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Aug 5, 2021


ASCO Daily News: Welcome to the ASCO Daily News podcast. I'm Geraldine Carroll, a reporter for the ASCO Daily News. The American Cancer Society reports that at least 42% of newly diagnosed cancers in the United States, excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, are potentially avoidable because they are attributable to lifestyle factors. Today we will discuss strategies and resources to help the oncology community focus on health promotion as a key component of cancer risk reduction as well as in survivorship care.

Joining me for this discussion are Dr. Amy Comander, the director of breast oncology and cancer survivorship at the MGH Cancer Center in Waltham and at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and Dr. Poorvi Desai, a hematologist-oncologist at Comprehensive Hematology Oncology in Tampa Bay, Florida. Both Dr. Comander and Dr. Desai are board certified in lifestyle medicine.

My guests report no conflicts of interest relating to our topic today. And their full disclosures and those relating to all episodes of the podcast are available on our transcripts at Dr. Comander and Dr. Desai, it's great to have you on the podcast today.

Dr. Amy Comander: Thank you so much for the invitation.

Dr. Poorvi Desai: Thank you, it's really great to be here.

ASCO Daily News: Dr. Comander and Dr. Desai, you recently co-wrote an interesting editorial featured in the ASCO Daily News that raises concerns about newly diagnosed cancers in the United States that are potentially avoidable because they are attributable to lifestyle factors. You also note that as the population of cancer survivors in the U.S. continues to grow, risk factors for cancer development are becoming more prevalent. So the obesity epidemic in the United States is a huge concern. This is just one risk factor for cancer. Dr. Comander, can you tell us about this and other risk factors and why oncologists should be addressing these risk factors sooner rather than later?

Dr. Amy Comander: As you clearly stated, there's increasing prevalence of obesity in this country. And this has troubling consequences in terms of cancer risk and outcomes for specific types of cancer. Interestingly, just this week, we learned data from the annual report to the nation on the status of cancer that, overall, cancer death rates in the United States are declining, especially for lung cancer and melanoma. And this is amazing. And that is due to the incredible advances in treatments that we've witnessed over these past few years.

But interestingly, for prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, and female breast cancers, death rates continue to increase or these declines have slowed or even leveled off. And in terms of understanding why that may be the case, it seems that lifestyle factors, such as obesity, lack of physical activity, [and] increased alcohol use, may be risk factors for why we are seeing these results. And therefore, further research will certainly need to be done in this area, but attention to these factors is very important.

ASCO Daily News: Well, Dr. Desai, I'd like to ask you about your interest in lifestyle medicine. I understand you became interested in lifestyle medicine during your fellowship training. Can you tell us about this?

Dr. Poorvi Desai: Yes, I recently just graduated from my hem-onc fellowship at USF and Moffitt Cancer Center. And I was really impressed during my fellowship looking into all of the data very particularly when it comes to every single different type of cancer. But one thing I thought was lacking was just the overall picture of lifestyle factors, and especially modifiable risk factors, when it comes to pre-survivorship along with things that patients can do during active treatment and in the survivorship phase.

And I think that there are structures that are starting to appear to help guide us with more evidence-based data. And so I became very interested, as I had an attending in my internal medicine residency who was a part of lifestyle medicine. And through the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, I met several people around the country who had been working with organizations such as AICR, as well as the World Health Organization, [and] American Cancer Society.

And there was a very big push on these lifestyle factors to look at them in a way that is actually studied through evidence and actual guidelines that I was never really taught about throughout my fellowship. So I made it a point to kind of self-teach a lot of this. But I definitely think that there's a role moving forward in bringing this to not just fellowship education but just all of oncology care, whether it's medical oncology, surgical, radiation, but just any oncology care team.

ASCO Daily News: Well, you make a really great point. Evidence-based guidelines do exist to help facilitate lifestyle modification in cancer care, but there are barriers to health promotion in cancer care. Dr. Comander, what are the major barriers?

Dr. Amy Comander: That's an excellent question because we know this is an important issue. And actually, it was an issue studied recently by ASCO. Dr. Ligibel and colleagues published a paper in 2013 that was a survey of oncologists and their understanding of obesity and other lifestyle factors and how they address these issues in clinic (DOI: 10.14694/EdBook_AM.2013.33.52). 

And I think we can all say that our colleagues are well aware that obesity and lifestyle factors play an important role in cancer outcome. But in terms of the practical steps of how to address these issues with our patients, how to get our patients to lose weight, how to get our patient to exercise, how to help our patient cut back on alcohol use--those are just some examples--there really are limitations.

And in that paper, they really outlined some of the reasons for that. Some of it is lack of education, as Dr. Desai just noted. She sought out teachings and lifestyle medicine as part of her fellowship training. She had to go elsewhere to look for that because it really wasn't part of the standard curriculum. So a lack of education, lack of resources. I'm fortunate to work in a cancer center with excellent oncology colleagues with expertise in nutrition, exercise, et cetera. But we know, in the rest of the country, not every doctor has access to these resources.

