News breaks in the cancer arena all the time. Sometimes it’s big — like word that a breakthrough drug has increased survival for a hard-to-treat cancer. Sometimes it’s smaller. Any of it may matter to you and your family as you navigate your cancer journey. We do our best to keep you up-to-date with a monthly roundup of some of the most significant recent cancer news.
Esophageal Cancer Rates on the Rise in Adults Under Age 50
What’s New The incidence of esophageal adenocarcinoma (EAC) is on the rise in adults under age 50, and younger adults are more likely to be diagnosed with advanced disease, according to a study published December 16 in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.
Research Details Researchers from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, analyzed data from 34,443 cases of esophageal cancer diagnosed between 1975 and 2015. They calculated incidence rates for three age groups: under age 50; 50 to 69; and 70 and over. The study showed that rates of the disease increased over time in all age groups, but that the biggest increase was among patients 50 and younger, with an average increase of 2.9 percent per year between 1975 and 2015. Younger patients were also more likely to be diagnosed with advanced stage disease, with 84.9 percent of those under 50 diagnosed with advanced disease compared with 67.3 percent of those 50 or older.
Why It Matters Patients should be aware of risk factors and symptoms of esophageal cancer, including difficulty swallowing, chest discomfort, and unintended weight loss, say the authors of the study. People with long-term acid reflux and people with a family history of the disease should discuss screening for esophageal cancer with their physicians. Early diagnosis of the disease correlates to better outcomes, the authors said. “Our findings suggest that physicians should have a low threshold of suspicion for patients who present with dysphagia (difficulty swallowing),” said study coauthor Don C. Codipilly, MD, a gastroenterology fellow at the Mayo Clinic.
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Black Women With Ovarian Cancer and COVID-19 Fare Worse Than Other Women
What’s New Black women with ovarian cancer who contracted COVID-19 were much more likely to become seriously ill compared with non-Black women with ovarian cancer who caught the virus, according to a study published December 9 in the journal Cancer.
Research Details The study examined 193 patients with ovarian cancer treated at eight New York City hospitals. Just over 71 percent of the Black women with COVID-19 required hospitalization compared with 46 percent of non-Black patients. Of the 34 patients who died from COVID-19, 41.2 percent of them were Black.
Why It Matters The study analysis suggested that Black patients with COVID-19 had a higher prevalence of other health problems that contributed to their worsening COVID-19 infection. "The underlying causes of racial disparities are multifactorial and include limited access to healthcare, [and] social determinants of health, racism, and discrimination. The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened these and brought awareness," said senior author Bhavana Pothuri, MD, of NYU Langone Health in New York City.
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Watch and Wait Works for Some Low-Risk Cases of Thyroid Cancer
What’s New People with small, low-risk thyroid cancers may be able to choose active surveillance — monitoring the tumor’s size — and skip treatment, according to a study published in November 2020 in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.
Research Details The study, from researchers at The Dartmouth Institute and Kuma Hospital in Japan, looked at 1,179 patients at Kuma Hospital between 2005 and 2017 who were part of an active surveillance program. The study found that 91 percent of the patients adhered to the active surveillance protocol, which included undergoing regular ultrasound exams. Only 4.5 percent of the patients chose surgery after two years.
Why It Matters The rate of small papillary thyroid cancers (tumors less than 2 centimeters in size) has risen sharply around the world in the past three decades. Some experts suggest that small thyroid cancer tumors are being detected more now due to enhanced imaging and, if not detected, would likely never have been caught or caused the patient problems. This study is the first to analyze the active surveillance approach for these low-risk tumors.
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Surprisingly Low COVID-19 Risk for Patients Who Had Head and Neck Cancer Surgery During the Pandemic
What’s New People with head and neck cancer have a low risk of contracting COVID-19 following surgery, according to research published December 21 in the journal Cancer.
Research Details Researchers in the United Kingdom analyzed data from 1,137 patients in 26 countries with a diagnosis of cancer of the oral cavity or thyroid who underwent surgery during the pandemic. The death rate within 30 days after surgery was 1.2 percent, a rate that would be normally expected in this patient population, without a pandemic. Three percent of the patients tested positive for COVID-19 within 30 days of surgery, and of those 44.8 percent developed severe respiratory complications. Patients were more likely to test positive for COVID-19 if they lived in communities with high levels of COVID-19, had oral tumors, and had received a tracheostomy (an opening created in the neck to facilitate placing a tube into the windpipe).
Why It Matters The study clarifies the COVID-19 risk in a vulnerable patient group. Since the start of the pandemic, physicians have learned more about reducing the risk of infection in cancer patients. "In head and neck cancer surgery the cure is dependent on surgery, but there was great concern about spreading infection from aerosol-generating procedures in the airway," said corresponding author Richard J. Shaw, MD, of the University of Liverpool Cancer Research Centre in England. “The early consensus was that head and neck surgery was very risky for patients, particularly less fit or elderly patients, or those who required complex procedures or reconstructive surgery. Our data is reassuring in this regard, showing that there is no additional risk of COVID-19 for these groups."
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Medication Combination Benefits Some With High-Risk Myeloid Blood Cancer
What’s New Adding the drug Venclexta (venetoclax) to standard therapies is safe for some high-risk patients with myeloid blood cancers that have relapsed after initial treatment, such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), according to research presented December 7 at the 62nd American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting.
Research Details Researchers from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute reported on a study examining the use of Venclexta with standard therapy. Venclexta, approved to treat some types of blood and lymph cancers, was added to a standard pretransplant chemotherapy regimen in 22 patients with high-risk disease and who then underwent stem cell transplantation. The study found no serious toxicities with the addition of Venclexta. At the time of the data analysis, 7 of the 22 patients had died, but the six-month overall survival for the group was 84 percent.
Why It Matters Treatment options are needed for patients with advanced myeloid blood cancers who relapse after stem cell transplantation. The study tests the idea that adding Venclexta to chemotherapy will reduce the risk of relapse. The addition of the medication “demonstrates promising clinical activity supporting further evaluation for high-risk disease features,” said the presenting author, Jacqueline Garcia, MD.