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Texas Oncology Doctors Using Innovative Treatments

Publication: Waco Tribune-Herald

An estimated 120,000 Texans are expected to get cancer during 2018, and many will seek treatment at places like Texas Oncology Waco, where doctors are finding new methods for battling the disease.

Dr. Thomas Harris with Texas Oncology Waco said chemotherapy is still the standard way to treat cancer, but in recent years oncologists have been pleased to see gains made in new approaches.

One of those innovations is immunotherapy, a treatment that boosts the body’s own immune systems to fight the disease.

“This has been one of the biggest trends in cancer treatment the last four to five years,” Harris said. “With immunotherapy we ask, ‘How can we help patients’ immune systems to fight their own cancer?’”

It’s similar to introducing antibiotics into the body to kill the bacteria that is causing an infection, he said.

Chemotherapy, surgery and radiation will still be used in most treatments, he said, but immunotherapy is a welcome new trend.

Perhaps the biggest success story for immunotherapy came in treatment for former President Jimmy Carter, he said.

In 2015, Carter announced that his melanoma had spread to his liver and brain, a condition that would have been considered untreatable a few years ago. Doctors used a new approach combining radiation and immunotherapy. The tumors were first subjected to radiation, then he received pembrolizumab, a drug designed to support his immune system’s response.

Three months after starting immunotherapy, the former president’s tumors were gone.

Not everyone has seen that kind of success, Harris cautioned, and it depends on the type of cancer.

“Some cancers don’t respond as well and we’re trying to find out why,” he said.

Still, there’s reason for optimism.

“We see about three out of 10 patients do extremely well with immunotherapy, but we want to see six out of 10, seven out of 10 … 10 out of 10,” he said.

Precision Medicine

As research and clinical trials improve, drugs can target specific genes to battle cancer.

Gleevec is a good example of a drug that was discovered to be successful in battling CML, or chronic myelogenous leukemia, he said.

According to a report on the cancer.gov website, someone who has CML but has been in remission after two years of Gleevec treatment has the same life expectancy as someone who doesn’t have cancer.

Harris also gives the example of someone who has a basal cell cancer spot on the nose. The usual treatment is to cut out the spot, which means part of the nose has to go.

But what if an oral pill can be developed that blocks the pathway for cancer growth, thereby eliminating the cancer and saving the nose?

“It’s exciting for the patients because they can say, ‘I’m beating my own cancer,’” he said.

Six doctors work at the Texas Oncology site in Waco, but they are part of a statewide network of more than 400, which allows greater access to clinical trials in seeking new treatments, especially for rare cancers.

Waco has the same clinical trials as those in larger cities, he said.

More Survivals

While the number of people who develop can still be high, the rate of deaths from it have been shrinking.

A recent report by the American Cancer Society said that in 2015, the cancer death rate for men and women combined fell 26 percent from its peak in 1991.

Increased access to screening tests and breakthroughs like targeted gene therapies have played a role in that, scientists have said.

Harris agrees with that assessment, but believes there’s an even more obvious answer.

“I think the reduction in smoking is the biggest reason we have seen that drop,” he said. “That’s a big part in not getting cancer.”

Of course, eating healthier (more fruits and vegetables) and getting that recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day are all ways to help fend off the risk of cancer, he added, though there are no guarantees that living as healthy as possible means you can avoid cancer.

Harris is encouraged by the gains made by research in treating cancer and said that has to continue.

Human Touch

When it comes to treatment, Harris said the human aspect of care that he sees in the doctors, nurses, staff and medical assistants at Texas Oncology is critical.

“Compassionate care and a personal, human touch is so important,” he said, adding that a positive outlook can be beneficial in fighting the cancer.

Although he’s seen cases where even the most hopeful person can’t overcome the disease, having a support network of family and friends and staying positive can often be beneficial during treatment.

Harris said he encourages patients to “live life now, even while you’re having treatment.”

“Our patients really surprise us,” he said. “We’re blown away at their courage, their faith and their love of life.”

Read the full story at Waco Tribune-Herald.

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