Breast Cancer Therapy Toxicities: Education and Communication

Hope S. Rugo, MD; Fatima F. Cardoso, MD; Julia Maués; Sheila Pettiford


March 31, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hope S. Rugo, MD: Hello. I'm Hope Rugo, a breast medical oncologist from the University of California, San Francisco. I'm joined here by three of my friends and colleagues to discuss the toxicity of new agents in the treatment of breast cancer. Fatima, do you want to start by introducing yourself?

Fatima F. Cardoso, MD: Sure. Hello, everyone. I'm Fatima Cardoso, a breast medical oncologist in Lisbon, Portugal.

Rugo: Sheila.

Sheila Pettiford: Hi, I'm Sheila Pettiford. I am a metastatic [breast cancer] patient and have been for almost 8 years in April. I used to live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but moved to Delaware in the last couple of years during the pandemic. I'm happy to be here.

Rugo: Julia.

Julia Maués: Hi, everyone. I also am a person living with metastatic breast cancer. I was diagnosed in 2013, so it's going to be 9 years, also in April.

Effective Monitoring and Management of Side Effects: A Team Effort

Rugo: We have an amazing group and an international representation, which is also really nice because we get different perspectives. What we're going to talk about is important to providers and patients across the board. With the host of new agents for the treatment of breast cancer — most of which have really moved us forward in terms of having effective treatment options — we've also been faced with a lot of new toxicities or side effects that we haven't seen before or that we might not have expected from the specific agent.

Those toxicities across the board include side effects that are quite familiar to us, like low blood counts, but we may not advise people well enough about other side effects such as mouth sores, inflammation of the lungs, immune toxicities, and skin toxicities.

Fatima, do you want to start and talk about how we can think about these toxicities and address them?

Cardoso: Sure. Thank you. From the healthcare provider point of view, what I would highlight is to educate. Educate before we start the treatment. It's very important to inform the patient but in a balanced way, so we don't overexaggerate certain types of side effects or underestimate certain types of side effects.

It's very important because an informed patient will be attentive to the types of side effects that can happen. Also, teach the patient when it is a [cause for] alarm or something for which they might need to contact their healthcare team and when that's not the case. I think this is one crucial topic.

The other one is to monitor. Find ways how to best communicate between the patient and the healthcare team but in a way that you can monitor, so you can act very early on. Most of these new side effects, if you act early on, will not become severe. It is very important to know about them and to act early on.

I believe there is something important that we don't think about all the time, and that is prophylaxis. Do not be shy about using prophylactic measures, be it for the mouth sores, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other things that really impact the quality of life of patients. Those, to start, are my three major points of attention for healthcare professionals.

Rugo: I think that's so incredibly important — the comments that you've made — and also that prevention and prophylaxis are so important. You don't want to have a patient have diarrhea in the middle of the night and not have any antipropulsive agents at home. Just as a very straightforward example, it's really important.

Also, the ability to know what you should be looking for and how you can manage it [is important]. There are many examples of times when, even with some education, providers may not have communicated well to the patient. Then the patient is surprised and unhappy with the situation and unable to manage it.

The Importance of Education

Sheila, your comments on this from the patient perspective are so important. How important is the education piece, and how do you manage the fear of side effects vs actually managing the side effects that might be caused by the treatment you're taking?

Pettiford: Thank you for that question. I really think it's a dance. It's a dance between the patient and the healthcare team. Yes, education is absolutely important. However, the healthcare professionals have to establish a relationship of trust with the patient. My own circumstances were that — and I was very fortunate in that my oncologist, who I chose just by looking and not by a recommendation — I did find an oncologist who listened to me.

When it came time for me to deal with a new medication, the education she provided me was sufficient because of the fact that there was a lot of listening that had gone on prior to the new medicine being given to me. I trusted what I was hearing, and it felt like there was a balanced situation that came about from what I was being told. I could look it up, too.

There still is that part of the patient who will be participating in the process, as well. They can still look up things, and that's one of the downfalls of the information age we are in. It is a dance. I just want to go back to that. There's a dance between the patient and the healthcare providers.

Rugo: Julia, from the patient's side, how do you balance the benefits you might get from a treatment vs the side effects and how best to manage them?

Maués: I think it's interesting that when we talk with our doctors, and especially when we read about a certain treatment, the attention is focused on the very severe and unlikely side effects that a drug has. We don't talk as much about the side effects that are most likely to happen and will affect us but may not be life threatening.

Especially for those of us with metastatic cancer who are going to ideally be on a drug for a very long time, we're then faced with low-grade nausea for the rest of our lives. That's not okay either, right? I think it's important to talk about all of the levels of toxicities and everything that can be done to avoid this.

