November 23, 2022 by Peter B. Laird
On World Cancer Day, More Reason for Hope
To mark World Cancer Day on February 4, Louise Morrell, M.D., medical director of Lynn Cancer Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, hosted a webinar highlighting some of the key advancements in the war on cancer. There is much to be optimistic about, according to Dr. Morrell, with our ability to detect and treat cancer – wherever it occurs – continuing to improve.
“For virtually every type of cancer, we’re seeing important advances coming out of years and years of clinical trials, and patients are being enrolled in new studies every day,” Dr. Morrell says , a medical oncologist whose focus includes the genetics of cancer. One of the most important developments, she says, is the use of immunotherapies to treat certain cancers.
“Some cancer cells have the ability to flip a switch in your immune cells, preventing them from recognizing the intruding cancer cells as foreign,” Dr. Morrell explains. “We now have the ability to manipulate your immune system into turning that switch in your cells back on, allowing them to once again recognize cancer cells as foreign.”
Immunotherapies have played a crucial role in the treatment of triple negative breast cancers, which Dr. Morrell says are more difficult to treat. “Years ago, surgery was the only option for these patients, and it was major surgery involving the removal of the breast, surrounding lymph nodes and the pectoral muscles,” she notes. Now, she says, a simple lumpectomy can remove just the cancerous lump and spare healthy surrounding tissue, helping the patient to avoid major surgery and a lengthy recovery.
Also, Dr. Morrell says, physicians at Lynn Cancer Institute, which is part of Baptist Health South Florida, are using immunotherapy in combination with chemotherapy to treat triple negative breast cancer as well as a variety of other cancers, including melanoma and lung cancer. “It has led to profound differences in outcomes,” she says. “We’ve seen shrinkage of tumors that we never thought would shrink.”
Other reasons for optimism
Dr. Morrell says that other noteworthy advances in cancer treatment include:
• The use of PARP (poly adenosine diphosphate-ribose polymerase, a type of enzyme) inhibitors. Dr. Morrell says this targeted cancer drug, delivered via a pill, has also proven effective in treating patients with triple negative breast cancer.
• Advances in radiotherapy, including the use of radiopharmaceuticals which, Dr. Morrell says, gives radiation oncologists a new tool for treating cancer that has migrated outside of the original organ.
• The addition of a proton therapy center at Lynn Cancer Institute. Along with Miami Cancer Institute, also part of Baptist Health, Lynn will be one of just a few cancer centers in the entire region to offer this sophisticated technology, which Dr. Morrell says allows radiation oncologists to deliver highly precise proton beam radiation directly to cancer cells.
• Improved ability to detect and treat different types of lung cancers. Even so, early detection is key for treating any cancer, and a quick and easy CT screening is recommended for current and past smokers between 50 and 80 years old, Dr. Morrell says.
• Liquid biopsies are now being used to confirm the presence of cancer and to what extent it has spread. According to Dr. Morrell, a person with cancer has DNA particles from that cancer circulating in their blood. It is now possible to measure the level of those particles, which can help the oncologist determine how much cancer there is.
• Advances in genetic screening for hereditary cancers – such as breast cancer caused by a mutation in a family’s BRCA gene – have made it possible to determine one’s risks and even take steps to prevent them. However, the accuracy of these tests depends entirely on a correct interpretation of their results, Dr. Morrell cautions, more reason to seek care at a cancer center where specialists have years of experience diagnosing and treating many different types of cancer and are regarded as experts in their respective fields.
Treating the whole person
At Lynn Cancer Institute, “right-sizing” a patient’s treatment is always emphasized, according to Dr. Morrell. “Our first duty as physicians is to think about what is going to cure your cancer and give you the longest survival, while at the same time limiting their exposure and minimizing their risk of developing complications or side-effects during and after treatment,” she says. “In order to preserve organ function and overall quality of life, we want to give you exactly what you need to kill your cancer cells and no more.”
Dr. Morrell is quick to point out that advances in knowledge and technology alone won’t necessarily guarantee successful outcomes for patients. At Lynn Cancer Institute, she says, science goes hand in hand with the understanding that each patient is an individual. “We’re not treating a medical report, or a scan or a case number,” she says. “We understand that every patient has a life and brings with them a unique set of problems and challenges.” These, she says, can impact a patient’s treatment and recovery and need to be addressed at every step along the way.
Dr. Morrell notes that Lynn Cancer Institute was built around the philosophy of treating the whole person, and that patients should have access to any resources they may need to successfully navigate their cancer journey. Those supports services include, among others, emotional and psychological counseling, symptom management, pain management, fitness, nutrition and more. “It’s all a part of the process here at Lynn,” she says. “Patients know they have a whole team working behind the scenes to help them.”
For more of Dr. Morrell’s observations on World Cancer Day, video, audio and PDF files of the webinar are available on Lynn Cancer Institute’s website.