Thursday, August 30, 2018

We loved the Sarcoma Exchange!

By Suzie Siegel

The Sarcoma Exchange proved so successful that even before it ended, survivors were asking about the next one. 

“We were so encouraged by the outpouring of participation by the sarcoma patient, caregiver and survivor community. We had 147 attendees, but many more expressed that they wanted to attend,” said Alyssa O’Driscoll, executive director of the Sarcoma Alliance. “We’re planning to make this a regular part of our programming should funding continue.” 

The Alliance, founded in 1999, is an international nonprofit dedicated to the education, guidance and support of people affected by sarcoma. Although survivors and families meet each other at Alliance events, this the first time it has held a patient-education conference. 

The conference was July 20-22 in Atlanta. Patients and caregivers came from 29 states and represented 21 subtypes. The patient who had survived the longest was Susie Wright of Cairo, GA, who was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma 48 years ago. The subtype with the most survivors in attendance was leiomyosarcoma (LMS).  

LMS survivor Sharee Whitmer (left) and Lisa Kessler, whose husband survived LMS, but their son did not.    

"The information gleaned from the sarcoma oncologists and researchers empowered me in a way that really let me feel I have some options that I have not exhausted," said Sharee Whitmer of Madisonville, VA, an LMS survivor. She came with her husband and their therapy dog, Stella. "It reassured us that the sarcoma oncologist and team that I am with now are staying well-informed and that I am indeed in good hands. And when and if the time comes to move on and find another team, I have many other choices.

"For us to have some idea of how up-do-date our care and our options, including trials, really are, it is imperative to attend conferences aimed at educating and empowering patients. Not everyone is seen at a large sarcoma center.

"The BIG take away from the conference for us was to really be able to connect in person with other sarcoma patients and their caregivers that we have met through online support groups. And during the conference to be able to meet so many more that we would not have met if it were not for attending the conference. Knowledge is incredibly valuable for patients like us, and having the opportunity to exchange our experiences while enduring this diagnosis and the treatments that follow are invaluable."  

Mary Prince, Lea Custer and me
Mary Prince of Portland, OR, came from the farthest away. Her sister, another LMS survivor, lives in Murrayville, GA. 

“Attending this wonderful event with my longterm-thriver/ BFF / sister, Lea Custer, was the highlight of the year for me. Meeting other LMS survivors and meeting all the wonderful medical professionals and hearing what's coming up on the horizon made it an incredible conference. Love was everywhere; you could feel it!" Mary said. "A special shout out to Dr. Gina D'Amato, Lea's primary sarcoma physician, who made it all happen.”  

Dr. D’Amato, a Sarcoma Alliance board member, practices at Northside Hospital’s Cancer Institute in Atlanta. She’s grateful that sarcoma specialists from across the South volunteered to speak, along with her colleagues from Northside.

The medical oncologists who spoke were Dr. Robert Benjamin and Dr. Shreyaskumar Patel from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Dr. Jonathan Trent from the Sylvester Cancer Center in Miami, and Dr. Richard Riedel from Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, N.C. Dr. Scott Davidson, a surgical oncologist, and Dr. Hamilton Williams, a radiation oncologist, attended from Northside.

Breakout sessions covered patients in treatment, survivors and caregivers.

Amanda Smith with the late Roger Henderson
"Never quit the fight. That was my mindset," said Amanda Smith of Havelock, NC, who facilitated the caregiver section. She lost her boyfriend, Roger Henderson, to chondrosarcoma. An LPN, she's in school to become an RN. 

Sarcoma Alliance board member Marites Tullius, a nurse practitioner, spoke on palliative care. From Northside, registered dietitian Rebecca Perez spoke on nutrition; social worker Myra Bazell, stress management; RN Debbie Bickes, patient navigation; and occupational therapist Melora Rennie, exercise and fatigue.

Osteosarcoma survivor Woody Roseland, whose "S#!%Cancer Patients Say” brought knowing laughs, entertained us one afternoon. That night, hypnotist Ricky Kalmon evoked a great deal of silliness from his targets.  