And the third reason is really lack of clinician time. Our visits are very focused. And often the priority, of course, is discussing the patient's treatment, how is--I'm a breast cancer doctor. How is my patient doing on her endocrine therapy? What kind of side effects is she experiencing? How can I ensure she's complying with her medication? So there really isn't a lot of time to address these issues in a visit. So these are all factors we need to work on.

ASCO Daily News: Well, how about solutions? How tough is it to convince patients who are grappling with the physical and emotional toll of cancer treatment to prioritize their nutrition and exercise? Dr. Desai, what do you think are the next steps? What would you say to oncologists who really do need to pay more attention to this?

Dr. Poorvi Desai: So I think that one of the biggest things to take out of our article is that oncologists don't need to carry the burden of doing this by themselves. I think that while it does take a lot of resources, which is a big constraint, especially financially, I do think that there is a lot of worth in building a care team that's dedicated towards this. Or if that's not possible, then seeking out community, local, or national resources and kind of bringing together any other structure that's already in place and having a good referral to those areas, so that patients do understand that it is important to continue physical activity and working on nutrition.

And I definitely think that it's something that patients feel they can have some control over. I think a lot of oncologists don't feel qualified to talk about these things because they are not very well taught in our education. And so I think then a lot of patients in this realm of lifestyle feel on their own in trying to figure out what's good for them, what's not good for them. There's a lot of misinformation online and unsolicited advice that can be given to our patients. There's a lot of fear around foods and what the right type of activity is.

And I think that the more evidence-based information that we have to provide to our patients, we can be more confident in making these suggestions. And again, we don't--as oncologists, we don't need to be the ones who are actually doing all the counseling, doing all of this, making sure that they have their exercise prescriptions or whatever it may be, but at least acknowledging that this should be a part of the care team and seeking out resources that the care team can then take over.

So that in conjunction with active treatment or in conjunction with survivorship care, this then becomes something that patients feel they have some kind of control over. And I also think that it's important that we don't over-promise and under-deliver as well. I think that it's important to show patients that these are things that are as important as their active treatment to pay attention to, but also as oncologists start becoming more comfortable with the idea of risk reduction and having the information to back up our claims that lifestyle is of the utmost important in cancer.

ASCO Daily News: Absolutely. Dr. Comander, do you have any thoughts on this? Is it more difficult to do what Dr. Desai has described in a community practice than where you are in a larger institution?

Dr. Amy Comander: I think Dr. Desai answered that question beautifully. I will add that, as an oncologist, what we say makes such an impression on our patients. Often our patients are recording what we say, or they have a family member with them writing down everything we say. So if we just tell our patient, it's really important for you to exercise--and that might just mean a 10 minute walk each day or walking to the mailbox to get the mail, starting with something very basic in terms of exercise counseling--can make a big difference.

And so I think just the fact that, as Dr. Desai just stated, a doctor acknowledging that exercise has a role, nutrition has a role, stress management has a role, I think just that simple act has a big impact on our patients. And it's very important.

ASCO Daily News: Indeed. Well, patients and survivors often grapple with depression, anxiety, fear of recurrence, financial issues, and more. Sleep disorders and insomnia can interfere with adherence to a nutrition plan or an exercise regime. Are there helpful tools available, or what are the helpful tools available to oncology practices to help them address these issues with their patients?

Dr. Amy Comander: I think that's a really important question. We know that distress screening is actually incorporated into each visit. And that's recommended through the NCCN guidelines really to assess these issues you just inquired about--coping skills, anxiety, depression, financial issues, et cetera. So certainly, it's very important to ask our patients about these issues and refer them to appropriate colleagues, whether that's a mental health provider or social worker, to help address these concerns.

I will also acknowledge ASCO has a number of great resources to help guide patients to. The website Cancer.Net has many resources that help patients find perhaps something in the community that could help them address these specific concerns. Dr. Desai, I'm interested in your comments as well.

Dr. Poorvi Desai: I absolutely agree with you. I think that the NCCN is doing a really great job in compiling a comprehensive set of resources in their survivorship guidelines. There is that distress assessment thermometer that we had addressed in our article. We definitely understand that these psychosocial evaluations are pretty much of utmost importance. There's a lot of anxiety and distress that comes with a cancer diagnosis. And we know that it lasts. It has an impact that's lifelong.

And so definitely one of the big pillars of lifestyle medicine is stress and social connectivity. And so we definitely are an advocate for having mental health professionals as a part of the care team and looking at mental and physical well-being going hand-in-hand. And I think one of the biggest things to understand is that we have to meet our patients where they are.

And so we don't want to advocate for anybody saying, OK, now you have to exercise five times a day strenuously, and you have to eat perfectly, and all of these things that can be extremely overwhelming. And so I think that there are great guidelines. And I think the NCCN Survivorship Panel has put together a good amount of resources for us to show patients how to work on mindfulness strategies and sort of systematically work them through a very difficult diagnosis in order to slowly, but surely, result in those healthy lifestyle changes.

