New blood test can help cancer patients avoid chemo

Imagine if a simple blood test could tell you chemo or no chemo following a cancer diagnosis. It’s happening now for people with certain types of cancer.

The medical breakthrough comes at a time when the number of people being diagnosed with colon cancer is rising. Central Florida resident Sande Altug was 68 when she was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Her primary care doctor asked her when she had her last colonoscopy. Her reply was "never". 

Within hours of getting her colonoscopy, her doctor told her he found a mass and believed it was cancer. She later learned she was in stage three. 

Further testing showed the cancer had reached two of her lymph nodes. Because the cancer spread outside her colon, Altug says she had to do chemotherapy. It’s an experience she wishes she could have avoided.

 "It takes over your life. So you have to go every other week, so you feel pretty bad after the chemo for a few days and then after you start feeling pretty good again, you have to go back and have it again, it was an infusion." 


Altug then joined an observational study for a new cancer-detecting blood test called Signatera. She says it was life-changing. "I think when you get a diagnosis of cancer, it's overwhelming. It takes over your brain, and it's all you can think about, so night and day you're worried about. Did they get all cancer, is it going to come back?" 

The test is done every three months. Altug’s oncologist, Dr Mohamedtaki Tejani of Advent Health in Orlando, says it’s a huge breakthrough. "This is a new technology that’s able to measure an individual tumor DNA in a patient’s blood." 

The test is personalized to each patient’s set of tumor mutations. Before it existed, any patient with stage two or three colon cancer, like Altug, was prescribed a standard six months of chemo. 

"I always tell patients, it's a game of chess, and we want to know what the cancer's next move is, and rather than waiting until we see it on the scan, we want to stem it right when it is starting," Tejani said.

The test allows doctors to give cancer patients like Altug, peace of mind. "When I get a negative Signatera test, it makes me breathe easier and I can just get on with my life and not have to think about cancer all the time." 

Because of the test, Altug was able to do three months of chemotherapy instead of six. Some patients don’t have to do chemo at all.

 Even though Altug was late getting her colonoscopy, it saved her life, and she encourages others not to put it off. Doctors recommend getting your first colonoscopy at age 45, or earlier if you have a family history of colon cancer. 

The Signatera test also works for other types of cancer, including breast and lung cancer.