Communication Is Key

Pettiford: I just want to add something that Dr Cardoso said about monitoring that is absolutely important. We're in a day and time when it's very difficult to get someone on the telephone, but we do have digital charts and other ways that monitoring can take place. I was at a large teaching university, and I had to go monthly for my treatments. Every month, there were questions that were asked about my life and my condition. I could always get in contact with somebody through the digital chart.

Rugo: That's an incredibly important comment, Sheila, about communication and how patients can feel like they have someone to go to in real time who can help manage things. Fatima, I'm interested in your comment on that.

Also, just to go to the next step, which is that when we see data reported on clinical trials and how the agent we've added or substituted is better than the standard, the toxicity tables are side effects that occur in at least 10% or more patients and sometimes even 20%. Then they're graded, where often the division is grade 3 or greater. That may not actually reflect much about what the individual patient experience is. How do we interpret these data? Communication and interpretation?

Cardoso: Absolutely. I always call attention that perhaps, since we focus so much on grade 3 and 4 [side effects], that is the reason why we don't see in the usual reporting differences quality of life between treatments. Quality of life is affected also significantly by grade 2 side effects. Or, like Julia was mentioning, even grade 1, if they are persistent, will eventually affect your quality of life.

Sometimes, like I was saying, don't underestimate — it's a little bit like that. We focus on explaining, "Look, this new immunotherapy can give you all these different side effects." But then we forget to say, "Oh, by the way, it may also give you some nausea." Actually, the nausea will affect the patient's quality of life. I think that's why it is so important to balance the way we provide the information.

I would like also to take on what Sheila said that sometimes too much information is not very helpful. That's why sometimes we have to go stepwise. The first time you're about to start the treatment, advise [the patient] on the most frequent side effects. Later on, you have time to say, "Okay, by the way, this can also give a rare side effect. This is what you should look for. If you have it, please contact your healthcare team."

I think the most difficult part, at least from my experience, is for patients to understand what is really a sign of a severe side effect and what is normal for that type of treatment. Some of the new ways of communicating, like using some patient-reported outcome (PRO) apps, actually help the patient by saying, "This that you are feeling is normal. It can wait for your next appointment. This that you are feeling, it's better if you try to reach your healthcare team right away. Or, this is an urgent thing and go to the emergency room near you."

For this kind of triage, there are now new apps that can help. I think this is the most difficult part because when you are a patient, you don't know if what you are feeling is actually a sign of something very severe or if it's normal for the type of treatment you are receiving.

Rugo: I think that's so important, and these new PRO apps may help with this. Of course, nothing substitutes for talking in the end if you're confused or it doesn't fit into whatever's in that paradigm. I think it's important.

Best Practices in Focusing on the Individual Patient

Julia, what do you think the best way of educating the patient is when you're going to start a new treatment? You might be newly diagnosed with cancer or you might have had cancer for a number of years. You're going to start a new treatment. What's the best way to know what to look for and how to manage it?

Maués: I think the key here is that everyone's different, so have that conversation, the doctor and the patient, about what the best way [of education] is for that specific person. Do they want a flyer listing all of the side effects? Do they want a link to a video they can watch and understand? Do they want someone to come in and give an extra explanation about things? Everyone learns so differently, and I think it's really hard to assume there's one way that all patients will understand.

I think the PRO apps are great, and also another benefit is that you keep track of your side effects. Sometimes we don't even remember well. When did you have nausea? Was it in the morning? Was it in the evening? Is it every day? If you track it with these apps, then you will have the data stored there in the form to answer those questions.

Cardoso: There was recently a publication — I found it quite interesting — from Lesley Fallowfield's group saying that the majority of patients would better absorb the information if it is not just text, but if it somehow has a video component, an image, or an infographic that would help them memorize a little bit more information.

Rugo: There's been a move toward trying to make videos because the amount of education that's needed on the providers' side from our nurses and advanced practice providers may be overwhelming, so things might get missed. The idea of having videos to get everybody on the same page is very popular right now for this reason, and Lesley's work is really groundbreaking.

Sheila, what do you think is the best way to communicate information?

Pettiford: Well, I definitely think it's important for the doctors to recognize, as Julia said, that everyone is different, and all their patients are different. They could come with the same exact subtype of whatever cancer they have — in this situation, breast cancer — and still have so many different reactions. It's so important for everybody on the healthcare team to listen to what the patient says because the patient is the one who is living with the illness and knows their body, hopefully.

It's just one of those things. It's not a one-size-fits-all situation. You give the standards, but I think it's important to offer various ways of communicating to a patient because some people are visual. Some people want an overwhelming amount of information so they can sort through it. Then, you have some people who just want the bullet points. Again, it is important not to try to do it as a one-size-fits-all type thing.

