Battling the Big C

Dr. Oscar Chan, lung, head and neck cancer specialist from Hong Kong Integrated Oncology Center.

Cancer remains the world’s leading cause of mortality. The World Health Organization reports that in 2015, 8.8 million deaths were caused by this dreaded disease alone, underscoring a burden and impact so great that governments, leaders, healthcare companies and experts around the world have resolved to do everything in their power to arrest its further increase and development.

Widely considered as an automatic death sentence, it is a condition that does not discriminate. Women, men, young and old — all suffer from its ill effects and all deserve to hope that they will be able to fight it.

With the advent of targeted treatments and therapies, such as immunotherapy, patients now have access to this “hope” in the form of new treatment options that may help them in their cancer journey. Immunotherapy, in particular, was the focus of a cancer treatment forum that served as a venue for international healthcare experts to discuss the benefits of this innovative new therapy option.

It has been regarded as a “gentler” treatment route and has already been approved in the country for several types of cancers. Currently, these approved indications include the following types of cancers: lung, melanoma, head and neck, gastric, bladder and Hodgkin lymphoma.

Dr. Oscar Chan, a lung and head and neck cancer specialist from the Hong Kong Integrated Oncology Centre, was one of the speakers in the event who shared about how immunotherapy is making breakthroughs in (lung) cancer management in his country, where around 4,700 individuals are annually diagnosed with cancer.

Immunotherapy, according to Dr. Chan, was first introduced and applied in Hong Kong in 2014 for patients who were not responding to first-line cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. He mentioned that those who responded best to the treatment were non-small cell lung cancer patients whose cells showed a high level of a protein biomarker called PD-L1, the expression of which may help medical experts recommend the correct treatment route.

“In the past, majority of lung cancer patients can only live up to one year, with the median survival only around a year to 17 months. However, with immunotherapy, the patients may now live longer; the response rates are high and more consistent,” said Dr. Chan.

Dr. Chan added that the current estimated five-year survival rate for Stage 4 lung cancer patients is now around 16 percent, significantly more than the previous rate which was only at three percent.

He cited the case of a 70-year-old male patient who developed a tumor on his right bronchus, a growth which obstructed his airway and caused breathing difficulty, which also contributed to the presence of blood in his sputum. The initial treatment was applied through radiation and first-line chemotherapy, but the tumor still grew.

His doctors, as a response to the results, switched the treatment to second-line chemotherapy, a route which did not yield the intended effect. The patient’s disease further progressed, and his right lung eventually collapsed.Immunotherapy was then administered to the patient, applied through an immune checkpoint blocker. In just 14 days, his situation had improved.

Dr. Chan later took a radiograph of the patient’s chest and discovered that the tumor had shrunk and it was no longer blocking his bronchus. With the tumor’s size reduced, the patient’s lung was now able to expand and his sputum did not yield any more blood.

“This patient is currently still on immunotherapy, and we have found that his quality of life has not been compromised,” said Dr. Chan.

Due to the observed benefits of immunotherapy, increasing access to it — to give better support to cancer patients — has been encouraged, and this holds true for the Philippines.

Local initiatives such as the Hope from Within multi-stakeholder advocacy, for instance, continually push for greater and strengthened efforts to fight cancer, stressing that close collaboration will be the key to ensure that the proper testing methods, treatments, care options, and systems are in place, especially for those who need it the most.

Recently, the Hope from Within Cancer Game Plan PH was launched, a campaign that aims to put the patients at the heart of the fight against the dreaded disease. Using powerful voices from leaders, advocates, policymakers, survivors, support groups, and patients, it boosted awareness of right cancer care, sparking conversations and purposive actions on how to save more patients from cancer-related mortalities and burdens.

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