Sponsors were drug companies Lilly, Eisai, Ignyta, Novartis, Immune Design and Epizyme as well as  Northside Hospital’s Sarcoma Program. Thanks to them, we had free rooms at the Marriott Perimeter Center Hotel and delicious meals. 
Presentations from the conference are posted here: Here are a few tidbits:

Dr. D'Amato with Dr. Benjamin
"Stage 4 has a bad connotation. I don't even use it in clinic,” Dr. D’Amato said. The problem with "stage 4" or "terminal" is that these labels include people whose sarcoma has spread far and wide as well as those with oligometastatic disease, which means they have only a few small tumors in one or two distant locations. Some people think "stage 4" or "terminal" means they are going to die soon. They may decline treatment that could help them live longer.

Dr. D’Amato noted that "remission" applies to people who no longer have any evidence of sarcoma after their initial treatment. The term for people who have no evidence of disease after they have been treated for metastatic sarcoma is NED. For example, my original leiomyosarcoma was 2C. Soon after, one small lung metastasis was found; 18 months later another appeared. Thanks to radiation, chemo and surgery, I’m NED from oligometastatic disease.

Dr. Riedel
“When you’re educated, you’re empowered,” said Dr. Riedel, who spoke on immunotherapy. “The future is bright.” 

Don’t let community doctors take you off of a drug just because your tumors aren’t shrinking, he said. His mantra is: “Stable disease is a good thing.”

“Patients want their sarcomas to shrink and disappear, but doctors are happy with stability,” Dr. D’Amato stressed. Sarcoma specialists may try new treatments only if tumors start to grow. 

Some times the tumor stays the same, or even looks larger, but is actually dead after treatment. Some tumors shrink, but not enough to meet the definition of shrinkage in clinical trials. 

Researchers refer to “progression-free survival” (PFS) when tumors stay stable. Some people don’t think the FDA should approve drugs based on stability. They want clinical trials to prove that the people who got the new drug lived longer, which is called “overall survival” (OS). 

Dr. Benjamin thinks PFS can be a good sign that a drug is working. The problem with OS is that it measures  things that weren’t part of the clinical trial, he said. For example, the clinical trial on doxorubicin (adriamycin) + olaratumab (Lartruvo) compared it with dox by itself. But people who got olara may have gone on to get better treatment, improving their survival.  That’s why MD Anderson is doing a clinical trial to compare dox + olara to the older combination of dox + ifosfamide.

Dr. Patel
Dox + ifos is a common treatment for sarcomas, and some community doctors may try to treat all sarcomas with it, Dr. Patel said. They shouldn’t, he added. They need to look at each subtype individually because some, such as alveolar soft part sarcoma (ASPS), don’t respond to this chemo combo. 
Because immunotherapy is in the news, he spends a lot of time educating patients on why chemo may be better than immunotherapy for their particular sarcomas. He also discusses the advantages of a clinical trial vs. standard treatment.

“Patients must have information to make a decision,” Dr. Patel said.

A variation on doxorubicin, called aldoxorubicin, “clearly has less cardiac toxicity. It’s a very good drug,” Dr. Benjamin said. We await the results of clinical trials and a decision by the FDA. 

Dr. Trent
Dr. Trent joked about the crazy names that pathologists give to sarcoma subtypes, such as dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP). Nevertheless, medical oncologists like Dr. Trent greatly respect sarcoma pathologists. You can’t get the best treatment without an accurate diagnosis. 

For example, most sarcoma cells look like spindles under the microscope, Dr. Benjamin said. If pathologists cannot identify the tumor’s subtype, they may use the catch-all term of “spindle-cell sarcoma.” 

Instead of taking a tissue sample, some doctors are looking at tumors’ DNA circulating in the bloodstream (called ctDNA). They want to see which treatments are working and which might work for the patient in the future. Although these “liquid biopsies” are still experimental, Dr. Trent said: 
“This is what the future is.”