce mention of risk of services or quantification of benefit.” They also found “that NCI designated centers more frequently used emotional appeals related to survival or potential for cure.” These same centers “omitted information about risks, benefits and alternatives with similar frequency as non-NCI designated centers.” They concluded that “emotional appeals coupled with incomplete information are being widely used to promote services even among the nation’s most prestigious cancer centers.” Interestingly while only 5% of cancer centers in the United States are NCI designated, fully 16% of the clinical cancer advertising in 2012 was conducted by NCI-designated centers, a three-fold higher use.

What are we to gather from this analysis? First a journal like the Annals of Internal Medicine, removed from the direct delivery of cancer care, has the gravity to review processes that would rarely be reported in the oncology literature. Second, NCI designated (academic) cancer centers, who claim to eschew dissemination of unsScreen shot 2014-08-06 at 5.23.56 PMubstantiated information, appear to be the very centers that engage in such promotion. As the authors note, “clinical advertisements that use emotional appeal uncoupled with information about indications, benefits, risks, or alternatives may lead patients to pursue care that is either unnecessary or unsupported by scientific evidence.”

We applaud the authors of this Annals of Internal Medicine article for their unbiased and informative analysis. We must all strive to provide patients practical and actionable information about cancer and its treatment. It appears from this study that the practice of self-promotion crosses all lines of cancer care delivery from the most august academic institutions to the for-profit cancer centers. As with all activities in life, cancer patients are to be reminded of the ancient Roman admonition “Caveat Emptor” (Buyer Beware!).