Super ASK Patient: Phil Kauffman Finds Peace in a Pragmatic Approach to Lung Cancer Treatment

In November of 2014, Phil Kauffman went to his primary care doctor with what he thought was a broken rib. The doctor advised him to let it heal on its own—a standard approach for such maladies.

Phil, a retired engineering consultant who lives near San Diego, California, with his wife (their two daughters are grown), went home and waited for his rib to heal, but the pain stuck around for months.

In March of 2015 his doctor ordered an X-ray, but instead of a broken rib, it revealed suspicious spots in Phil’s lung. A CT scan found five lesions characteristic of lung cancer. His rib pain was caused by pleural effusion (liquid) in his right lung, which was extracted, and an examination of that liquid confirmed a diagnosis of stage IV non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Phil remembers that during the first week after his diagnosis he was paralyzed with fear. His brother in law, a physician, helped him snap out of it, assuring him that his treatment options guaranteed a survival period of at least a few years or maybe more, and that cancer research was progressing at such a fast rate that the prospect of extending his lifetime beyond a couple of years was good. Continue reading…


The Trouble With KRAS


Mutations in the gene that encodes the KRAS protein are frequently encountered in various human cancers. They are found in about 30% of non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs), making KRAS the single most common gene mutated in this cancer. The rate of KRAS mutations in other cancers, such as pancreatic or colorectal, is even higher.

A mutant KRAS protein that is always in the “on” position activates many signaling pathways, many of which lead to unrestrained growth and proliferation of cancer cells. This makes KRAS an appealing treatment target. However, challenges abound, and researchers are exploring several different approaches to treating KRAS-mutant cancers.

Unlike mutations in proteins known as receptor tyrosine kinases, like EGFR or ALK, mutated KRAS is a very difficult protein to target with cancer drugs. (So much so that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has undertaken a special effort to intensify the effort towards successful targeting of mutant KRAS, known as the RAS Initiative.) Continue reading…


Testing for Tumor Mutations: Liquid Biopsy Versus Traditional Biopsy


Liquid biopsies, virtually unknown even a year or two ago, are becoming common tools in precision diagnostics for cancer. Here, I will try to explain some of the more important differences between liquid and “traditional” tumor biopsies.

Biopsies of solid tumors (e.g., lung, breast, or brain tumors) involve surgically removing a small part of a tumor and sending it to pathology lab. In the last few years, doctors have also started to send some tumor samples to special service labs that analyze tumor DNA for the presence of cancer-related mutations.

By definition, regular biopsies can be intrusive and are sometimes associated with side effects, such as bleeding or infection. However, they provide some really essential information; i.e., the histology and grade of the tumor and other tumor characteristics necessary to determine the best choice of treatment. For lung cancer, for example, a biopsy determines the type of tumor—adenocarcinoma, squamous cancer, small-cell lung cancer, or another, less common type. For breast cancer, a routine test will determine if the tumor expresses estrogen, progesterone receptors, and a protein called HER2. These tests are critically important in guiding treatment choices. If mutational analysis of cancer-related genes is also performed (which doesn’t always happen, unfortunately), it may guide treatment with targeted drugs. Continue reading…


War of the Checkpoint Inhibitors: Anti-PD-1 Drugs Move into First-Line Treatment in NSCLC


Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved two anti-PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors, a type of immunotherapy, for treatment of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) in patients whose cancer has progressed after first-line treatment with chemotherapy. Now, the manufacturers of both drugs, pembrolizumab (made by Merck) and nivolumab (made by Bristol-Myers Squibb; BMS) are intent on expanding the indications for use of their drugs. To this end, they have conducted clinical trials testing each as a first-line treatment (i.e., in previously untreated patients), comparing them to standard chemotherapy. Continue reading…


Super ASK Patient: Dyanne and Lars Push Far Beyond Standard Lung Cancer Treatment

In March of 2015, Dyanne Søraas was diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). She was 30 years old and otherwise healthy. Dyanne and her husband, Lars, began to research potential treatment options. Standard treatment seemed to provide little hope, and they gradually decided they would need to think outside the box in order to maximize the time their family would have together. Continue reading…


Lung Cancer Highlights from ASCO 2016


This year, the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) did not produce any truly groundbreaking revelations about new treatments for lung cancer. However, researchers did report quite a few positive findings, and some disappointing ones. I have summarized some of the more prominent presentations below. Continue reading…


Super ASK Patient: Community Kindness Helps a Family Face Lung Cancer


Update:  We are deeply saddened to report that Michael passed away on July 20, 2016. It is a privilege to continue to share his story and keep his memory alive.

In October of 2014, Michael Hrabal’s wife Hazel urged him to go to the doctor for a small but persistent cough. The doctor prescribed cough medicine, but it didn’t help, and by the end of the month Michael had been diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer.

“It was kind of shocking that this little cough turned out to be cancer,” says Michael, who was 57 years old at the time and living north of New York City with Hazel and their son Andrew. This was actually his second time facing cancer; he’d been treated for kidney cancer 15 years earlier, but had remained cancer-free until the new diagnosis. Continue reading…


Clinical Trial Versus Standard Protocol: Why and How to Enroll in a Trial


My job at Cancer Commons is to help cancer patients better understand and make decisions about their treatment. Through our Ask Cancer Commons service, I also strive to inform patients about new drugs in trials that they can discuss with their oncologists. Sometimes, I explain the rationale behind a patient’s current or upcoming treatment, and sometimes I try to convince patients to actually get treated, rather than hope that a vegetarian diet and herbal supplements will cure their metastatic disease. Continue reading…


New Insights on Lung Cancer in Younger Patients


Lung cancer in young people—in particular, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)—is a topic of great interest. It has been made even more so by the recent publication of a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that analyzed over 2,000 NSCLC patients of all ages and resulted in two major conclusions: First, that younger patients (less than 40 years old) have a higher frequency of targetable mutations. Second, that they have relatively poor survival when compared to older patients, except those older than 70 years. Continue reading…