There’s no one size fits all in cancer treatment

May 23, 2018 | by Samir Undevia, MD

We’re all different — we have different shapes, sizes and personalities. Our bodies react to treatments and medications differently too. Yet, when you are diagnosed with cancer, you usually receive the same treatment as others with the same cancer type and stage. 

Why should two people with the same type of cancer be treated the same? Especially when we each have our own unique genetic makeup? This is one of the many reasons why scientists began to research precision medicine. 

Precision medicine, or personalized medicine, looks at what genetic changes make a tumor grow and spread. This allows doctors to more accurately predict which treatment will work best for a particular disease, and target that treatment to the cells with those abnormal changes.

The idea of precision medicine is not new, but thanks to the Precision Medicine Initiative, recent advances in research have helped speed up the idea of customizing cancer treatment to the individual. After decades of research, scientists have learned that:

  • Patients’ tumors have genetic changes that cause cancer to grow and spread
  • Changes that occur in one person’s cancer may not occur in others who have the same type of cancer
  • The same cancer-causing changes may be found in different types of cancer

Here’s how it works: If you’re diagnosed with cancer now, you may be treated with chemotherapy, radiation therapy and/or immunotherapy — or a combination of the above. With precision medicine, information about the genetic changes in your tumor can help your doctor target treatment specifically for you.

This is all done by testing a sample of the tumor tissue through DNA sequencing. DNA sequencing looks for genetic changes that may cause the cancer to grow. This helps doctors better match the cancer with existing treatment options. More specifically, by examining the tumor at a molecular level, doctors can determine how you may benefit from chemotherapy or targeted drug therapy — before you get it.

The goal of precision medicine is to tailor your treatment to your unique characteristics. In the past, patients were often put on a universal treatment plan for a specific cancer type. Patients often received treatment that was more aggressive than needed.

Now, genomic testing can help doctors analyze a tumor and provide more targeted treatments that are more likely to work for that particular tumor, with fewer unnecessary toxic side effects.

Precision medicine can also help assess how likely it is that cancer will return. Doctors can use genomic testing to determine the risk of cancer recurrence to stay on top of a patient’s long-term health.

Preventing cancer is another goal of precision medicine. By relying on family history, lifestyle habits and environmental factors, doctors can help determine if you need to follow a healthier diet or receive a certain type of screening. A genetic test can help clarify whether or not you inherited a specific genetic mutation that may cause cancer.

As research in precision medicine continues to move forward, it is important to know that this option isn’t for everyone, since not every type of cancer has a target therapy available to treat it.

Your physician can help you better understand precision medicine and determine if genetic testing is right for you.

Learn more about the cancer care services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Related blogs:

How to do your part to not get cancer

Detect cancer early with regular checkups and screenings


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