Lina Pennisi and her family

What Lies Ahead for the Future of Cancer Treatment?

by Mackenzie Gignac

The state of medicine is constantly evolving. While chemotherapy is one of the most common methods to treat cancer, medical experts of today are looking towards clinical trials to improve outcomes for those diagnosed with cancer.

What are clinical trials? Haematologist and disease group lead at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre Professor Constantine Tam offers some clarity on the topic of clinical trials.

‘Clinical trials used to study new combinations of chemotherapy in patients to see if they work better or are less toxic than old combinations,’ says Professor Tam. Fast forward to today and the clinical trials have moved from testing chemotherapy options to less toxic oral drugs. ‘We have the present age where we are testing new forms of drugs which target specific vulnerabilities of cancer,’ says Professor Tam.

What is the difference between traditional chemotherapy treatment and new clinical trials? Chemotherapy targets and damages all DNA - good or bad.

‘These drugs are very precise, unlike chemotherapy.’ says Professor Tam. ‘Chemotherapy damages the DNA in all our cells, cancer or not, in a random manner.’

To compare the two treatment methods Professor Tam gives an analogy, ‘chemotherapy is like a shotgun, hitting and hurting everything in its way. The new targeted drugs are precision rifles.’

The future of these new cancer treatments can have great applications for those battling cancer.

Lina Pennisi is a mother of two and was first diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2007.

‘I couldn’t believe what was happening,’ said Lina recalling the news about receiving her diagnosis. ‘Life is not going to be the same for me anymore.’

Lina went through chemotherapy treatment in December 2007. Although the treatment was successful, it was a difficult experience for Lina, ‘I do not wish chemotherapy on my worst enemy with what I went through.’

Lina met Professor Tam in 2010 where she first started giving clinical trials a shot. Lina had trust in Professor Tam, ‘I knew he wouldn’t suggest a study trial if he didn’t think I could cope with it,’ she said.

Lina mentioned she had already been through the worst so she wanted to explore other options. ‘When chemotherapy was mentioned I almost had an anxiety attack,’ she said. ‘If the first study trial didn’t work, I would have tried the second study trial.’

Like any treatment, clinical trials can’t guarantee a good outcome. However, these trials are recommended by doctors looking to make treatment advancements for their patients. ‘Clinical trials are designed by specialists who are experts in their fields, in order to do what these experts think will most likely improve current treatment,’ says Professor Tam.

In 2016 she agreed to a clinical trial with a new class of drugs, BTK inhibitors, and which have been successful. ‘I recommend anyone that’s going through a tough time to one, get a second opinion, and two, try a study trial,’ says Lina. ‘Once I got the information I thought this is right for me.’

Lina’s said her family was her main motivation throughout her cancer treatment rounds.

My children really were my drive to get better,’ said Lina upon receiving her diagnosis. ‘I am going to fight for my future, not for myself but for my family.’

Lina stayed strong throughout her fight with cancer so she could raise her children. ‘I want to be there when they get their license, get married, and become a grandmother,’ she said holding back some tears. ‘I just want to be there for them.’

The most recent test results from Lina’s clinical trial treatment have been a success. For the first time in 13 years her CT scans showed no results of Lymphoma.

‘I never had a CT scan showing such great results, which made me quite emotional,’ she said. ‘This is the best I’ve felt in 13 years.’

Lina offers some advice for anyone that has recently been diagnosed or currently going through treatment.

‘Stay strong and leave yourself open to anything. Have trust with the great doctors and knowledge we have.’

Lina’s story can offer some hope for those diagnosed. Blood cancer patients can look forward to treatments offered today and new treatments that are being developed for the future.