What Is Personalized Cancer Medicine?

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2020

You may have heard the terms "personalized medicine." This means your medical care is based on your genes and your specific disease. Genes are the information that tells the cells in your body how to grow and develop. Many cancers affect or involve specific genes. Learn more about cancer and your genes. This approach can also be called "precision medicine."

Personalized cancer medicine comes from studies of human genes and the genes in different cancers. These studies have helped researchers design more effective treatments. They have also used genetic information to develop tests for cancer and ways to prevent it.

Personalized cancer medicine can have fewer side effects than other types of treatment. This is because it is designed to be more specific. A personalized treatment may affect healthy cells less and cells involved in cancer more.

Your doctor may work with you on a personalized cancer screening or cancer treatment plan. This may include:

  • Learning your chances of developing cancer and choosing screening tests to lower the risk.

  • Matching the treatment to your genes and your cancer's genes. This may be more effective and cause fewer side effects.

  • Predicting how likely the cancer is to come back. Doctors call this "risk of recurrence."

How personalized medicine is different

Before personalized medicine, people with the same type of cancer usually got the same treatment. Over time, doctors noticed the treatments worked better for some people than others.

Then, researchers began finding genetic differences in people and their cancers. These differences explained a great deal about why cancers responded differently to the same treatment.

Today, you may still have the usual treatment for your type and stage of cancer. But your doctor may personalize it based on information about your genes and the cancer's genes. This is personalized cancer medicine. Personalized medicine may also be part of a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a research study involving volunteers.

Examples of personalized cancer medicine

Examples of personalized cancer medicine include:

Targeted therapy

A targeted treatment targets specific genes and proteins that allow a certain cancer to grow and survive. Researchers find new targets for more cancers each year. Then, they create and test new drugs for these targets.

Cancers with targeted treatment options for some patients include:

  • Bladder cancer

  • Brain cancer

  • Breast cancer

  • Cervical cancer

  • Colorectal cancer

  • Endometrial cancer

  • Esophageal cancer

  • Head and neck cancer

  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST)

  • Kidney cancer

  • Leukemia

  • Liver cancer

  • Lymphoma

  • Lung cancer

  • Melanoma

  • Multiple myeloma

  • Neuroblastoma

  • Neuroendocrine tumors

  • Pancreatic cancer

  • Prostate cancer

  • Soft tissue sarcoma

  • Stomach cancer

  • Thyroid cancer

  • Some types of childhood cancers

You can learn more about targeted treatments for specific types of cancer in Cancer.Net's Types of Cancer section.

You may have targeted therapy if your cancer has the target that a treatment was designed for. Your doctor needs to test a sample of blood, bone marrow, or tumor tissue to learn this. The doctor will make treatment recommendations based on these results, as well as other factors.

Pharmacogenomics

Researchers can study how your genes affect your response to drugs. This is called pharmacogenomics. How your genes affect drugs in your body makes a difference. It determines how well a drug works for you and how safe it is.

For example, you may process a certain drug faster than most people do. So it goes through your system more quickly. This would mean you may need a higher dose for the drug to work as well as it does for most people.

Or, you might process a drug more slowly than most people. So it stays in your bloodstream longer than usual. You might have more side effects or need a lower dose.

The future of personalized cancer medicine

Personalized cancer medicine can make cancer treatment more effective, with fewer side effects. But there are still some challenges. These include:

  • Personalized treatment is not available for all types and subtypes of cancer.

  • Some personalized treatments are only available in clinical trials.

  • Genetic testing can be expensive. Insurance plans do not always pay for it. Also, testing your genes and the genes in your tumor takes time. This can mean you wait longer to get the personalized treatment.

  • Some personalized treatments, such as targeted treatments, can be expensive.

Researchers are still developing personalized medicine for cancer. They want to learn more about:

  • The gene changes that happen in cancer cells.

  • How personalized cancer treatments work.

  • Why some targeted therapies stop working. Targeted therapy is a type of personalized cancer medicine.

Talk with your health care team about any questions you have about personalized medicine, including finding out if your treatment plan will include it.

Questions to ask the health care team

To learn more, consider asking your health care team these questions:

  • What are my treatment options?

  • Which clinical trials are open to me?

  • Is genetic testing available to help choose my treatment?

  • Is this treatment considered personalized medicine? If so, how?

  • What are the possible benefits of this treatment?

  • What are the possible side effects of this treatment?

  • What is my chance of recovery?

Related Resources

Getting Up Close and Personal With Your Cancer’s Pathology

Tumor-Agnostic Treatment for Cancer: An Expert Perspective

Drug Discovery and Development

Questions to Ask About Cost

More Information

National Cancer Institute: Precision Medicine in Cancer Treatment

CancerCare: Understanding the Role of Personalized Medicine