Top Cancer Research Stories: Spring 2014

Laptop, newspaper and coffeeThis is the latest post in a bi-monthly series where we take a look at several of the most interesting cancer research stories that have come out over the previous two months. These are a few of the recent stories that seem to have the greatest potential impact, at least from my perspective, and that I know I’ll want to follow as they develop further.

Below are overviews of a number of the top cancer research stories that came out during March – April 2014. Also, in March, a study reported in the Journal of American Medical Association reviewed what is known about the benefits and harms of screening mammography from studies conducted over the past several decades–I’ve written about the take-home messages in a recent post.

Quality of Life Issues for Cancer Survivors

Survivorship care is an area that is beginning to receive more attention than it has in the past. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) released new guidelines on the treatment of three major types of problems affecting cancer survivors–fatigue, anxiety and depression, and chemotherapy-induced neuropathy. These are the first three guidelines in a planned series on survivorship care.

The ASCO guidelines focus on identifying those treatment approaches that reliable studies have shown to be effective. And they distinguish between side effects during treatment and problems that occur later. For some problems, including the treatment of fatigue, the evidenced-based approaches are primarily non-pharmacological. The guidelines also emphasize that all patients need to be evaluated for fatigue and for anxiety and depression, something that has not routinely been a part of patient follow-up care. The guidelines are available on the ASCO website under survivorship guidelines.

There have been numerous studies demonstrating the benefits of exercise for cancer survivors. The latest, a very large study that surveyed cancer survivors in the United States, found that only 10% were meeting U.S. government-recommended guidelines for physical activity. But survivors who said they did meet the guidelines reported less fatigue and better overall quality of life. The study was presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

Not all problems related to cancer treatment are physical or emotional. A study of women treated for early-stage breast cancer found there was a greater risk of long-term unemployment for those who received chemotherapy as part of their treatment compared to those who did not. The study recommended this risk be considered in determining treatment plans, especially when the expected benefit of chemotherapy is low. The study was reported in the journal of the American Cancer Society.

Breast Cancer Treatment

The most interesting news in breast cancer research to be announced at the AACR annual meeting was the results of a clinical trial for a new drug to treat hormone receptor-positive breast cancer.

The experimental breast cancer drug, which goes by the name palbociclib, showed encouraging results in a relatively small clinical trial of women with advanced breast cancer. The 165 women in the trial had metastatic breast cancer that was hormone receptor-positive and HER2-negative. Each of the women was randomized to receive either the anti-estrogen drug letrozole (Femara) or a combination treatment that included both letrozole and the experimental drug.

The women receiving the combination therapy, on average, went 20 months before their cancer progressed, compared to 10 months for those receiving just Femara. It’s still too early to know whether these results will translate into longer overall survival but as studies continue this information will become available.

Palbociclib, and other similar drugs, work by targeting the activity of a protein involved in cell division. The drug will be tested in a larger, phase 3 trial of women with advanced breast cancer, as well as in a separate trial for women with early-stage hormone receptor-positive breast cancer.

Health Care Equality

For African American women in the United States, breast cancer mortality rates are 40% higher than for white women. A new study reported in the journal Cancer Epidemiology examined the data on breast cancer mortality by race over a twenty-year period from 1990 to 2009. This study also looked at the trends by city for 41 U.S. cities. Interestingly, the study found that the disparity in breast cancer mortality between ethnic groups, in addition to increasing over time, also differs widely across cities. The authors noted that much of the increase in disparity over the twenty years occurred because mortality rates for whites improved while those for African American women did not.

In “The Breast Cancer Racial Gap” in the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope reviews the study’s major findings.  Another piece in the Times, “Why Black Women Die of Cancer” by  Harold P. Freeman, a cancer surgeon and past president of the American Cancer Society, examines some of the reasons behind the breast cancer mortality gap, and steps that have been taken in New York over the last twenty years that have been successful in narrowing the gap there.

Other Reading

The immune system continues to be one of the most promising areas in cancer research right now. Dr. Susan Love, in this recent blog post, shares her insights on the recent AACR annual meeting including some exciting developments in immune system research that were presented there. And for more on the many ways in which researchers are looking at harnessing the immune system to develop new cancer therapies, “Cancer treatment: The killer within” in Nature is an interesting read.

That’s it for this time. If there was another recent cancer research story or article that caught your attention or if you have thoughts on any of what I’ve included, I’d love to hear from you!

Related Posts
Recent Breast Cancer Screening Studies: What Are the Take-Home Messages?
Breast Cancer Quality of Life Issues: A Researcher Asks “Are We Doing Better?”
Top Cancer Research Stories: January-February 2014

Image courtesy of Evgeny Karandaev/Shutterstock

8 responses

  1. Hi Lisa, Thanks for putting together this comprehensive summary. One thought I’d like to add is that I get frustrated with all the studies that keep coming out about exercise. It surprised me, and yet it didn’t, when I read that only 10% of cancer survivors are getting the recommended amount. There is not enough discussion about why this is and how to help survivors get more physically active. Once again, this points to the need for better survivorship care follow-up/plans in my view. Thanks again for pulling all this together!

    • Hi Nancy. I’m with you on the studies about exercise. The recommended amount is actually quite a lot and probably a big challenge for most to meet. Making it a specific part of follow-up with strategies & support to do it might make a real difference for a lot of people. Thanks for your thoughts on this!

  2. Thanks for putting this together Lisa. I find it too daunting to follow up every report I find shared via any social media.
    Nancy’s comment makes me think of a frustration I have with most studies. Hmm something to ponder.

    • There are so many reports coming out-it would indeed be daunting to try to follow up everything. And many seem to contradict each other too. I try to look for indications that a particular study is larger, or covers a longer time or is otherwise more significant and pay much more attention to those. And yes, the follow up is often the missing piece that you wonder about after reading some of these studies…Many thanks for your comments!

  3. Thank you for compiling all of this. I agree with Nancy about the exercise pressures. After cancer and its treatment, it is very difficult to do some exercises.

  4. Thank you for the “like” on my post, May 14-Mental Health Blog Month. The information you shared in this post was very informative. Definitely, I will connect to the links you have shared on other topics. So glad you “liked” my post because it led me to your blog.

    • Hi! I’m glad the information in this post was helpful. I just recently found out about your blog as well and am looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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