A prominent article in yesterday’s New York Times considers some troubling problems regarding inaccuracy in breast cancer diagnosis and pathology. The main point is that some women get needless, disfiguring and toxic treatments after being told they have breast cancer when, it turns out, their condition was benign.

My main take on this situation – which doesn’t just apply to breast cancer – is that, whenever possible, patients should get a second opinion on biopsy results before undergoing major treatment. The costs of a second pathology review is sometimes covered by insurance, but sometimes it’s not; either way, that’s money well-spent, especially if the opinion is rendered by an appropriately-credentialed, expert pathologist who works in a state-of-the-art facility.

From the doctor’s perspective there’s responsibility, too. Surgeons shouldn’t lop off a woman’s breast without knowing that the pathology is real. Well-trained oncologists know they’re supposed to review the pathology, to make sure the diagnosis is true, before giving chemo. The Times story indicates that the Cancer Treatment Centers of America has a specific policy in this regard, that doctors there must review the pathology for patients who are new to their system. This wise policy, common in some hospitals and tumor boards such as where I practiced, makes it less likely that oncologists or other doctors will give inappropriate treatment.

From an administrative standpoint, there could be better regulation to assure quality. Pathologists who are employed, busy evaluating tumor specimens without supervision, should be board-certified and required to be up-to-date in the specialized fields of their practice. And laboratories (as opposed to pathologists who work there) should be closely monitored because pathology errors can arise from faulty stains, use of poor-quality or old reagents, incorrect calibration of a machine, lack of appropriate “controls” for each batch of cases evaluated, etc.

A related story appeared earlier this year, also in the Times, on the variability of pathology reports. That article reported on how different pathology labs provide disparate results on whether a breast tumor has estrogen and progesterone receptors in the malignant cells, and whether the malignant cells express Her2 – the target of Herceptin – or not. The lack of agreement among pathologists renders treatment decisions difficult. The piece focused on a physician who couldn’t decide if she should take Herceptin or not, because she received conflicting reports about her tumor.

Getting the diagnosis right underlies many cancer care problems and undue costs. If I were an insurance company executive, I’d recommend that my firm cover the costs of a second pathology opinion in all cases. It’s far less costly to find out that a “tumor” is not really malignant than to pay for surgery, chemotherapy and radiation that’s not needed.

Better still, I’d insist that biopsy specimens be evaluated by pathologists who are trained in current methods and who work in trust-worthy laboratories.

Such a policy would reduce false positives in cancer diagnosis, and would thereby reduce the toxicity and costs of unwarranted cancer treatments. With better diagnostic facilities, those patients who do have cancer would not be so afraid to undergo the treatments they really need, because they’d be confident that they and their doctors were making decisions based on reliable information.

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