No One is More Interested in Curing Your Cancer Than You

A diagnosis of cancer thrusts a, heretofore, healthy individual into the strange and unfamiliar territory of medical oncology. Many of my patients describe this transition as “entering the cancer bubble.” Suddenly, you are on the inside and everyone on the outside is talking at you about what to do, where to go, whom to see, and what treatments to receive.

From the inside of the bubble however, all of this has a hollow ring as you ponder many options, few good and some, positively frightening. Unfortunately, few patients have the time to complete a MD, or PhD, between diagnosis and the initiation of treatment. Lacking the requisite expertise, they turn to the “authorities” for advice.

Depending on which “authority” one consults, the recommendations may be colored by prejudices and biases. Some physicians adhere strictly to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines. Others insist upon accrual to Cooperative Group and Phase II trials. University-based investigators will often recommend developmental studies. And some physicians will follow the path of least resistance, examining such issues as cost, chair time and reimbursement, before considering what treatment to deliver.

It is in this milieu, that patients find themselves adrift. Who exactly should you trust? What is their motivation? To put it crassly, when they recommend a specific treatment, what’s in it for them: Cooperative Group points (provided to the most active accruers), academic accolades (the currency of junior faculty), cost containment (the purview of the managed care physicians), or finally, profit margins? Yes, there are a small number of physicians whose choices reflect their own pecuniary interests.

The antidote to all this uncertainty lies within each patient; answers to vexing questions crying out to be heard. These answers reflect the biologic features of each individual’s tumor. What pathway, what repair mechanism, what survival signal drives your tumor? No one has a perfect answer, not the genomic investigators (despite their protestations to the contrary), nor the immunohistochemists, despite the significant appeal of the platform. And not the immunologist (despite brilliant progress in this field over recent years). The closest approximation to human tumor biology is, well, human tumor biology. Using cellular constructs, in the form of native state microspheroids, we can today approximate the response profiles of patients undergoing systemic therapies. Using systems approaches to complex questions, the multitude of factors that contribute to objective response can be examined and elucidated.

No test is perfect. No patient is guaranteed a good outcome. Yet, doubling the objective response rate, and as we and others have documented, improving the time to progression and overall survival can be achieved with available methodologies that apply functional profiling to individual tumors.

No one would walk away from an investment formula that doubled the value of their portfolio. Few would turn down the opportunity to enhance their real estate positions predicated on reliable information from a realtor. Yet everyday, physicians convince patients to walk away from available, published, established methods that can improve response rates, diminish toxicities and avoid futile care. In this environment it is critical for patients to take charge of their own cancer management. Patients must not be dissuaded from seeking the best possible outcomes. Physicians, no matter how well intentioned, are human. Their opinions can be colored by misconceptions and an incomplete understanding of the questions at hand. Laboratory analysis empowers patients to make smart decisions.

In the game of cancer we need all the help we can get. After all, no one is more interested in saving your life than you.