Rugo: Yes, that's such a good point. I'm always struck by the fact that some patients are totally on top of it and listen to it all, and then other people, we just can't get them to even call in regarding their side effects. In some ways, it's frightening for people to call in with issues. Maybe they're afraid they won't get the treatment, or that it is related to their cancer progressing, too. Trying to meet people on their own level is a real challenge and an important one.

We talked about education for providers. Fatima, how should we be best educating for these new drugs and new side effects? So many different manifestations can occur, and as we talked about, they might be quite uncommon. We just want people to keep their ears up for any kind of unusual toxicity we see. We all know that the presentation of efficacy data is not adequate for education.

Cardoso: When we present a new treatment, we focus usually on efficacy, right? Then we say a few things about safety, particularly if there is a new or a severe side effect, but we don't go through details on how to best manage this in clinical practice.

Anecdotally, I remember that I contacted you because I was going to start using a new treatment and you had some experience. I asked, "What about nausea and vomiting? What do you do for prophylaxis?" I couldn't find it anywhere in the manuscripts or the presentations. I think we need to focus a little bit more on practical tips. If you are about to start this new treatment, what you should think about and not just the very severe and rare side effects?

Of course, as healthcare professionals, we need to keep this in our minds. For example, with immunotherapy, side effects can often occur even after stopping the treatment. For other types of new treatments, we need to gain knowledge about endocrinology, for example, which is something that oncologists wouldn't have to deal with that often in the past. Now, new skills are needed.

It's also what makes our profession so exciting. There's always something new to learn, and I like to look at it from that perspective. It's not boring at all. We are always learning new things.

Rugo: Indeed. Certainly, you and I have worked together on trying to encourage our pharmaceutical colleagues to publish these papers alongside their urgency of distributing the efficacy data and publishing the papers on efficacy, and also to do a nitty-gritty review of safety and talk about management strategies. I'm really pleased that there seems to be a little more focus on that earlier now in the drug process — although still not early enough — but it's getting there. That's a good thing.

Pettiford: Julia, you mentioned earlier how important it is for the individual patient's quality of life to understand how these side effects can affect them. It really is one of those things in which we have to make personal decisions. What might be good for one person in terms of what happens with side effects, and their ability to function might not work with someone else.

If you are a person who's dealing with metastatic disease who has children, a household, a dog, and a cat to take care of, what I can handle being that I'm a single person is not what they can handle. That's all a part of the education piece. That's all part of the teamwork. That's all part of the communication process. It all comes into play.

Rugo: That's such an incredibly important point. As we're wrapping up, it would be great if everybody had some points to make that pulled together some of our conversation. Julia, do you want to start?

Maués: Yes, I was going to add specifically about the topic you were just discussing, with all that an oncologist's team has to know and all the different areas of our health being affected by these new treatments. One tip for patients and their teams is that the other providers around the patients may not be as informed about the disease and the treatments they are on. Sometimes we patients end up getting information that isn't up-to-date with the latest drugs and things like that.

When we do talk with someone about our issues, make sure they are informed about the new drugs. For example, we often have skin issues. There are dermatologists that work with cancer patients often, and they're very informed about the side effects that come with these drugs. There are others who never see these sorts of issues and may assume it's something completely different.

I usually just go to doctors that my oncologist's team collaborates with and gets referrals from because they send their patients to these doctors often. These are doctors that see cancer patients. We're a very unique group.

Rugo: That's a really good point. I have the same thing. We all have a little stable of people we refer to for various issues that we can reach on speed dial.

The Importance of Diversity in Clinical Trials to Obtain the Most Useful Outcomes

Fatima, there's recently been, appropriately so, more of a push to try and evaluate side effects by racial and ethnic subgroups. I think we're still pretty crummy at it, but we are making some progress. How important is that to you when you think about patients and managing them?

Cardoso: I think this is quite important. One area of research that is underused, really, is all the new genomics and sequencing technologies to understand why people react differently to the same treatment. Why is it that for some people, either for ethnic or other reasons, you have a different metabolism or something else that justifies a very high rate of side effects from a certain treatment, whereas in other regions of the world this doesn't happen?

Not to go into these new drugs, but when using a very old drug like a taxane, I found a difference in reaction between the Portuguese patients and the Belgian patients, the two countries where I've worked. I even found that the cause might be genetic because the Portuguese living in Belgium reacted differently than the Belgians themselves.

Maybe there is something in the genetics that justifies the type of side effects that you have. I make a plea also for us to dedicate research to understanding why certain side effects are related to race and others are related to maybe some other types of genetic alterations that will lead to an increased side effect.

Rugo: Sheila, comments?

