This is the main finding from two studies presented at the 2021 European Society for Medical Oncology Congress.
The survey of patients found that most don’t understand how immunotherapy works, and the survey of doctors found that many working outside of the cancer field are using information on survival that is wildly out of date.
When a patient is first told they have cancer, counseling is usually done by a surgeon or general medical doctor and not an oncologist, said Conleth Murphy, MD, of Bon Secours Hospital Cork, Ireland, and coauthor of the second study.
Noncancer doctors often grossly underestimate patients’ chances of survival, Dr. Murphy’s study found. This suggests that doctors who practice outside of cancer care may be working with the same information they learned in medical school, he said.
“These patients must be spared the traumatic effects of being handed a death sentence that no longer reflects the current reality,” Dr. Murphy said.
After receiving a diagnosis of cancer, “patients often immediately have pressing questions about what it means for their future,” he noted. A common question is: “How long do I have left?”
Nononcologists should refrain from answering patients’ questions with numbers, Dr. Murphy said.
Family doctors are likely to be influenced by the experience they have had with specific cancer patients in their practice, said Cyril Bonin, MD, a general practitioner in Usson-du-Poitou, France, who has 900 patients in his practice.
He sees about 10 patients with a new diagnosis of cancer each year. In addition, about 50 of his patients are in active treatment for cancer or have finished treatment and are considered cancer survivors.
“It is not entirely realistic for us to expect practitioners who deal with hundreds of different diseases to keep up with every facet of a rapidly changing oncology landscape,” said Marco Donia, MD, an expert in immunotherapy from the University of Copenhagen.
That landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, particularly since immunotherapy was added to the arsenal. Immunotherapy is a way to fine-tune your immune system to fight cancer.
For example, in the past, patients with metastatic melanoma would have an average survival of about 1 year. But now, some patients who have responded to immunotherapy are still alive 10 years later.
Findings from the patient survey
It is important that patients stay well informed because immunotherapy is a “complex treatment that is too often mistaken for a miracle cure,” said Paris Kosmidis, MD, the co-author of the patient survey.
“The more patients know about it, the better the communication with their medical team and thus the better their outcomes are likely to be,” said Dr. Kosmidis, who is co-founder and chief medical officer of CareAcross, an online service that provides personalized education for cancer patients
The survey was of 5,589 patients with cancer who were recruited from CareAcross clients from the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany.
The survey asked them about how immunotherapy works, what it costs, and its side effects.
Almost half responded “not sure/do not know,” but about a third correctly answered that immunotherapy “activates the immune system to kill cancer cells.”
Similarly, more than half thought that immunotherapy started working right away, while only 20% correctly answered that it takes several weeks to become effective.
“This is important because patients need to start their therapy with realistic expectations, for example to avoid disappointment when their symptoms take some time to disappear,” Dr. Kosmidis said.
A small group of 24 patients with lung cancer who had been treated with immunotherapy got many correct answers, but they overestimated the intensity of side effects, compared with other therapies.
“Well-informed patients who know what to expect can do 90% of the job of preventing side effects from becoming severe by having them treated early,” said Dr. Donia, of the University of Copenhagen.
Most cancer patients were also unaware of the cost of immunotherapy, which can exceed $100,000 a year, Dr. Kosmidis said.