Published on July 08, 2019

Q&A: Fighting cancer with better treatments

Rajesh ThirumaranCancer treatment continues to get better in ways that improve and extend people’s lives. For example, doctors can harness the immune system to help control advanced lung cancer with fewer side effects. And genetic testing helps some women avoid chemotherapy after breast cancer surgery.

Rajesh P. Thirumaran, MD, an oncologist at Mercy Catholic Medical Center, discusses the latest in cancer care.

Q: What’s new in lung cancer treatment?

Things have changed dramatically over the past few years. For example, we used to give someone with advanced lung cancer aggressive chemotherapy drugs. Chemotherapy is a toxic substance that kills cancer cells. But it also destroys healthy cells.

Now we have better drugs, including immunotherapy, which is revolutionizing the treatment of most cancers, especially lung cancer. We use these drugs to stimulate a patient’s immune system and make it more capable of fighting the cancer. These drugs do not cause hair loss or vomiting.

Q: Is immunotherapy as effective as chemotherapy?

It works even better in most cases. Immunotherapy works amazingly well for lung cancer, melanoma, bladder cancer and at least 10 other tumor types. And the list is expanding.

Q: How has breast cancer care evolved?

Things have changed compared to 10 years ago. For example, now we can use a genetic test called Oncotype DX to show whether a woman who has had a lumpectomy for early-stage breast cancer needs chemotherapy or not.

Based on the test results, we can determine if we should give chemotherapy to prevent the cancer from coming back. The test looks at 21 genes. Sometimes, even if there is a large tumor, we see a low test result score. These patients may not get any benefit from receiving chemotherapy.