Pettiford: That is just excellent. It's excellent to even consider it because it is so obvious. To me, it's an obvious situation because there are things that are underneath the skin that we don't understand. We have to take that into consideration when we are dealing with all these wonderful — I call them miracle — drugs that have come about in the last 20 years.

There still is much more to be done, and I try to participate in any type of organization that's encouraging diversity in clinical trials because you need to have people of all different ethnicities in order for us to get to these answers. It's fascinating that you found this out, doctor.

The Patient-Centered Dosing Initiative

Maués: I have the pleasure of being a member of a patient-led initiative called the Patient-Centered Dosing Initiative (PCDI). We are highlighting the discussion around dosages of drugs, especially in the metastatic setting. Metastatic breast cancer is what we're focusing on, although it could apply to any type of cancer. We are advised by a number of wonderful, world-renowned physicians, Dr Rugo being one of them. Anne Loeser, the leader of our group, has spoken at ASCO about this topic of dosage. What we're seeing is that the dosage determination for oncology drugs is still done in the same way it used to be done decades ago and mostly with the curative intent of early-stage disease — metastatic cancer patients back then really didn't live long at all. What we're seeing right now is people with metastatic breast cancer that are able to, in some cases, live a long life managing their disease.

Patients are put on doses that are too high for them to be able to manage the side effects, and then they end up having to go off the drug, which means they have lost one of the tools in their toolbox. So, what we like to say about dosing is that, for metastatic cancer patients, it's a marathon and not a sprint. If we throw all the poison at the patient from the very beginning, they won't be able to take this for a very long time. And in the metastatic setting, the goal is to stay on each therapy for as long as possible. If we burn one of the cards early on, you have to move on to the next one. This is finite because at some point, there are not enough drugs that can help a particular patient. The PCDI is really getting a lot of visibility with the FDA and experts. People are talking more about dosages, and the FDA is now providing guidance for pharmaceutical companies to study different dosages in the clinical trials from the very beginning. This initiative is almost 3 years old, and we have made a tremendous impact since then.

Rugo: I think this is an incredibly important area moving forward, and thankfully, there's so much interest now in not only promoting diversity, enrollment in trials, and education to promote diversity but also in looking at differences in efficacy and side effects.

I'll just thank everybody for your contributions and amazing perspectives in this incredibly important area. As we move forward with better agents, we need to also make sure we're understanding what the side effects are, managing them, and hearing the voices of our patients. Thanks very much.

Pettiford: Thank you so much.

Cardoso: Thank you.

Maués: Thank you.

Editor's note: Our panelists would like to highlight these points:

  • The patient and the healthcare team must build trust with each other. 

  • African Americans have historical reasons for not trusting the healthcare industry. Much outreach is still needed. 

  • Inform and educate before the start of treatment and during the treatment.

  • Be balanced and do not underestimate common side effects or overestimate rare ones. Adapt the amount and the detail of the information to the wishes of the individual patient. Offer various methods of delivery (eg, videos, pamphlets, fact sheets).

  • Patients will research their condition and treatments online. Instead of trying to stop this, help them find the best sources.

  • Patients will connect with others in the patient community and learn from each other's experiences. Keep in mind that everyone is different, and decisions should always be made together with the medical team.

  • Monitor patients regularly, especially during the first few treatment cycles.

  • Use different forms of communication between the patient and healthcare providers (eg, apps, digital charts, oncology nurses/nurse navigators, responsive oncologists, different forms of telemedicine), but don't forget to speak directly with the patient.

  • The use of new PRO apps can be very useful to help patients differentiate between urgent and nonurgent signs and symptoms.

  • As much as possible, use preventive/prophylactic measures, namely for nausea, vomiting, diarrhea/constipation, and mucositis.

  • Be aware of late side effects, especially with immunotherapy.

  • Don't forget that grade 1-2 side effects can substantially impact quality of life, particularly if they are persistent.

  • Consider quality-of-life issues for each patient. What is acceptable for one patient may not be for another.

  • Learn how to manage new and specific side effects (eg, endocrine, skin-related, pneumonitis).

  • Keep an open dialogue about treatment and side effects. Things can change, and there are different ways to address issues such as medications for side effects and dosing changes.

  • Listen to your patient and respond in a timely fashion.

  • Ethnicity and genetics should be studied as a factor for individual side effects. Standard industry dosages of a new anticancer medication might not be as effective in one ethnic group as another due to the lack of diversity in clinical trials.

  • Medications with hard-to-manage or dangerous side effects may be counterproductive regardless of effectiveness.

  • Cancer treatment varies vastly depending on region and type of treatment facility. There are many unmet needs in rural areas due to lack of oncology personnel, finances, transportation, etc.

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