Cancer News Digest: The Latest Developments in Cancer Research

News breaks in the cancer arena all the time. Sometimes it’s big, like word that a breakthrough drug has increased survival for a hard-to-treat cancer. Sometimes it’s smaller. Any of it may matter to you and your family. We do our best to keep you up-to-date with a monthly roundup of some of the most significant recent cancer news.

Young Children Receiving Platinol Are More Prone to Hearing Loss Than Older Ones
What’s New: Children younger than 5 who receive the drug Platinol (cisplatin) as part of their chemotherapy regimen may be at high risk for permanent hearing loss, especially during the early phase of their treatment, according to research published online September 2 in the journal Cancer.

Researchers examined previously collected data from 368 Canadian patients with childhood cancer (140 of whom were younger than 5, and 288 of whom were older) who received Platinol and had at least two hearing tests during the course of their treatment.

Seventy-five percent of the younger children developed Platinol-induced hearing loss (CIHL) versus 48 percent of their older peers. Hearing loss also occurred at faster rates in the younger children, affecting 27 percent of them three months after starting cisplatin, and 70 percent at one year, versus 9 percent and 27 percent of older children at the same time intervals. Other important factors that appeared to influence hearing loss included the total amount of Platinol received over time, and whether or not patients also received the drug Oncovin (vincristine).

Why This Matters: This is not the first study to link Platinol to hearing loss in children, but it is one of the first to examine whether age and dosing play a role. While more research is needed, parents and caregivers might wish to discuss if more frequent hearing testing makes sense during a child’s cancer treatment so that counseling and rehabilitation can start as early as possible.

App Data Underscores COVID-19 Vaccine Safety for Those Undergoing Cancer Treatment
What’s New: The majority of patients receiving treatment for cancer can safely receive a COVID-19 vaccine without interrupting or delaying their treatment, according to research presented at this year’s European Society for Medical Oncology ESMO’s annual conference.

Researchers analyzed data from 1,069 patients with a variety of cancers, including people with breast, gynecological, gastrointestinal, lung, and genitourinary cancer, who were actively receiving treatment and who were users of the Belong. Life app to learn about their experiences after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. Overall, 82 percent of patients who received a vaccine experienced no or mild side effects that, in most cases, lasted only one to three days. Side effects included sore arm, headache, fatigue, and high fever. Ninety-six percent of patients continued their cancer treatment without delay or interruption.

Why This Matters: Cancer treatment can reduce immune response, making patients more vulnerable to the negative consequences of COVID-19. But questions have arisen as to how well patients would tolerate vaccination, which can cause side effects, in this population. This is one of the first studies to directly look at patients with cancer on active treatment in real-world settings. The findings reinforce that the majority will experience only mild, short-lived side effects from the vaccines. Additionally, the vaccines do not appear to negatively impact cancer treatment itself.

COVID-19 Continues to Hinder Cancer Screening
What’s New: New diagnoses of the eight most common cancer types are still below pre-pandemic levels, according to a study published online August 31 in JAMA Network Open. The findings do not suggest that those cancer types are decreasing in numbers, say experts, but rather that fewer people are getting screened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers at Quest Diagnostics examined the records of 799,496 patients who received testing at one of their facilities during the pre-pandemic period — January 2019 to February 2020 — and three time spans over the course of the pandemic: March 2020 to May 2020, June to October 2020, and November 2020 to March 2021. Cancer diagnostic codes were used to identify eight common cancer types (female breast cancer, colon, lung, pancreatic, cervical, gastric, esophageal, or prostate). A diagnosis was considered “new” if the patient had no prior code entries since January 2018. Findings showed that new diagnoses for all eight cancers combined fell by 29.8 percent between March and May 2020, compared with those in the pre-pandemic period, and were significant for all cancer types. What’s more, the trend has continued as the pandemic has waxed and waned. New monthly diagnoses fell by almost 10 percent from June to October 2020, and by 19 percent for the most recent period (November 2020 to March 2021).

Why This Matters: Given mandatory lockdowns and shifting of medical staff and resources from routine screening to COVID-19 care, it’s not surprising that new cancer diagnoses fell during the early stages of the pandemic. But new diagnoses still remain below pre-pandemic levels, meaning that screening has still not caught up, and some of the most common cancers remain undiagnosed and untreated.

New Study Adds to Evidence That Antibiotics Up Colorectal Cancer Risk
What’s New: Moderate use of antibiotics can increase the risk for colorectal cancer in the first and middle parts of the colon (known as the proximal section), according to research published online September 1 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Swedish researchers analyzed antibiotic use in 40,545 patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 202,720 cancer-free controls, all of whom participated in a national registry between July 2005 and December 2016. Slightly over half of the participants were male, and about one-third of the cancers were located in the first or middle parts of the colon. Overall, using specific antibiotics (quinolone, sulfonamides, and trimethoprim) for 61 to 180 days (“very high use”) increased the risk for developing cancer in the first or middle parts of the colon by 17 percent, while moderate use (11 to 60 days) upped the risk by 9 percent. There was one interesting and contrary finding only in women: Risk for rectal cancer appeared to decline by 4 percent with moderate antibiotic use, and by 9 percent with very high antibiotic use.

Why This Matters: The findings add to the growing body of evidence linking antibiotic use to increased colon cancer risk. The research also provided insight into possible mechanisms, including disturbance of the protective gut environment (microbiome). Ultimately, reducing use of antibiotics may become part of a colon cancer prevention regimen that includes a healthy diet, regular exercise, a healthy weight, and limited alcohol intake.

New Strategy Unveiled in the Fight Against Advanced Cervical Cancer
What’s New: Adding the immunotherapy agent Keytruda (pembrolizumab) to chemotherapy regimens appears to significantly slow disease progression and improve overall survival in women with advanced cervical cancer, according to study findings presented at the European Society for Medical Oncology’s annual conference and also published online September 18 in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers randomized 617 women with advanced cervical cancer to Keytruda or a placebo plus chemotherapy with or without a type of immunotherapy medicine called Avastin (bevacizumab) every three weeks for up to 35 cycles. The findings showed that, compared with placebo, adding Keytruda to current treatment increased progression-free survival by roughly two months, and overall survival by roughly eight months.

Why This Matters: By the time cervical cancer spreads to other parts of the body outside the cervix, it is no longer considered curable. Instead, treatment is focused on slowing the progression of the disease and improving overall survival. Experts believe that Keytruda added to chemotherapy, with or without Avastin, will become the new standard of care for women with advanced cervical cancer, as well as those with persistent or recurrent cancers.