As a patient, you may have heard of precision medicine or personalized health care. It’s an approach that generally means studying the molecular or genomic characteristics of cancer and using that to develop a plan for that particular patient, and it’s bearing fruit for in a variety of ways.

The latest treatments

For example, the ability to look at the molecular profile of a breast cancer tumor helps provide a better course of treatment. The genomic profile of the tumor is a better predictor of outcomes than a clinical assessment of the patient.

“That information can be used, for example, to identify which group of women can probably safely omit agentive chemotherapy and have a positive outcome,” notes Richard Schilsky, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Furthermore, precision medicine can be used to identify mutations in tumors that help pinpoint a particular therapy that can benefit the patient.

“Where there is a well-defined genomic target and where there is a targeted therapy that hits that target, the outcome for that patient is typically better than conventional therapy,” says Dr. Schilsky. “There’s been progress in several cancers including [non-small cell] lung cancers, melanoma and many other kinds of cancer.”

Interestingly, there have also been breakthroughs such as using successful breast cancer therapies to address stomach cancer.

“Patients should ask whether there are any genomic or molecular tests that can be performed on their tumor to guide the therapy plan.”

The other element of precision medicine gaining attention is the use of genomic profiling tests that measure multiple genes at a time. This provides a ray of hope for those with advanced cancer where standard treatment options aren’t feasible. Precision medicine can uncover a treatment that wasn’t previously considered.

Patient involvement

The course of action you or a loved one should take after a cancer diagnosis to ensure the right course of treatment.

First and foremost, you must ensure the diagnosis is correct. This is critical in the case of a rare or unusual cancer. A diagnosis is key because everything follows from that, says Dr. Schilsky. “The best chance of favorable outcome is getting the initial therapy right.”

Patients should ask whether there are any genomic or molecular tests that should be performed on their tumor to guide the therapy plan.

Comprehending the stage of cancer and the general prognosis, although difficult, is paramount. Patients need to know from the start if their disease is curable or if the goal is to prolong survival and preserve quality of life.

Clinical trials are also an option. Patients can sign up for trials right after diagnosis and should not be considered a treatment of last resort.

Dr. Schilsky adds that sharing of medical records is also crucial for future cancer treatments. Previously, most data was obtained from clinical trials, which only represent 5 percent of the population. “We have so many questions and we are going to need to rely on what’s happening in clinical practice to fill in the gaps in our knowledge,” he concludes.