Volunteer Education: Advances in Lung and Breast Cancer Treatment

By Suzanne Asselin, Chair, Volunteer Management Communications Committee, with notes from Lucy Fazio

To ensure that volunteers have the most up-to-date training and information, Hope & Cope hosts a Volunteer Education Series. Sessions are held throughout the year and feature guest speakers who share their expertise.

These days, thanks to positive advances in research and treatment of different forms of cancer, survival rates are increasing. For many people, cancer is no longer perceived as a death sentence. Two clinical nurse specialists at the Jewish General Hospital, Tara Jesion and Anna Buono, recently addressed the topic of Advances in the Treatment of Lung and Breast Cancers. Volunteers who attended learned a lot in a short time and were invited to ask questions after the presentations. Here are the highlights.

Lung cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed overall, and it is the leading cause of cancer deaths. It is a myth to assume that only smokers get lung cancer. Tara Jesion said that 15% of lung cancers occur in people who never smoked. Typically, lung cancer is diagnosed at an advanced stage and it accounts for 26% of all cancer deaths in Canada. Most patients are symptomatic when diagnosed. Better screening tools for asymptomatic patients are needed. Recent studies have shown that better screening leads to early detection. Currently, in Canada there is no population-based screening program for lung cancer.

More encouraging, within the last 15 years, the advent of targeted therapy has led to the identification of specific mutations that can be attacked by specific drugs. Unlike chemotherapy, this new therapy kills cancer cells without harming normal cells. It has fewer side effects than chemo, is usually easier to tolerate and can often be taken orally at home – no more visits to the hospital to receive chemo. What a major step and a relief for both patients and families!

Another promising new treatment option is immunotherapy. It uses drugs to help a patient’s immune system kill cancer cells and it is used for many types and stages of lung cancer. It also has fewer side effects than chemo. One study showed that immunotherapy added to chemotherapy improves overall survival rates.

In general, improved screening and advanced treatments have led to a growing number of long term survivors. This is hopeful for patients as well as for future research and funding.

Breast cancer is very complex in nature. Anna Buono underlined that, more recently, treatments have become more personalized and work at the cellular level. One such option, known as OncoType DX & Ki67 (Proliferation) uses hormone inhibitors to fight cancer cells. This class of medicines reduces the amount of estrogen in the body, thus depriving cancer cells of the hormones they require to grow. Some patients who do well with inhibitors may not need chemo at all – a giant step! Common side effects include neutropenia (less of a type of white cells in the blood exposing the patient to a risk of infection), fatigue, anemia, dermatitis and mouth sores. There are better ways now to deal with those side effects including “magic” mouth wash.

Furthermore, current clinical trials are testing new inhibitors which could be included in future therapies. For patients who are HER2+, there are now many therapy options, some of which can be given subcutaneously rather than intravenously. Immunotherapy alone does not work well. But it might be promising for patients who have triple negative breast cancer, who typically are much younger and may not do well on chemo. Breast cancer patients will benefit from future clinical trials that explore new treatment options. Did you know that several of these trials are under the direction of oncologists and surgical oncologists at the JGH?

Upcoming volunteer education sessions

September 12: Communication Techniques- Social Worker Christina Cabral

October 24:  Team Discussions- meet fellow volunteers who work in similar areas to discuss common issues.

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