The Latest Developments in Cancer Research and Treatment, January 2021

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.

COVID-19 Pandemic Caused Drop in Cancer Screening, Likely Falloff in Early Diagnoses

What’s New Fewer than 16,000 patients underwent cancer screening during the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic compared with the months before (about 52,000) according to a research letter published January 14 in JAMA Oncology.

Research Details The study, which was based on data from Massachusetts General Brigham Health System, analyzed 192,060 patients undergoing cancer screening tests during the first peak of the pandemic in New England (March 2 to June 2, 2020) compared with three periods before and after. Mammography, prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening, low-dose computerized tomography, Pap test, and colonoscopy screening decreased by 60 to 82 percent. The drop in cancer screening in this instance will result in the failure to diagnose an estimated 1,438 cancerous and precancerous lesions, according to the authors.

Why It Matters While the falloff in screening was only temporary, it’s concerning “because cancers detected at an early stage are often easier to treat than those that aren’t discovered until they’ve had time to grow and spread,” said Ziad Bakouny, MD, co–first author of the study. Given that the United States is now in the second (and potentially worse) wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic, patients are encouraged to speak with their doctors and weigh the pros and cons of delaying screening.

RELATED: COVID-19 Pandemic Is Negatively Impacting Cancer Screening

Aspirin May Boost Lifespan of Older Adults With Breast or Bladder Cancer

What’s New Using aspirin at least three times a week appears to improve survival in older adults with breast or bladder cancer according to study findings published January 15 in JAMA Network Open. Aspirin use did not appear to increase survival in other cancers investigated in the study (esophageal, gastric, pancreatic, and uterine).

Research Details Researchers from the National Cancer Institute examined data collected from almost 140,000 participants (aged 65 and older) previously enrolled in the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial from 1993 to 2001. The findings showed that participants who reported using aspirin at least three times a week had at least a 33 percent lower risk of dying from bladder cancer, and a 25 percent lower risk of dying from breast cancer. However, aspirin use did not appear to influence risk for developing cancer altogether.

Why It Matters Aspirin is often recommended for adults with a history of heart attack or stroke (or at high risk for either) according to the American Heart Association, but it should not be taken regularly — even among people with cancer — without first consulting a doctor. Study investigators note that while aspirin might improve survival in certain cancers, it can also cause side effects, some of which may be serious.

RELATED: All About Aspirin for Migraine and Headache

Coffee May Be Protective Against Prostate Cancer

What’s New Increasing coffee intake by as little as 1 cup a day may help reduce prostate cancer risk, according to a review published in the upcoming February 2020 issue of BMJ Open.

Research Details Researchers examined data from 16 studies enrolling over one million men in North America, Europe, and Japan. Overall, they found that drinking just 1 additional cup a day increased protection by 1 percent. What’s more, compared with people who drank the least amount of coffee (0 to 2 cups), those who drank the most (2 to 9 cups) had a 9 percent lower risk of prostate cancer. The protective effect of coffee was even greater for advanced disease (producing a 12 percent lower risk), and the risk of dying (16 percent lower risk).

Why This Matters Roughly 1 in 8 men will develop prostate cancer, according to the most recent estimates from the American Cancer Society. Although the study findings do not prove that drinking more coffee can reduce prostate cancer risk, findings are encouraging, especially since most of the studies included in the review were considered high quality. In addition, the findings remained even after adjusting for factors like family history, smoking, alcohol use, and physical activity. The reasons for coffee’s protective effects are not entirely clear, but the researchers pointed to its anti-inflammatory effects, antioxidant properties, and its beneficial effects on blood sugar levels. Caffeine might also prove to be an important factor, since decaffeinated coffee did not appear to have the same benefits. Men might wish to consider adding 1 to 2 extra cups to their daily coffee consumption, the researchers said.

RELATED: Everyday Health’s Prostate Cancer Awareness Month Twitter Chat: Here’s What You Missed

Male Breast Cancer Patients at Risk for Heart Disease

What’s New A significant proportion of men with breast cancer are at risk for heart disease, according to a small study to be presented at the American College of Cardiology’s Advancing the Cardiovascular Care of the Oncology Patient virtual course in February.

Research Details The study, from researchers at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer and Medstar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC, was based on review of medical charts from 24 male breast cancer patients between the ages of 38 and 79 years. Of the patients, 79 percent had invasive ductal carcinoma and half had a family history of breast cancer. Following mastectomy, treatments ranged from chemotherapy and radiation to hormones. Chart review showed that 88 percent of the men were overweight, 58 percent had high blood pressure, and 54 percent had high cholesterol. Moreover, 8 percent had preexisting tachyarrhythmia (abnormally increased heart rate), and an additional 13 percent developing the heart condition during cancer treatment.

Why This matters The study’s authors note that heart disease data are lacking in male breast cancer patients, mostly because it’s fairly rare. Still, they emphasize the need for more research that explores the risk of preexisting heart disease on long-term outcomes. In the interim, men with breast cancer are encouraged to speak with their oncologists to learn if a cardiovascular risk assessment might be beneficial for making decisions about which type of treatment to pursue, as well as any steps they can take to protect their heart during treatment.

RELATED: ‘This Is My Scar’: How One Survivor Is Fighting the Stigma of Male Breast Cancer

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