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Beyond Drugs: The Other Breakthroughs In Cancer Research

Publication: Austin Medical Times, Houston Medical Times

We usually associate cancer research and clinical trials with new cancer medicine. But evidence-based cancer care goes far beyond providing drug therapies to patients. Exciting research developments that are unrelated to cancer medicines are improving patients’ outcomes and quality of life. 

Breakthroughs include technology to improve cancer screening, ways to minimize the side effects of cancer treatment, and tools to determine best approaches for treatment. We’re increasingly able to use and analyze data to customize cancer care for specific patients. Clinical research drives each of these non-medicine advancements.

1.    Better Prevention and Screening
Research that helps identify causes and risk factors leads to better cancer prevention. Better screening and earlier detection enables physicians to treat cancer sooner with greater success. Research is underway to find better screening tools for a variety of cancers. 

One example of such research is already making a difference. Mammograms traditionally are the most reliable way to discover breast abnormalities. Traditional mammograms, however, are sometimes unable to identify concerning areas in women with dense breast tissue. Researchers developed a newer technology called 3-D mammography, which takes many low-dose X-rays to create a three-dimensional picture of the breast. Also called digital tomosynthesis, the procedure helps doctors locate and better examine suspicious areas in dense breast tissue beyond traditional mammograms.

2.     Reduced Side Effects from Cancer Treatment
Chemotherapy is the most common form of cancer treatment. Unfortunately, the treatment sometimes has negative side effects, including nausea and hair loss. Reducing side effects can improve patients’ quality of life. Many years ago, research that developed better nausea medications now has helped thousands of patients relieve symptoms of this side effect and spurred transferring most delivery of chemotherapy from a hospital to an outpatient setting, enabling patients to be more comfortable at home with their families. 

More recently, researchers developed a “cooling cap” to combat chemo-induced hair loss. The cooling cap reduces scalp temperature to reduce the blood flow to hair follicles before, during, and after chemo treatment, which helps prevent hair loss. Although currently FDA-approved for limited cancer types, research indicates that about half of patients who use a cooling cap will successfully retain their hair through chemo treatments.  

3.    More Precise Radiation Treatment
Most people know that radiation therapy often accompanies drug treatments such as chemotherapy, but many don’t realize that radiation therapy has ongoing clinical trials too. Such research has improved the precision of radiation beams to more exactly target tumors and minimize damage to surrounding tissues. Organizations such as the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group gives patients access to many promising radiation trials. 

4.    Improved Patient Outcomes and Experiences 
Researchers comb mountains of data to discern the most effective treatments and patient experiences for specific types of cancer. That research, in turn, benefits many future patients. Texas Oncology participates in evidence-based pathways, which uses research and data to inform doctors which therapeutic interventions are most appropriate for each individual patient’s case. For example, we now can customize some treatments for breast cancer patients based on how patients with similar molecular profiling have responded to certain approaches. By treating patients with the right treatment at the right time, we can improve outcomes. 

Drug therapies will always be a vital part of cancer care. But thanks to new research and technology, cancer care continues to expand beyond drugs to improve outcomes and patient experiences.

Jason Melear, M.D. is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology—Austin Midtown, 901 W. 38th Street, Suite 200 in Austin, Texas.

This article originally appeared in the April print issue of:

  • Austin Medical Times
  • Houston Medical Times

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