With more than a hundred types of cancer that grow, mutate, spread and respond to treatment in different ways, finding a single cure-for-all remains elusive.
However, the relentless pursuit of researchers in the last few decades has led to better prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
According to Dr Ang Peng Tiam who started practising oncology in 1986, chemotherapy used to be the solution course of treatment for patients with advanced cancer.
However, over the past three decades, he notes a growing armamentarium of new medicines, “which are more effective in killing the cancer cells and also have lesser side effects.”
As Dr Ang also points out, “chemotherapy is not obsolete, it can be used alone or in combination with monoclonal antibodies or immunotherapy to achieve better treatment results.”
The Role of Immunotherapy
Immunotherapy is one of the latest buzzwords in the treatment arena.
Oncologists can also prescribe treatment using monoclonal antibodies, which as Dr Ang explains “can disrupt the signaling network that drives the cancer cell to grow”.
He says that both targeted therapy and monoclonal antibodies treatments are largely without significant side effects.
“This means that as long as the disease is responding to the treatment, patients can continue to use these drugs for an extended period of time.”
A Multidisciplinary Approach
In treating each cancer patient and their complex affliction, a treatment plan often means that the medical oncologists do not work alone.
Often, both Dr Ang and Dr Quek draw on Parkway Cancer Centre’s multidisciplinary team of surgeons, radiation specialists and pathologists, just to name a few.
As Dr Quek points out, “cancer is a complex disease and it takes a whole, big team to cure cancer.”
“Today, treating a cancer patient often involves a multidisciplinary team” says Dr Ang who also notes that professionals in cancer care are moving away from working in silos. Embracing collaborative work he says, allows for a better understanding of the different roles and capabilities.
Being able to tap on the knowledge and support from subspecialists with expert knowledge on the different cancer types is important, points out Dr Ang, adding that “it is very difficult for an individual oncologist to keep abreast of all the developments in this fast-changing field”.
Such knowledge sharing therefore allows the experts to plan the treatment options for each individual patient.
Science and Heart of Cancer Care
With the growing ability to study cancers at a molecular level, Dr Ang is excited about the potential it holds for personalised cancer care.
He acknowledges that experts are still far away from being “able to define an actionable mutation” for every patient but appreciates that the growing ability to understand tumour specimens and mutations in greater detail will lead to the furthering of precision medicine.
“Precision medicine means that it’s not one-size-fits all, it is really to find the most appropriate treatment for that individual patient” he says.
“But for the patient, it makes a tremendous difference … their quality of life is much better and also the effectiveness of the treatment is much higher.”