What Is Personalized Cancer Medicine?

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 11/2018

Personalized cancer medicine studies a person’s genetic makeup and tumor growth. With this information, doctors hope to find more effective strategies for prevention, screening, and treatment.

Genetic testing of cancer cells and normal cells helps doctors customize treatment to individual patient needs. Personalized treatments may cause fewer side effects than standard options.

Creating a personalized cancer screening and treatment plan involves:

  • Identifying the chances of a person developing cancer and selecting screening strategies to lower the risk

  • Matching people with treatments that may be more effective and cause fewer side effects

  • Predicting the risk of recurrence, which is the return of cancer

How personalized medicine is different

Before personalized medicine, most people with a specific type and stage of cancer received the same treatment. But certain treatments worked better for some people than for others.

Researchers then began finding genetic differences in people and their tumors more often. This explains many of the varying responses to treatment.

Now, a person may receive a standard treatment plan, modified with some personalized elements.

Personalized cancer treatment is an active part of the treatment plan or a part of a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a research study involving people.

Examples of personalized medicine

Examples of personalized medicine strategies for cancer include:

Targeted treatments. A targeted treatment targets a cancer’s specific genes and proteins that allow the cancer cells to grow and survive. Researchers find new targets each year. And they create and test new drugs for these targets.

Cancers with targeted treatment options include:

  • Breast cancer

  • Colorectal cancer

  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumor

  • Kidney cancer

  • Lung cancer

  • Melanoma

  • Multiple myeloma

  • Some types of leukemia and lymphoma

  • Some types of childhood cancers

You can learn more about targeted treatments for specific types of cancer in a different area of this website.

The option of targeted therapy depends on whether the tumor has the specific target. This requires testing a tumor sample.

Pharmacogenomics. Pharmacogenomics looks at how a person’s genes affect the way the body processes and responds to drugs. These changes influence how effective and safe a drug is for a person.

For example, a person's body may process a medicine more quickly than others. This means the person would require a higher dose for the drug to be effective.

On the other hand, someone else’s body may not process a drug as quickly. The drug would then stay in the bloodstream longer. And this may cause more severe side effects.

Here is an example of pharmacogenomics in cancer treatment planning:

People with colorectal cancer sometimes have a specific altered gene. These people may have serious side effects when treated with the drug irinotecan (Camptosar). The altered gene makes it harder for the body to break down the drug. Doctors prescribe lower doses of the medicine for these people to reduce side effects.

The future of personalized medicine

Despite the promises of personalized cancer treatments, these challenges remain:

  • Personalized treatment options are not available for all types of cancer.

  • Some personalized treatments are only offered through a clinical trial.

  • Genetic testing for people and tumor samples may be costly and time-consuming. Plus, many insurance plans may not cover these costs.

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

Personalized medicine for cancer treatment is still under development. Researchers want to learn more about:

  • The genetic changes that occur in a cancer cell

  • The way personalized cancer treatments work

  • The reasons why some targeted therapies stop working

Talk with your health care team to find out if your treatment plan will include personalized medicine.

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?

  • Are genetic tests available to help guide treatment choices?

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

  • What are the benefits of this treatment?

  • What are the potential side effects of this treatment?

  • What is my chance of recovery?

Related Resources

Getting Up Close and Personal With Your Cancer’s Pathology

Drug Discovery and Development

Questions to Ask About Cost