The 2021 Gastrointestinal (GI) Cancers Symposium recently brought together oncologists, researchers, patients and patient advocates, including the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s (PanCAN) Scientific & Medical Affairs team, to virtually discuss the latest in treatment and care for cancers of the GI tract, like pancreatic cancer.
Fittingly, the meeting took place in January, which is Pancreatic Cancer Clinical Trials Awareness Month. Clinical trials are the only way for new, more effective treatments to get to patients and improve survival rates.
One clinical trial presented at the conference focused on patients diagnosed with borderline resectable pancreatic cancer – referring to a tumor that isn’t clearly surgically removable upon diagnosis but may become eligible for surgery after other treatment.
The trial showed that a modified version of the combination chemotherapy FOLFIRINOX is beneficial for patients with borderline resectable pancreatic cancer, though the addition of radiation therapy did not improve outcomes for this group.
Other clinical trials continue to study the appropriate type, timing and use of radiation for pancreatic cancer patients.
Follow-up data from the clinical trial that led to the approval of Lynparza® (olaparib) was also presented at this year’s meeting. Lynparza was the first maintenance therapy approved for pancreatic cancer patients, intended to extend the positive response patients had after treatment with platinum-containing chemotherapy.
Although the final trial results did not show an overall survival advantage for patients who received Lynparza, the patients did have a significantly longer period of time before their disease worsened or required more treatment.
Another significance of Lynparza’s approval is that it is specific to patients who were born with BRCA mutations. Basing a patient’s treatment on their biology is known as precision medicine. Patients won’t know whether this approach could work for them without undergoing testing – both genetic testing for inherited mutations and biomarker testing of their tumor tissue.
Both tests are available through PanCAN’s Know Your Tumor® precision medicine service. An article leading into the GI Cancers Symposium described progress being made through precision medicine for pancreatic cancer patients, citing results from Know Your Tumor that showed that patients whose treatment is matched to their biology can live longer.
In addition to sharing clinical trial results, the GI Cancers Symposium promoted important discussions about supportive care measures. Supportive care is focused on comfort, quality of life and a patient’s total well-being during and after cancer-fighting treatment.
Many pancreatic cancer patients suffer from weight loss and gastrointestinal distress (like diarrhea) due to their tumor and its treatments. These symptoms can be caused by a condition known as pancreatic enzyme insufficiency. PanCAN and its research partners have shown that patients who take supplemental enzymes correctly can experience improvement from these symptoms.
“We hear from patients that these drugs are expensive,” Gupta told us. “But seeing these actual data, that patients have to spend $1,000 a month on a supportive care medication, with all the other well-recognized burdens of pancreatic cancer and its treatment, is eye opening!”
Gupta, who had previously worked with PanCAN on analyzing data from our Patient Registry, noted that the high out-of-pocket costs not only cause financial toxicity, but can act as a barrier to patients accessing this important medication. PanCAN’s Patient Services can give patients and their families more information about pancreatic enzymes and resources to help reduce their cost.
Another highlight of this year’s GI Cancers Symposium was a keynote address entitled, “Old Disparities Are New Again,” delivered by Robert Winn, MD.
A way to be part of the solution, Winn said, would be for healthcare professionals to routinely speak with their patients about their social determinants of health, such as where and with whom they live, whether they have access to clean water and healthy food, and their transportation needs.
It’s also important for members of minority groups to participate in clinical trials to get early access to treatments that may be more effective and to ensure more complete data about the treatment’s effectiveness in a diverse patient population.
PanCAN strongly recommends clinical trials at diagnosis and during every treatment decision – our Patient Services can help you understand all your treatment options.