I like to tell my patients that it's a marathon, not a sprint. Any progress is good progress. You don't have to be perfect. And I think that's definitely something that we should be mindful of when we talk about changing lifestyle behaviors.

ASCO Daily News: Right. Dr. Comander, do you think there is a role for increased collaboration between oncology providers and primary care providers in the context of cancer survivorship, for example? Survivors might see their oncologists every few months, every 6 months, every year, but who is monitoring the hypertension, the weight gain? Who should own that responsibility, or is it a collaboration?

Dr. Amy Comander: That's a great question. And as you stated at the beginning, thankfully due to advances in treatment and screening, the number of cancer survivors in this country is increasing greatly each year. And therefore, it is very important that we have a strong collaboration with our primary care colleagues in terms of providing excellent care for our patients following completion of primary treatment.

So in my practice, it definitely is a collaboration. I'm fortunate to work with so many wonderful primary care physicians [and] we work together in terms of monitoring our patients' blood pressure, risk for cardiovascular disease, risk for diabetes and other chronic diseases, and certainly when it comes to other lifestyle interventions, such as weight management, management of substance abuse, et cetera. So that collaboration is really key. And I see primary care providers already playing a huge role in survivorship care. And I think that will continue to grow in time to come.

ASCO Daily News: Well, as you said, the number of cancer survivors continues to grow. It's projected to increase to 22 million in the United States by 2030. So do you think the focus on lifestyle medicine will increase in the future? Let's start with Dr. Desai.

Dr. Poorvi Desai: Yeah, I think that this has to become one of the major things that we regard. I think that most oncologists are very aware that our treatments are--they have long term consequences. We had mentioned in our article that there are two major themes to look at when it comes to survivorship care. One is infection-related mortality. But the other big one, which is what we focused on, was lifestyle--cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, accelerated aging with telomere shortening and metabolic changes that happen after cancer diagnosis and the treatments that patients receive.

So a lot of what we are subjecting our patients to is truly aging in nature. And we have evidence to suggest that we can work on these lifestyle modifications as the forefront way to really help them overcome the fact that we have given them radiation to their chest or cardiotoxic medications, or whatever it may be. And that when they are overweight or obese, this can then further accelerate that process of metabolic aging.

I think one of the things that's really important to talk about is assessing metabolic health. And so not just looking at their BMI, but how does their BMI actually break down into metabolic patterns? How much of this is bone density or muscle weight? We put patients a lot on hormonal treatments, which can then affect their fracture risk moving forward.

And I think that we are very well aware of that. And so these are the things that should really be assessed because, like we've mentioned, one of the biggest reasons for, I guess, moving forward with the number of cancer survivors that we're going to have, a lot of it--the focus needs to shift, basically, to long term chronic disease management, in which lifestyle really does play a huge role.

ASCO Daily News: Absolutely. Dr. Comander, is there anything else that you'd like to share before we wrap up the podcast today? I certainly do think your article pointed out the importance of using evidence-based guidelines to strive for the best possible outcomes for survivors and patients to prevent newly diagnosed cancers.

Dr. Amy Comander: Yes, I think, as summarized in our article, we did provide resources that can help our colleagues address these concerns with our patients, since, again, some of us have not been educated about these topics during our medical training. So in addition to the excellent resources provided by ASCO, I would really refer our listeners to the AICR website, American Institute for Cancer Research. In addition, the American Cancer Society is playing a role in helping provide further education about the role of nutrition and physical activity in cancer survivorship.

So the American Cancer Society is a great resource, as is the American College of Sports Medicine when it comes to exercise recommendations. And on their website, they have some great graphics that really illustrate what the recommendations are for exercise and what the benefits are for cancer survivors as well. And finally, we referred to the NCCN during this podcast. And of course, their guidelines are excellent and address these lifestyle behaviors as well. So I would just highlight those resources for our listeners in case they want to get more information.

ASCO Daily News: Absolutely, some great resources there. Well, thank you, Dr. Comander and Dr. Desai, very much for sharing your valuable insight with us today on the ASCO Daily News podcast. Our listeners will find a link to your article in our show notes. Thank you very much.

Dr. Amy Comander: Thank you so much for the invitation.

Dr. Poorvi Desai: Thank you so much.

ASCO Daily News: And thank you to our listeners for your time today. If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.



Dr. Amy Comander:

Consulting or Advisory Role: Advance Medical, CRICO Harvard Risk Management Foundation, Harvard University

Consulting or Advisory Role (immediate family member): Applied Genetic Technologies Corporation, Beam Therapeutics, Biogen, Inc., Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Editas Medicine, GenSight Biologics, infiniteMD, RBC Investments, Sanofi SA, Vedere 1, WAVE Life Sciences

Dr. Poorvi Desai: None disclosed. 

Disclaimer: The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.