Questions for ASCO – on Tamoxifen, ATLAS and aTTom

On Sunday in Chicago, oncologists and others at the plenary session of the annual ASCO meeting will be talking about an abstract that matters a lot to women with breast cancer. It’s a study on Tamoxifen that bears on how long women with estrogen-receptor positive (ER+) tumors should take adjuvant hormonal therapy after initial treatment for early-stage BC.

tamoxifen binding an ER receptor (Wikimedia Commons)

tamoxifen binding an ER receptor (Wiki-Commons)

Why this matters so much is that ER+ tumors account for most BC cases. So if you’re a pre-menopausal woman who’s had a tumor removed by surgery, there’s a good chance your doctor will recommend adjuvant (“extra”) treatment with Tamoxifen for 5 or (probably) 10 years. The reasoning behind this recommendation is that the recently-published ATLAS study demonstrated a clear lengthening of life among women with ER+ tumors who took the longer course.

The usual dose of Tamoxifen (Nolvadex) is 20 milligrams per day. The bargain-rate cost is around $9 for a month’s supply GoodRx.com  – so we’re talking just over $110/year x 5 or 10 years. That’s small change as oncology drugs go, although the numbers add up over so many patients affected…

Tamoxifen carries a small but real risk for what most doctors consider side effects, like blood clots and occasional, typically low-grade uterine cancers. The problem with Tamoxifen – which is not so much a risk as a definite consequence of taking this medication – is that it has anti-estrogen effects that many young (and older) women consider undesirable. Already our breasts have been cut. Feeling “feminine” is not trivial. Many don’t want it!

(Mental exercise: imagine hundreds of thousands of men ages 35-55 agreeably accepting a prescription for partial chemical castration to reduce the chances of a tumor recurring, after they’ve already had significant treatment to reduce those odds)

Your author has been in rooms filled with doctors where the overwhelming consensus expressed was that hormonal treatments in women with BC are terrific. Indeed, they extend life and, in some cases – such as those with low Oncotype scores – afford women the option of skipping chemo. But how are they so sure we’d rather take an anti-estrogen for 5-10 years rather than 3-6 months of chemo? Answer: I don’t think anyone knows.

One limitation of the ATLAS study (and as best I can tell the same for aTTom) is that the trial doesn’t distinguish between women who got adjuvant chemo and those who didn’t get chemo. So it’s unclear whether Tamoxifen helps prevent recurrence, or extend life, in women who’ve also received chemotherapy for the disease.

Here are 2 questions for aTTom:

1. How do we know that women with small, node-negative (low risk) tumors who receive chemotherapy, as is standard in many communities, get additional benefit from Tamoxifen after chemo?

2. Should pre-menopausal women with small, ER+ tumors be given a choice between taking chemo or Tamoxifen?

In other words, is there evidence to support the combination – chemo followed by hormonal Rx – as the standard, adjuvant care for women with early-stage, ER+ tumors? or that women prefer hormonal pills over a short course, like 4 cycles, of chemo?

I’m eager to hear about the updated aTTom (adjuvant Tamoxifen Treatment offers more?) findings, to be published and presented on Sunday. I hope my colleagues – doctors, patients, advocates and journalists will ask good questions!

All for now,

ES

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Should People With Health Problems Talk About their Conditions?

Before I became a journalist, I rarely talked about my medical problems. When I was working at the hospital I tried not to mention, or show, the pain I was experiencing in my back to colleagues or even friends. Eventually I had to tell a higher-up about it, because I didn’t take narcotics and the pain became limiting. Rounding was difficult. I needed a chair.

And so I was struck by an essay in today’s Times by a woman who has dystonia, a neurological condition. She writes:

Long after “coming out” to my friends about my diagnosis, I realize now that what’s most important is telling people about the disease. Telling waiters why I’ve brought a special pillow with me to a restaurant; legislative aides who want to know what their bosses can do; and strangers who ask, almost rhetorically, if I am in pain.

The point of the article, as I understand it, is that big-name diseases like cancer get loads of media attention and sympathy from strangers. Relatively few people “get” the suffering of those with rare or less mortifying conditions. This is especially true when there’s no celebrity who speaks, writes, sings or otherwise whines or rails on it. People who don’t feel well want empathy, or at least a bit of consideration.

OK, now I’m going to say what’s hard, and I might regret, but I’m not sure that everyone needs to hear about all of our ailments: Sure, if you’re a writer, you can sort through your medical issues and feel better by expressing yourself, as I sometimes do here, and in principle and occasional reality help others facing similar disorders. And if you’re an employee somewhere and you need to take time off or accommodation for a disability, you may need to talk with your boss about what’s going on.

But do you need explain to the person on the checkout line or, say, a mother organizing a bake sale, why your back hurts? Why you frequent the women’s room? Or why you need a seat on the bus?

I am truly ambivalent about this.

My only way out is to tell you of an error I think I made, in withholding information. After my spine surgery, when I couldn’t sit up without assistance, or raise my arm to brush my teeth, and then eventually was practicing walking with a cane, wearing a brace in warm weather under modest clothing, I deliberately didn’t visit or walk by my place of work. I didn’t want my colleagues to see me looking frail. I wanted to return to work looking strong and standing straight up, as if nothing were wrong inside.

Already I’d had the cancer treatment – surgery and chemo – and they knew about that, although we didn’t speak of it much. Mainly it was women coworkers who visited me when I was hospitalized. That is understandable. Most of my colleagues didn’t know about my back. Not really. A lot of people have back pain, after all. What’s the difference, scoliosis, fusion, a revision, a clot, whatever…Or about my other conditions. It was TMI.

