Medical Moment: How safe are at-home cancer treatments?

Published: Nov. 21, 2022 at 5:48 PM EST
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(WNDU) - Chemotherapy is a life-saving treatment for many cancer patients - powerful drugs that kill fast-growing cells in the body. It’s given intravenously over a period of hours.

But many of us might not know that some cancer can be treated with oral chemotherapy - pills a patient takes at home.

Now, a new study from Duke shows that despite the benefits for patients, home treatment doesn’t always go as prescribed.

Deborah Tippett is a retired professor, world traveler, and ballroom dancer. For the second time in 13 years, she’s battling cancer.

“Doctors found in a routine exam, a little abnormality, which they decided to test,” Tippett said.

When Tippett had lymphoma years ago, treatment meant trips to a clinic and IV-chemo.

“Sometimes, it would be 10 hours by the time I met with the doctor, had my blood work, had the treatment,” Tippett recalled.

The time, Tippett’s doctor had a lab test her tumor for genetic mutations and found an oral anti-cancer treatment that could work for her ovarian cancer. Duke gynecologist Brittany Davidson studies cancer patients and how they fare with this treatment at home.

“Several of my partners said, ‘Well, it’s not going to be a problem. These patients have cancer, so, of course they’re going to take their treatment,’” Dr. Davidson explained.

But in a survey of 100 cancer patients taking oral canti-cancer treatment, Dr. Davidson found 50 percent of patients took their medication exactly as prescribed, the right amount, at the exact time, under the correct conditions. But 25 percent missed at least one dose in a week, and another 25 percent missed more than one dose.

“This tells us that adherence is still a problem,” Dr. Davidson continued.

Earlier research suggested that side effects, patient support at home, and finances can all impact home treatment. Tippett and Dr. Davidson worked with the pharmaceutical company so she could afford her drug, Mekinist, and Tippett builds her day around medication time, so that she never misses a dose.

“I know that that’s the first thing I do when I get out of bed,” Tippett said.

Tippett is back on her toes these days, feeling more like herself again.

“I’m just grateful to be living in a time where I could have all these options,” she finished.

Dr. Davidson said there’s no research that shows what happens when patients are occasionally late or miss an oral dose.

If patients miss many doses, the treatment might not work as effectively, and if doses are too close together, the side effects might be more severe.