The changing landscape of cancer care in the 21st century is simultaneously shaping the patient experience, as oncologists learn more about this disease. “Cancer is far more treatable, with far better outcomes than in the past,” admits Dr. Richard Schilsky, chief medical officer for the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Big data

Physicians face clinical decisions every day. And according to Dr. Schilsky, the data available was quite limited. Even still, what physicians know about cancer comes from patients and their tumors. Yet thanks to big data—a generic term that refers to the collection and analysis of large, complex data sets—physicians now have access to more information from a variety of sources.

“Big data shows a lot of promise,” continues Schilsky. Physicians can ask questions and enter the information into a platform where it can be analyzed. They’re able to compare individual cases with similar cases and use this data to improve the clinical management of the patient.

“'It’s important for patients and doctors to work together to try to determine the course of treatment that is most effective and has the fewest side effects.'”

Physicians must still rely on their knowledge and judgment. “The information is only as good as the information that goes into the medical records and databases that comprise big data,” says Schilsky. “It captures the reality of what goes on during cancer treatment.”

Pain management

“Pain is a symptom that patients experience,” Schilsky adds. “There are many causes of pain. It’s important to know the cause before prescribing a treatment plan.”

Pain management techniques differ based on the source of the pain, which can be related to the cancer itself, to treatment or to inflammatory states associated with the cancer. Techniques include systemic medications, opioids, exercise, stretching, acupuncture or nerve blocks.

“It’s important for patients and doctors to work together to try to determine the course of treatment that is most effective and has the fewest side effects,” concludes Schilsky.

Clinical trials

Choosing the right hospital is a personal decision. While many opt to be treated close to home, there are trade-offs. Schilsky recommends taking the time to explore options. A large cancer center has a multi-disciplinary team of experts such as oncologists, pathologists or surgeons whom provide input into your treatment plan. Some specialize in a specific type of cancer—pancreatic, rectal, esophageal—and have experienced surgical oncologists who perform a large number of surgeries.

“Patient outcomes are better at high volume centers who treat a lot of patients with that kind of cancer,” Schilsky says. Key factors that come into play include inconvenience, cost and travel. Large cancer centers often have more clinical trials available compared to local treatment centers. Oftentimes, a patient doesn’t have to travel far to participate in a clinical trial, especially if their local hospital is located near a cancer treatment center.

There are circumstances where a patient may opt to travel, such as: patients need more experimental cutting edge therapies; patients have more advanced cancers; or patients have exhausted all treatment options.

“It’s important to get the right diagnosis,” Schilsky reflects, “and the right treatment plan for the best possible outcome.”