Over time I was becoming a burden to the group and – astonishingly in retrospect, I felt badly about that. I worked harder than most, to compensate for my disability (which I had trouble acknowledging, internally), and that further damaged my health. I sometimes wonder, now, if I had told my colleagues earlier, and let my non-cancerous conditions “show,” would I still be practicing medicine today?

Maybe.

Not everyone wants to hear about it. Or know. Besides, plenty of people have stuff they don’t mention –

“Everything is copy,” is a phrase Nora Ephron learned from her mother. That’s according to her son, Jacob Bernstein, who  detailed some of her final days in the New York Times Magazine. But Ephron kept quite a bit to herself. She was a sharp and successful lady.

Thoughts?

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Don’t Judge Her! An Essay on Angelina Jolie, BRCA, Cancer Risk and Informed Decision-Making

Angelina Jolie at Cannes in 2011 (Wikimedia Commons, attribution: Georges Biard)

Angelina Jolie at Cannes in 2011 (Wikimedia Commons, attribution: Georges Biard)

Before this morning, I never wondered what it’s like to walk in Angelina Jolie’s shoes. Like many, I woke up to the news – presented in the form of an op-ed in the NYTimes – that one of the world’s most beautiful and famous women recently had bilateral mastectomies to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer.

It turns out the 37 year old actress carries a BRCA1 mutation, a genetic variant that dramatically ups her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. Her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, died of cancer at the age of 56 years. Jolie would have been 31 years old when her mother died.

As Jolie tells it, doctors estimated her risk of developing breast cancer to be 87 percent. As she points out, the risk is different in each woman’s case. As an oncologist-journalist-patient reading her narrative, I can’t help but know that each doctor might offer a different approximation of her chances. It’s likely, from all that Jolie has generously shared of her experience and circumstances, that her odds were high.

“Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness,” Jolie wrote in today’s paper. To take control of her fate, or at least to mitigate her risk as best she could upon consultation with her doctors, she had genetic testing for BRCA and, more recently, decided to undergo mastectomy.

The decision was hers to make, and it’s a tough one. I don’t know what I’d have done if I were 37 years old, if my mother died of cancer and I had a BRCA mutation. There’s no “correct” answer in my book, although some might be sounder than others –

I know physicians who’ve chosen, as did the celebrity, to have mastectomies upon finding out they carry BRCA mutations. And I’ve known “ordinary” women – moms, homemakers, librarians (that’s figurative, I’m just pulling a stereotype) who’ve elected to keep their breasts and take their chances with close monitoring.  I’ve known some women who have, perhaps rashly, chosen to ignore their risk and do nothing at all. At that opposite extreme, a woman might be so afraid, terrified, of finding cancer that she won’t even go to a doctor for a check-up, no less be tested, examined or screened.

What’s great about this piece, and what’s wrong about it, is that it comes from an individual woman. Whether she’s made the right or wrong decision, neither I nor anyone can say for sure. Jolie’s essay reflects the dilemma of any person making a medical choice based on their circumstances, values, test results and what information they’ve been given or otherwise found and interpreted.

How to conclude? Mainly and first, that I wish Ms. Jolie the best and a speedy recovery after surgery. And to thank you, Angelina, for raising this issue in such a candid fashion.

As for the future, Jolie’s decision demonstrates that we need better (and not just more) research, to understand what causes cancer in people who have BRCA mutations and otherwise. My hope is that future women – children now –needn’t resort to, nor even contemplate, such drastic procedures to avoid a potentially lethal condition as is breast cancer today.

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Reading Toms River

When I was a medical resident working at Memorial Sloan Kettering in the late 1980s, some of us joked about the apparently high cancer rate New Jersey. It seemed, though none of us could prove it, that too many of our patients came from the state across the Hudson. Statistics can be tricky, I knew. Sometimes we notice clusters of disease that are just random blips, constellations or flukes.

river landscape, by Frits Thaulow

river landscape, by Frits Thaulow

So when Dan Fagin’s book, Toms River, came out two months ago, I was drawn. The narrative opens with a gripping portrait of a young man whose frame was irrevocably altered by a childhood cancer. It moves on to the history of the small town in central NJ where Ciba, an international chemical company now subsumed by BASF, set up shop in the early 1950s.

The residents hadn’t a clue what was happening to their water. Fagin, an environmental journalist, wades through a half century of dumping, denial, Greenpeace efforts to expose the situation, local citizens’ mixed responses, real estate, some basic and theoretical chemistry, cancer registries and more.

I value this book highly. Toms River could be a lot of places – pretty much anywhere pollution goes unchecked. As the author points out near the end, the problem’s manifest in China now, and elsewhere. It’s a lesson in business ethics, among other things.

The tale intersperses epidemiology and statistics with local politics and individuals’ lives. It reveals just how hard it is to prove cause and effect when it comes to cancer – which, as I’ve said before, is no reason to let industry go unregulated. Because we’ll rarely if ever get definitive, 100%-style evidence that a particular compound causes cancer in humans. Rather, the story points to the need for lowering the threshold for chemicals on the list, and for regulating toxins in manufacturing.

A subtler point, deeper in some ways, is that there are people who don’t want to think about their neighborhood’s water supply or the food they like to eat…”Out of sight and out of mind,” Fagin says in the thick of it. He’s spot-on, there: when a toxic exposure is disconnected from its outcome by decades – and diluted, we tend not to notice or worry.

#humannature

 

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