New 'C Word': Cure Should Be the Goal for Patients With Lung Cancer

Mark G. Kris, MD


September 19, 2023

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hello. It's Mark Kris from Memorial Sloan-Kettering, still musing on things I learned at ASCO 2023.

I learned that there is a new C word.

People used to be afraid to use the word "cancer," so they would call it the C word. Hopefully we've gotten over that stigma, that cancer is an illness that can be fought like any other illness.

There's a new C word now that people seem, again, afraid to use, and that word is "cure." It's almost a true rarity that — again, I'm talking about the lung cancer world in particular — folks use the word "cure." I didn't hear it at ASCO, but the truth of the matter is that's a word we should be using and be using more.

What do our patients want? I think if you truly ask a patient what their goal of care should be, it would be to cure the illness. What I mean by "cure" is to eradicate the cancer that is in their body, keep the cancer and its effects from interfering with their ability to continue their lives, and to do it for the length of their natural life. That's what our patients want. Yes, overall survival is important, but not as much as a life free of cancer and the burden that it puts on people having cancer in the body.

When you start thinking about cure and how to make it a goal of care, a number of issues immediately crop up. The first one is defining what is meant by "cure." We don't have a strict definition of cure. Again, I would probably go to the patients and ask them what they mean by it. There may be some landmark part of the definition that needs to be discussed and addressed, but again, to me it's having your life not disturbed by cancer, and that generally comes by eradicating cancer. Living with cancer is harder than the living after cancer has been cured. But we don't have a good definition.

We also don't have a good way of designing clinical trials to assess whether the regimen is curative. I don't think I've ever seen a trial in lung cancer that looked at the ability of any given treatment to cure patients. We need to come up with ways to design trials to do that. Now, in addition to clinical trials, we don't have a good body of evidence to design our preclinical experiments to look for those treatments that can lead to cures, or total eradication of cancer in whatever model system might be used. If we make cure the goal, then we need to find ways preclinically to identify those strategies that could lead to that.

Also in the realm of clinical trials, we need a very clear statistical underpinning to show that one or another treatment has a better chance of cure and to show with scientific rigor that one treatment is better than the other when it comes to cure. I think there needs to be more attention to this, and as we think about revamping the clinical trial process, we need to focus more on cure.

I'm saving the most important step for last. None of this can happen unless we try to make it happen and that we say cure is possible. My mentor, George Boswell, always taught us that we would, in every single patient with cancer, try to develop a curative strategy. Is there a curative strategy for this patient? If so, pursue it with all the tools and vigor that we have. We really need to think that way.

Obviously, not every patient with cancer can be cured with our current armamentarium of anticancer treatments, but we need to make sure we put it on the table. We need to [confirm] that a strategy does not currently exist that could lead to cure. And of course, if we do find that strategy, we need to pursue it with all the energy and resources that we have.

Please don't be afraid to use the word "cure." Our patients want that. They deserve it. We should work hard to try to provide it and work toward developing strategies that we can propose and cure more patients.

Mark G. Kris, MD, is chief of the thoracic oncology service and the William and Joy Ruane Chair in Thoracic Oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. His research interests include targeted therapies for lung cancer, multimodality therapy, the development of new anticancer drugs, and symptom management with a focus on preventing emesis.

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