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New cancer drugs cause serious side effects

Written by Diane Archer

Laurie McGinley at the Washington Post reports on new cancer drugs–checkpoint inhibitors–that cause serious side effects. These therapies treat people with advanced melanoma and complex bladder, kidney and lung cancers. But doctors are not always aware of the side effects, which may need to be addressed immediately to protect a patient’s health.

One new cancer treatment put a 55-year old woman’s cancer in remission. At the same time, the cancer treatment caused Diane Legg to start seeing black specks in both eyes. She was misdiagnosed as having a torn retina requiring laser surgery, when in fact she had uveitis, inflammation of the eye. The misdiagnosis delayed her treatment for the inflammation. And, perhaps because of the delay, she continues to see specks.

Different immunotherapy treatments using checkpoint inhibitors have different side effects. But, with some immunotherapies, as many as seven out of 10 patients may experience side effects. They can be minor rashes, to diabetes, to grave heart conditions. Legg’s cancer treatment caused her to get arthritis, lung inflammation, pneumonitis and liver inflammation, in addition to the uveitis.

The side effects from an immunotherapy can present like the flu or food poisoning and get mistreated. Doctors need to know that and be prepared. Immunotherapy patients, in turn, need to be aware of the difference between immunotherapy and chemotherapy because they have different side effects. Any new doctors they see following their immunotherapy treatments need to understand they are immunotherapy patients in order to treat them appropriately. And, patients need to report what they might believe to be minor side effects as soon as possible to their doctors.

Most doctors believe that treating the cancer through immunotherapy is worth the side effects because the cancer is life-threatening, unlike most side effects. And, on the face of the evidence to date, that makes sense. But, these are early days. Over time, there will be more data on the risks of harm as compared to the likelihood of benefit from immunotherapies.

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