Cancer Personal Health Navigator

When Cancer Spreads and Standard Therapy No Longer Works

The Question: My wife has colon cancer that has metastasized to her liver. She has been receiving cancer treatments in Winnipeg since June 2012. I understand from Biocompatibles Inc. that Sunnybrook may offer Debiri treatments with respect to the liver. I would be grateful if you could let me know if these treatments are available and how I might be able to access them. Thank you very much for your assistance.

The Answer: I am sorry to hear that your wife’s colorectal cancer has spread. And I can understand why you are looking at different options outside of standard chemotherapy. Sunnybrook has been offering the DEBIRI treatment (intra-arterial infusion of irinotecan-loaded drug-eluting beads) for about two years and while it extends survival significantly, it is not a cure. On average, the Sunnybrook team performs this procedure once or twice a month.

Eligible patients are those with cancer that has spread to the liver that is not surgically operable and has not responded to at least two standard systemic chemotherapy drugs. Typically, these patients have diffuse tumours on their liver – sometimes in a rain shower pattern – making surgical removal impossible.

With DEBIRI, also known as liver chemoembolization, beads are threaded through a small catheter line from the blood vessel into the artery, located in the groin, that supplies blood to the liver. These tiny beads contain a very highly concentrated dose of the chemotherapy drug irinotecan. With this treatment, the blood vessels are partly blocked with the beads, starving the tumor of its blood supply, while concentrating chemotherapy in high doses to the tumours. This devastating “one-two punch” slows, and in some cases, even halts tumor growth.

A small, single institution phase III of a clinical trial of 74 patients randomly assigned to receive DEBIRI (36) versus systemic irinotecan, fluorouracil and leucovorin (FOLFIRI, 38), found a survival advantage for patients who use the treatment, compared to those who use standard intravenous therapy, according to a 2012 study published in the journal, Anticancer Research. The study, while limited, demonstrates the potential DEBIRI has in the treatment of metastatic colorectal cancer.

“It is hard for me to say whether she is a candidate or not without more details,” said Calvin Law, head of the cancer surgery program at Sunnybrook. “We really think that DEBIRI should be examined on a case-by-case basis.”

A team that includes a radiologist, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist and surgical oncologist select what patients would benefit from the treatment.

“If we all agree,” said Dr. Law, “then the interventional radiologist will look at the picture and tell us if they can put the beads in the right place.”

If the treatment is recommended, it takes place in two sessions, usually weeks apart. Each time, the patient is in hospital for two nights and three days. Return to work is widely variable – from as low to a week to a month or longer.

“Typically, there is more than one treatment and occasionally, there are more than three treatments,” said Dr. Law.

Having said all that, the main issue may be whether the Manitoba provincial health plan will pay for the treatment. Generally speaking, medical treatment will be funded from one province to the next, as part of the Canada Health Act, which provides equal access to medical care. However, this may be a little different: critical to the funding will be whether DEBIRI s considered the standard of care in your province. You will also need to get your wife’s oncologist on side with the approach, as she will undoubtedly need to recommend it.

To that end, I would suggest your wife’s oncologist contact Dr. Law, who said he would be happy to discuss the treatment.

About the author

Lisa Priest

Lisa Priest

Lisa Priest is the Director and Patient Engagement Lead of the North East Toronto Health Link.

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