Actor Tackles Chemo Infection Awareness

Father's experience prompts 'West Wing' star's mission

WEDNESDAY, April 24, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Most cancer patients approaching chemotherapy know they face hair loss, nausea and fatigue. What many don't anticipate is the very real possibility of an infection that could halt the treatment, and even be life-threatening.

Actor Rob Lowe, who co-stars on TV's highly acclaimed "The West Wing," knows all too well how such an event can catch a person battling cancer off-guard. His father's chemotherapy treatments for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma were interrupted by an infection.

"To say my father didn't expect an infection is putting it mildly. He was really blindsided by the news," Lowe told HealthDay in a phone interview. "He was expecting all of the side effects, such as the hair loss, that are so universally expected, but no one warned him about the possibility of infection."

Lowe says his father's experience, which put him back in the hospital, was especially frightening because he didn't know why the chemotherapy was being stopped.

"He was midway through his chemotherapy, and he thought they were taking him off the treatment because it wasn't working," Lowe explains.

"The problem was, it was working -- it was working too well and destroying the protective white blood cells," Lowe adds.

Chemotherapy makes patients vulnerable to infection because while destroying cancer cells, it also kills white blood cells, which are essential in fighting infection.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 40 percent of patients on chemotherapy whose white blood cell counts drop go on to develop infections.

When a patient develops an infection, the consequences are significant -- not only do patients have to stop the chemotherapy treatments, hence interrupting the fight against their cancer, but they must go back into the hospital, where they can be exposed to infections that can become life-threatening because of their lowered white blood cell count.

Lowe's father, now 63 and a practicing lawyer, recovered from the infection and has been cancer-free for about seven years, but the actor says infections are still far too unknown by most people.

"These can be so easily prevented, and I want to get that message out there so that people don't have to go through what my father did," Lowe says.

In putting his words into action, the 38-year-old former member of the Hollywood Brat Pack has stepped up as a spokesman for an awareness campaign called By My Side: Taking Charge of Cancer Treatment.

The campaign is sponsored by biotechnology company Amgen, which makes Neupogen and the new drug Neulasta, drugs designed to prevent infections from chemotherapy by boosting white blood cell counts.

Lowe got involved, he says, because "the people at Amgen were looking for someone who had a message and could reach people, and they were aware of my work as a spokesperson on behalf of breast cancer because my great-grandmother and grandmother both battled the disease."

Before such drugs were introduced, infections resulting from chemotherapy were commonly treated with antibiotics, but the key drawback was that the infection had already occurred, says American Cancer Society senior medical consultant LaMar McGinnis.

"It's well-recognized that it's better to prevent an infection than to have to treat one, because of all of the potential for non-responsiveness to antibiotics, complicationsÂ…," McGinnis explains.

"That's why when these drugs came on the scene, they were welcomed by the medical community -- because they can prevent the infections before they occur," he adds.

It's not necessary to give the preventive drug to all patients, because doctors can simply administer the drug once they spot a drop in the white blood cells, McGinnis says.

The side effects from the drugs are minimal, although the drugs can't be used with cancers such as leukemias, McGinnis says. However, their main drawback is their high cost, and that has caused some HMOs and insurance companies to balk at any usage that isn't mandatory.

The introduction of Neulasta should help with that issue, he adds. That's because Neulasta requires only one dose per chemotherapy cycle, whereas the older version had to be given in daily injections, sometimes for up to 14 consecutive days. The improvement should reduce costs and make the drug more acceptable to the health coverage companies, McGinnis says.

Meanwhile, Lowe says an increased awareness of the potential severity of chemotherapy-related infections is a key to improving prevention measures.

"The irony of the situation is that (the risk of infection) is one of the most dangerous aspects of chemotherapy, yet it has the lowest profile of all of the side effects," he says. "That should be inverted."

Asked whether he had been involved in any efforts to increase cancer awareness at the real White House, Lowe replies: "I would love to see the president take the initiative and say, like we said on 'The West Wing,' that we will cure cancer within the decade, because we know more about cancer and are closer to curing cancer than we ever were to putting a man on the moon when John Kennedy famously promised that."

What To Do

Visit the National Cancer Institute for a comprehensive chemotherapy booklet, Chemotherapy and You: A Guide to Self-Help During Cancer Treatment.

You can obtain a copy of the By My Side: Taking Charge of Cancer Treatment booklet or video by visiting the www.ByMySide.com.

Visit the American Cancer Society's site on Chemotherapy Principles for much more information on the treatment.

Sources: Rob Lowe, actor, spokesman, By My Side: Taking Charge of Cancer Treatment; LaMar McGinnis, M.D., senior medical consultant, American Cancer Society; press releases
Consumer News