February 9, 2016 | by Rahul Jandial, M.D., Ph.D.
When former President Jimmy Carter announced that his Stage 4 metastatic melanoma was in remission due to a combination of new, immunotherapies - approaches that fortify a patient’s immune system, rather than weaken it - a national dialogue was ignited about the growing potential and effectiveness of immune-based cancer treatment.
Exciting advancements in immunotherapy aside, if you’re a cancer patient, there are also other takeaways: Namely, the critical importance of having an honest conversation with your physician - or perhaps several - about the latest treatments and clinical trials available, before deciding on a course of action.
Here, neurosurgeon and scientist Rahul Jandial, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the Division of Neurosurgery at City of Hope, shares what cancer patients can take away from Carter’s cancer journey.
1. You are always in the driver's seat: Cancer care providers are at your service
It's important for those considering cancer care to know that we, the physicians, are at your service. And regardless of what your physician/surgeon recommends, you are always in the driver’s seat. In fact, I often start the conversation with my patients by letting them know that even if he or she chooses not to pursue the medical care I advise, they still have 100 percent of my support. Don’t forget that a conversation about treatment with your doctor is not a commitment.
Even more, we recognize that each patient is at a different point in his or her personal journey through life. Some patients have young children, some are retired, some are living alone and some may even be battling other health issues. No two patients are alike. For these reasons, it is important that you let your voice, and your health care preferences, be heard when meeting with your physician.
2. New medicines are here: You may benefit
The medicines that put Carter's cancer in remission did not exist until recently, and are the result of decades of research. That doesn’t mean everyone will have the remarkable response Carter has had, but it does mean that for some, previously untreatable cancers are now manageable. The effectiveness of new medicine is based on the particular biology of your cancer. So, similar to Carter, consider having a conversation with your physician about whether there is a new medicine or treatment option on the horizon that may have promise for you.
3. Age is just a number: Older patients can still fight, and win, the battle
At the age of 91, Carter has set a powerful example of how to proceed sensibly in the face of a cancer battle. First, he explored treatment options. There were two modern treatments available to him that did not exist for most of his lifetime. For instance, there is now focused radiation, which allows cancers to be hit with a high dose of radiation, but spares the healthy brain and tissue surrounding the tumors. Often this procedure can be done in a day, without staying overnight in the hospital. Second, he chose to take advantage of new, immune-based therapies that primed and boosted his immune system to attack cancer cells.
Yes, at the age of 91, Carter is in cancer remission and living a productive life - a lesson to both patients and providers.
Learn more about City of Hope's Brain Tumor Program and research. If you are looking for a second opinion about your diagnosis or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.