Cancer patients can’t believe everything they read

The stream of information about cancer treatments and cures can be overwhelming. When the Guardian describe new miracle cures. It’s hard to know what to believe. This article is an example of how biased interpretations of scientific papers can be misleading for patients and families.

Let’s find out if this new cancer treatment can wipe out tumours in terminally ill head and neck cancer patients as claimed.

A cancer patient on the trial, Barry Ambrose, 77 is interviewed. The cancer in his throat was no longer detectable after his immunotherapy. He is delighted.

I looked for a link to the original randomized controlled trial. Eventually I managed to find the paper in the medical literature. But surely, I had found the wrong paper? This paper had a different conclusion, that there was “no improvement in survival” with the new immunotherapy treatment. How can this be?

The Checkmate 651 trial asks : if you have a high-risk cancer of the head and neck, is immunotherapy or standard chemotherapy a better first treatment?

947 patients were randomly put into two treatment groups – half had immunotherapy and the other half chemotherapy.

The people having the new immunotherapy treatment did not live longer than the people having the old chemotherapy treatment. The study did show a couple of differences in treatment group outcomes. The immunotherapy sub-group lived for a median of 17.6 months compared with 14.6 months in the chemotherapy group, but this three-month difference might have happened by chance according to the statistical analysis. More people were alive at 2 years after immunotherapy in a subgroup (26% compared with 16%). The immunotherapy treatment, if it worked, worked for longer at 33 months compared with 7 months.

The main author of the study Dr Argiris is here speaking about its results.

The study is at risk of bias because it’s paid for by the drug company that benefits if it is successful. It did not show that immunotherapy is superior to chemotherapy, despite the Guardian headline. It did show that immunotherapy has fewer side effects than immunotherapy – but we already knew that from other studies. In a subgroup of patients, those having immunotherapy died a median of 3 months later but this result was not strong enough to meet the criteria for being statistically significant, meaning it could be a chance result. For those who did respond to immunotherapy, though, it was a longer time before their cancer came back.

It is so important for patients with cancer to have a good understanding of potential treatments – both their risks and benefits. This enables the person to make good decisions about their medical treatments.

Can this “new cancer treatment … wipe out tumours in terminally ill head and neck cancer patients”? Sorry, not enough evidence to claim that. The treatment has fewer side effects and if you respond to the treatment the beneficial effect lasts longer.

If you find information about a new treatment, discuss it with your oncologist and see what they think. Unfortunately, we can’t believe everything we read about new miraculous treatments.

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