Published Jul 11, 2023

Dr. B's Weekly Roundup: The latest cancer care updates to know

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Published Jul 11, 2023

Cancer has been the 2nd leading cause of death in the U.S. since 1938 + one in three of us will get cancer in our lifetime. But those stats don’t truly hit home until you or a loved one—or several loved ones—get it, right? This week, we look at promising new cancer updates: How new cancer vaccines will soon transform treatment, why the chemo shortage is a big deal + how clinical trial gaps harm patients over 70. Then we close out with vital summer healthcare news. But first, let’s splash into…

  • The Checkup: tools to help when you’re hot + bothered
  • The Big C: new vaccines + drug shortages + trial gaps
  • Healthcare:wildfires + fall vaccines + insurance shifts

The Checkup

A vaccine for cancer?

Two Black women wearing pajamas make a bed in a sun-filled room.

Time reports that scientists are making huge strides in vaccines to treat cancer.

Treatment vaccines (or therapeutic vaccines) boost the body’s immune response to fight a specific disease. Cancer treatment vaccines teach the immune system’s T cells how to recognize, find and destroy cancer cells containing specific antigens associated with tumors.

Some researchers are targeting vaccines to treat those at inherited high cancer risk. Others are looking broadly at types of cancer including breast, skin, pancreatic and lung cancer. Such treatments could transform cancer care in the coming years.

Read the article for fascinating details.

The cancer drug shortage

A young white father with shorn hair wearing a warm cap holds his child up close and hugs them.

14 chemotherapy drugs are in short supply. The closure of a manufacturing plant in India is part of the problem—it supplied almost half of the United States’ chemo drugs + was shut down for safety issues. But The Atlantic traces the issue back further:

Injectable drug production requires a very high level of quality control—and those systems cost money. But the reliable generic drugs for chemo that result are so unprofitable that few manufacturers invest in making them. Those that do often cut corners to make a buck. Because of this, the U.S. gets many vital drugs from one or two overseas companies. (American plants have had similar manufacturing issues.)

And those producers are at the mercy of the few facilities that make the active pharmaceutical ingredients at the core of the drugs. So one closure has a huge ripple effect on the supply chain.

Finally, the FDA’s internal manufacturer scoring system is closed to the public, so no one knows which producers are worth higher price points or investment.

Read the article for potential solutions + stories of cancer patients now getting watered-down treatment plans—or going without.

Too old for drug trials?

An older white woman with blond and blue hair tied up lays in a bathtub in a white bathroom looking out the window.

As reported in Undark, over 40% of people with cancer in the U.S. are over 70—but they make up less than 25% of clinical trial participants. Why is this a huge issue?

In practice, some chemo drugs are exponentially less effective in older people. Others are toxic for older adults. As Medicare covers many of these drugs, doctors often prescribe them anyway. If aware of the data gap, they may tweak dosages or treatment plans—but without official guidance.

A geriatric assessment (which considers physical function, nutrition, social support etc.) can help them recommend tools to reduce side effects + improve quality of life. But that's not a solution for absent research.

Read the article for other worrying areas of note.

Healthcare 411

Wildfire smoke may be having a negative impact on your mental health (Washington Post). Wildfire smoke affects more than our physical health (covered in this newsletter). It’s also linked to an increase in depression + anxiety. When air quality plummets, preschool-aged children are more likely to break rules or act aggressively. Adults are more likely to lie or cheat on tests. Studies suggest poor air quality may trigger inflammation + oxidative stress, damaging cells + affecting our brain chemistry. Read the article for more on the science + why how to battle wildfire smoke this summer.

Three vaccines for fall: What you need to know (NY Times). To avoid another tripledemic, health officials are ramping up fall vaccine recommendations. Those over 6 months old are eligible for an annual flu vaccine. Updated Covid-19 vaccines targeting XBB.1.5 (causing over 25% of current cases) are coming. And those over 60 can get the new R.S.V. vaccine. Get vaccinated in September or October—potentially at the same time—to ward off the viruses. Read the article for more specifics.

Biden reverses Trump-era limits on short-term health plans (Politico). Short-term health insurance is supposed to provide temporary coverage as a person transitions between long-term plans. Many don’t cover pre-existing conditions or prescription drugs required for long-term plans, so Democrats have dubbed them junk insurance. Trump-era rules allowed such plans to be renewed for three years. A new Biden administration plan  intended to lower healthcare costs will limit them to four months.

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