Esophageal cancer may be rare, but it's a particularly brutal form of the disease. It's common for patients to undergo chemo, radiation, and surgery, only to have the cancer return quickly, notes the New York Times. A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine, however, is raising hopes of staving off such recurrences. An immunotherapy drug called called nivolumab doubled the time that patients lived cancer-free after surgery from 11 to 22 months and reduced the risk of recurrence or death by 31%, reports the Dallas Morning News. The study, out of Baylor University and funded by Bristol Myers Squibb, involved 794 patients in 29 countries. Two-thirds of participants got the drug, aka Opdivo, and the rest received a placebo. All had previously been diagnosed with stage 2 or 3 esophageal cancer.
"This trial really is a game changer," says Dr. David Ilson of New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, per HealthDay News. "It's the first real advance in the field in several decades," adds Ilson, who wrote an accompanying editorial in the journal and wasn't involved with the study. Lead author Dr. Ronan Kelly of Baylor calls it a "major step forward for these patients," per the Morning News. The drug already is in use for late-stage, inoperable cancers, including esophageal cancer, and the study raises the possibility that it can be used earlier in treatment. This type of cancer is hard to root out in surgery because cancerous cells can elude detection in lymph nodes and elsewhere, notes the Times. (Esophageal cancer claimed the life of renowned author Christopher Hitchens.)