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Personalized Medicine and the Future of Cancer Care

Edward Abrahams

President, Personalized Medicine Coalition

For a little more than 15 years, genomic sequencing technologies and other cutting-edge tools have been delivering unprecedented insights about the molecular activities of cancerous cells. Most significantly, we have learned that every patient’s cancer — like every person — is genetically unique. For this reason, no single treatment will work for every cancer patient.

Guided by this discovery, some physicians have begun to embrace a new way of treating cancer patients called personalized medicine. Also referred to as precision medicine, this evolving field involves the use of diagnostic tests to determine which medical treatments will work best for each patient. By combining the data from those tests with an individual’s medical history, circumstances, and values, health care providers can develop targeted approaches to healthcare.

The diagnostic tests underpinning personalized medicine can sometimes reveal genetic mutations, present at birth, that make some patients more susceptible to cancer than others. These tests may also uncover molecular characteristics, present on cancerous cells, that can be targeted by available therapies. For some patients, targeted therapies are safer and more effective than traditional cancer treatments.

Health systems are still working on developing and adopting the updated policies and procedures that will be necessary to facilitate the widespread utilization of personalized medicine, which differs significantly from the one-size-fits-all approaches to health care that have dominated medicine for most of human history. For this reason, many proponents for personalized medicine encourage patients to educate themselves about the field and discuss it with their physicians.

Six Questions to Ask Your Physician About Personalized Medicine

Especially because we are still moving away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to medicine to one that is based on the individual patient’s particular characteristics of disease, it is important that patients collaborate closely with their physicians in developing prevention and treatment plans. The following questions are intended to help guide your interactions with physicians in the era of personalized medicine.

  1. I’m worried that I may have a condition that runs in my family. Could you help me determine if the cause is genetic?
  2. Could genetic or biomarker testing be used to guide diagnosis and treatment decisions?
  3. Can you recommend a genetic counselor and testing lab that are “in-network” for my health plan?
  4. What treatments may be suggested as a result of my testing?
  5. Are there additional research options or clinical trials we should explore?
  6. How often should I see my doctor after my treatment ends in order to monitor for recurrence or advancement of my disease?

Source: The questions in this sidebar are adapted from the Personalized Medicine Coalition’s infographic, More Than a Number. For more information, please visit

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