Why Some Patients Refuse Chemotherapy – And Why Some of Them Shouldn’t

In the June 13, 2011, issue of Time magazine, Ruth Davis Konigsberg described cancer patients who refuse to take potentially lifesaving therapy. Her article, titled “The Refuseniks – why some cancer patients reject their doctor’s advice,” examined the rationale applied by patients who decline chemotherapy. Many of these patients are rational, articulate, intelligent and capable individuals. While there are those who by virtue of religious belief, underlying depression, or loss of loved ones, decline interventions, many of these patients make compelling arguments in favor of their decisions.

When we examine the basis of these patients’ therapeutic nihilism, much of it reflects the uncertainty of benefit combined with the certainty of toxicity. What these patients articulate is the fundamental dilemma confronted by cancer patients, what we might describe as their logical assessment of “return on investment.”

Everything in life is based on probabilities. Will your husband or wife be true? Will you have a boy or a girl? Will you live to see retirement? Will your nest egg be adequate? Cancer medicine is no different.

Will the treatment I’m being offered extend my life long enough to be worth the short- and medium-term toxicities that I will certainly suffer?

While I cannot address this question with regard to surgery or radiation, I feel uniquely qualified to do so in the context of chemotherapy. What, after all, is a chemosensitivity assay? When correctly performed, it is a laboratory test that dichotomizes groups of patients with average likelihoods of response (e.g. 20%, 30%, 40%, etc.) into those who are more or less likely to respond based on the results. On average, a patient found sensitive in vitro has a twofold improvement in response, while those found resistant have a demonstrably lower likelihood of benefit. We have now shown this to be true in breast, ovarian, and non-small cell lung cancers, as well as melanoma, childhood and adult leukemias, and other diseases.

To address the misgivings of the Refuseniks, we might ask the following question: Would you take a treatment that provided a 30 percent likelihood of benefit? How about a 40 percent? 50 percent? 60 percent? 70 percent? Or 80 percent? While many might decline the pleasure of chemotherapy at a 20-30 percent response rate, a much larger number would look favorably upon a 70 percent response rate. On the flipside, a patient offered a treatment with a 50 percent likelihood of benefit (on average), who by virtue of a lab study realizes that their true response rate is closer to 19 percent (based on resistance in vitro), might very logically (and defensibly) decline treatment. These real life examples reflect the established performance characteristics of our laboratory tests (Nagourney, RA. Ex vivo programmed cell death and the prediction of response to chemotherapy. Current Treatment Options in Oncology 2006, 7:103-110.).

Rather than bemoan the uncertainties of treatment outcome, shouldn’t we, as clinical oncologists, be addressing these patients’ very real misgivings with data and objective information? I, for one, believe so.

The False Economy of Genomic Analyses

We are witness to a revolution in cancer therapeutics. Targeted therapies, named for their capacity to target specific tumor related features, are being developed and marketed at a rapid pace. Yet with an objective response rate of 10 percent (Von Hoff et al JCO, Nov 2011) reported for a gene array/IHC platform that attempted to select drugs for individual patients we have a long way to go before these tests will have meaningful clinical applications.

So, let’s examine the more established, accurate and validated methodologies currently in use for patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer. I speak of patients with EGFR mutations for which erlotinib (Tarceva®) is an approved therapy and those with ALK gene rearrangements for which the drug crizotinib (Xalkori®) has recently been approved.

The incidence of ALK gene rearrangement within patients with non-small cell lung cancer is in the range of 2–4 percent, while EGFR mutations are found in approximately 15 percent. These are largely mutually exclusive events. So, let’s do a “back of the napkin” analysis and cost out these tests in a real life scenario.

One hundred patients are diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer.
•    Their physicians order ALK gene rearrangement     $1,500
•    And EGFR mutation analysis     $1,900
•    The costs associated $1,500 + $1,900 x 100 people =    $340,000
Remember, that only 4 percent will be positive for ALK and 15 percent positive for EGFR. And that about 80 percent of the ALK positive patients respond to crizotinib and about 70 percent of the EGFR positive patients respond to erlotinib.

So, let’s do the math.

We get three crizotinib responses and 11 erlotinib responses: 3 + 11 = 14 responders.
Resulting in a cost per correctly identified patient =     $24,285

Now, let’s compare this with an ex-vivo analysis of programmed cell death.

Remember, the Rational Therapeutics panel of 16+ drugs and combinations tests both cytotoxic drugs and targeted therapies. In our soon to be published lung cancer study, the overall response rate was 65 percent. So what does the EVA/PCD approach cost?

Again one hundred patients are diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer.
•    Their physicians order an EVA-PCD analysis    $4,000
•    The costs associated: $4,000 x 100 people =    $400,000
•    With 65 percent of patients responding, this
constitutes a cost per correctly identified patient =     $6,154

Thus, we are one quarter the cost and capable of testing eight times as many options. More to the point, this analysis, however crude, reflects only the costs of selecting drugs and not the costs of administering drugs. While, each of those patients selected for therapy using the molecular profiles will receive an extraordinarily expensive drug, many of the patients who enjoy prolonged benefit using EVA/PCD receive comparatively inexpensive chemotherapeutics.

Furthermore, those patients who test negative for ALK and EGFR are left to the same guesswork that, to date has provided responses in the range of 30 percent and survivals in the range of 12 months.

While the logic of this argument seems to have escaped many, it is interesting to note how quickly organizations like ASCO have embraced the expensive and comparatively inefficient tests. Yet ASCO has continued to argue against our more cost-effective and broad-based techniques.

No wonder we call our group Rational Therapeutics.