#TBT: Why Patient Differences Matter, Especially When It Comes to Cancer Treatments

As part of our “Throwback Thursday” blog series, we’re taking a look at a topic that’s currently in the news and tagging it with previous research, videos or commentaries in a relevant way. As the saying goes, “what’s old is new again” – and we hope you enjoy our wonky twist on #TBT.

It’s a list that I wish would stop getting longer. It’s the list of people I know or have known who have battled cancer: breast cancer, leukemia, sarcoma, multiple myeloma, stomach cancer, brain cancer.

I think often about all of these relatives and friends, many of whom, thanks to modern medicine, are still here today. And I think about how they dealt with their cancers. The one thing they all have in common, if you could call it that, is the individuality or uniqueness of how they handled their treatments, not just from a clinical perspective, but from a social one as well.

Some sought the support of a network of close friends. Others told no one, but for their spouse, until after their treatments were completed. One close friend hired a medical team to research his tumor type and determine what course of treatment might work best. Another lived at Hope Lodge with her son while she underwent treatment in New York City. And they all followed different treatment regimens, with different side effects, and with different outcomes.

These differences are not only due to the type of cancer, but because of heterogeneity, or individual treatment effects. As the National Pharmaceutical Council explains on its website,

“Each person is unique thanks to a multitude of factors, such as racial and ethnic backgrounds, age, genetics, chronic conditions, disease severity, gender, environment, and even personal preferences when it comes to health treatments. These and other factors make patients different and affect how they may respond to a certain treatment. For these reasons, while the ‘average patient’ may respond best to a particular treatment, some patients may experience little to no benefit from it, so other treatment options may be best for them. These differences in how patients respond to treatments are known as ‘heterogeneity,’ or ‘individual treatment effects.’”

Dr. Darius Lakdawalla, Director of Research at the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California, explains this concept even more clearly in this video (and one of our two #TBT video picks):

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When it comes to cancer treatments, it’s vital to get it right the first time; cancer patients don’t have the luxury of time to try a variety of treatment options. As Dr. Ellen Sigal, chairperson and founder of Friends of Cancer Research, with whom we spoke during our 2012 conference, explained in our second #TBT video pick, cancer patients need access to “the best and most effective treatment the first time. “They don’t want to have to fail two, three or four treatments.”

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Thankfully, there are many scientists and researchers who are working on promising treatments, with more than 1,000 oncology medicines in development today. More than 80% of these oncology medicines are new approaches to targeting cancers, offering real hope that we may be getting closer to cures for certain cancers.

October 2014’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month is now behind us, but my relatives and friends who have fought cancer are a constant and ever-present reminder of how far we’ve come in understanding this disease, as well as how much further we still need to go.