Standard Cancer Care vs. Precision Medicine

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, it’s important to know that there’s more than one path to recovery. Between standard care and precision medicine, you have options, and we want to help you find which is best for you. But first, what do we mean by “standard care”? The National Cancer Institute defines standard care for cancer as “treatment that is accepted by medical experts as a proper treatment for a certain type of disease and that is widely used by healthcare professionals.” Standard care is a good thing. It provides doctors with a list of approved and tested options that are safe for patients. It also helps to eliminate problems like discrimination in health care—everyone receives the same treatment. But that doesn’t mean it’s your only treatment option.

Let’s take a look at a case study of breast cancer to see what standard care means:

If a woman is diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, the standard treatment usually involves surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy (depending on the severity of the cancer). The doctors will first measure the size of the tumor in the breast to see if it’s possible to remove it in a surgery called a lumpectomy. Some women may even need a mastectomy—the total removal of the breast. During the surgery, the doctors will also test the patient’s lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread.

After surgery, doctors will usually prescribe radiation therapy, which is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to kill cancer cells. The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. This treatment typically takes place Monday through Friday for five to six weeks.

In addition, doctors will evaluate whether the patient needs chemotherapy, which may be administered before or after radiation. Chemo is the use of drugs to stop cancer cells from multiplying and is usually given through an IV or swallowed in a pill. Not every breast cancer patient will undergo chemo treatments, and doctors take into consideration the stage of the cancer, whether chemo is likely to work, and whether it could reduce the chance of cancer recurrence. Doctors will also examine the patient’s breast tumor to determine whether the patient’s cancer grows in the presence of certain hormones and proteins. If it does, then the patient may be prescribed appropriate hormone-blocking therapy.

The three core elements—surgery, radiation, chemotherapy—make up the major components of standard care for most types of cancer. Doctors do their best to tailor these standard treatments to their patients. The patient’s age, type of cancer, stage of cancer, overall health, and preferences are taken into account when creating a treatment plan. But the types of treatments often remain the same.

Standard care alone may prove to be a good option; it may prove to be your best course of action. Standard care has been proven to be effective for numerous patients, but standard care is not your only option.

Precision medicine offers other potential cancer treatment plans. By targeting your cancer down to its DNA, precision medicine aims to get to the root of your cancer. Every type of cancer has a unique genetic fingerprint composed of mutations. You may have inherited those mutations, or they may have developed as a result of your environment, lifestyle or just simple aging. Your father or grandfather may have carried a gene that raises your risk of prostate cancer. You may have been exposed to black mold at some point in your life. Maybe you even grew up next to a farm that used a particularly harmful pesticide. There are any number of environmental, lifestyle, or hereditary factors that could have caused a mutation to sneak into your DNA. If you’d like to learn more about this subject, please view our page with information on individual gene mutations and how they relate to cancer.

Precision medicine looks to discover what is driving your cancer by taking a close look at your genes. Precision medicine is an approach to treating and preventing disease that takes into account the unique attributes that make you you–your genetics, your environment, and your lifestyle.

So if you developed lung cancer, a genomic profile could help doctors know which gene mutations may be driving your cancer. Genes code for a litany of cellular functions; if you know the problem gene, you’ll have a better idea on whether to target the cell’s communication systems, protein production, or pathways. There is more than one distinct way that a cancer can use to grow. Radiation and chemo kill the cells indiscriminately—they don’t target the genes themselves.

Precision medicine doesn’t necessarily eliminate surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy from your treatment plan. Instead it shows why and how those treatments could be most effective for your cancer. When you know the genetics that are driving your disease, you can gain a better understanding as to why chemotherapy or other treatments could actually be effective for you specifically. You will be empowered to make better decisions about the combination of medicines you take during chemotherapy because you will be armed with information to help you find medications that target your particular mutation.

Currently, precision medicine is not yet the standard care that is applied to all cancer patients. Many of the options for precision medicine that are available today are only available via participation in clinical trials.

There is a significant difference between standard care and precision medicine today. At Cure Forward, we want to help you determine the best possible path for your cancer treatment. Educate yourself, know that you may have multiple options, and remember that we are always here to help. If you want access to precision medicine, begin by getting your genome sequenced. Then you can use the information from your DNA to post to the Cure Forward Clinical Trial Exchange and find the cancer treatment that is tailored to your specific needs.

If you have any questions regarding precision medicine, please add them in the comments section below or contact us. If you’d like to learn more about clinical trials, you may want to read our post, ‘What is a Clinical Trial?

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