Progress in cancer treatment

The number of cancer patients in the Netherlands will increase further in the coming years. From the current 44,000 new cancer diagnoses, it will grow in the coming years to approximately 50,000 in 2020, 27,000 men and 23,000 women. Yet doctors expect to have bad news conversations with patients less and less often. This has everything to do with the progress of the treatment methods. Cancer is becoming more and more curable or a chronic disease with which you can live well to reasonably well. Treatments and medications will more often be tailor-made for the individual patient. In the future, medicines will have an increasingly targeted effect, making them more effective. In addition, doctors use more refined methods to make a diagnosis, allowing them to better tailor the treatment to the patient. According to researchers, spectacular results are being achieved in 2013. This article contains some of those important results.

Combination of medications

For example, researchers from the Anthony van Leeuwenhoek cancer hospital investigated the treatment of a certain form of colon cancer. They discovered that this cancer can be easily treated with a powerful combination of drugs vemurafenib and cetuximab, both specific protein inhibitors. Until this discovery, there was no effective drug against this cancer. Now it is. Patients with thyroid cancer and melanoma (skin cancer) are also expected to benefit from this method.

Spectacular results

The results of the combination of medications vemurafenib and cetuximab were nothing short of spectacular in the patients who tried the treatment method. The man was in serious condition at the start of the treatment; he had only a few weeks to live, not months. The cancer had spread completely. After treatment with the combination of the two medications, the tumors stopped almost immediately. The tumor markers in the blood, which are substances in the blood that indicate cancer activity, fell ‘like bricks’, according to a researcher involved. Other patients with this form of metastatic colorectal cancer have now also been treated with this combination of medications. In all cases the treatment worked well.

Diagnosis more patient-friendly

The method of diagnosis will become more patient-friendly in the coming years. To make a proper diagnosis, doctors must remove a piece of the tumor. The tumor is now punctured or tissue is cut away to study the cancer cells in more detail. That is of course anything but pleasant for the patient. It is time-consuming, burdensome and often painful. In the future, such a biopsy (a piece of tissue) will be necessary less and less often. After all, one can ‘read’ the cancer in the blood. The DNA of the cancer cells is in the blood and that provides all the information that a biopsy also provides. In the future, a blood test will be sufficient to diagnose the cancer. Situations in which tumor tissue must be removed from very difficult places are increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

Adjustments and escapes

Cancer cells, like any living mechanism, want to survive. For this reason, cancer cells can adapt to new conditions. Sometimes they even change shape or manage to ‘escape’ by taking an unexpected route into the body. Researchers now know better and better how adaptations and escapes of cancer cells work. If you want to kill cancer cells, it is important to know through which routes a cancer moves in the body. Researchers at the Anthony van Leeuwenhoek Hospital have mapped all the routes that a cancer cell takes. They have now reached the point where they can ‘close’ or block all 518 routes. This is also a big step forward in the fight against the disease.

Chemotherapy with tablets

Chemotherapy will continue, but not in its current form. Researchers and doctors expect that tablet chemotherapy will be standard in the Netherlands by the end of 2017. Instead of chemotherapy through an infusion, the treatment is administered with tablets and capsules. Patients with some forms of cancer such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer and ovarian cancer can now increasingly undergo chemotherapy at home. Due to the spread of the treatment (the patient takes his tablet daily instead of a huge dose every two to three weeks) and therefore the constant presence of chemo with tablets, the cancer is not given a moment’s rest. Because the therapy can be administered at home, the side effects are also likely to become less severe. After all, the patient no longer has to go to the hospital once every two or three weeks, where he is given a large dose at the same time during each visit, resulting in severe, unpleasant side effects.
The disease remains persistent and the expectation that cancer will disappear within a few years fits the storybook. Yet doctors and researchers are increasingly succeeding in ‘understanding’ cancer cells. This insight brings us closer to the day when cancer is no longer fatal. A day to look forward to.

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