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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Contemplating Breast Cancer, Beyond October 2012

It’s foggy today, October 3, ten years since the last mammogram I had and will ever need. I’ve been remiss in updating the blog. The reasons include family concerns and other projects. Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about the big picture – what’s most important for progress against breast cancer in the decade ahead.

So here’s what I see, now – in terms of three priority areas: improving treatment, prevention, and education to inform treatment decisions.

Pumpkins, organized by subtype (WikiCommons image)

As an oncologist, I perceive huge strides in understanding BC since the time of my diagnosis. But these advances are largely invisible to patients because they’re in the realm of pathology and classification of different subtypes. What was essentially a 3-type malignancy with a handful of treatment options has expanded under the molecular microscope to a spectrum of 4, 10 or – what’s probably most accurate – hundreds or thousands of patient-particular conditions, depending on the level of precision by which you define a disease. I’m optimistic, because it looks as though, in my lifetime, BC treatment will be tailored to each patient. There’ll be less surgery and better drugs.

The hitch, now, is not so much with science as with funding– funding to analyze each patient’s tumor at the genetic and protein levels, funding to pay for treatments selected by patients (which might include less treatment and/or palliative care in advanced cases), and funding to educate doctors about BC subtypes and medical progress, so they might offer “modern” advice to each patient in ordinary clinics, apart from clinical trials and academic centers. Newer is not always better in medical care. Same goes for more treatment (especially when it comes to higher doses). Still, the lag between advances in BC science and application of distinct, targeted and better treatments is frustrating at best.

Some of my colleagues call for patience – emphasizing that studies need be confirmed, drugs tested in mice, etc. Their point is that we can’t jump from pathology research and new BC classifications to new therapy. But one lesson I take from progress against AIDS is that maybe we shouldn’t be so patient. At least not for young people with poor-prognosis BC subtypes or stage. We could do studies and studies of particular BC treatments, and studies of studies (those would be meta-analyses) and debate 8 or 10 years from now whether a particular drug or combination of drugs worked in clinical trials that selected for patients with an antiquated subtype of the disease. Or we could move toward “n=1” trials, with smart, well-trained physicians assessing each patient by a combination of old-fashioned physical exams and the most modern of molecular studies of the tumors, considering the options, and moving forward with individual, mini-experimental treatment plans.

I vote for the latter. If the drug works in a patient with advanced BC and the patient feels better, why not?

For people with early-stage BC, prescribing or taking new and essentially untested drugs makes less sense at first glance. That’s because standard treatments are “successful” – leading to long-term remissions and possible cures in over 80 percent of those affected. But these relatively good results may have, paradoxically, hampered development of better drugs that could obviate the need for breast-deforming surgeries and radiation in many women. The possible application of BC drug cocktails, in lieu of surgery for early-stage patients, is a huge question for the future, and one for which trials would be necessary. Just getting those projects going – applying BC science to treatment of early-stage cases – would be a step in the right direction.

As for BC prevention, of course that would be infinitely better than detecting or treating the disease. Unfortunately, I think we’re farther away from preventing the disease than we are from having effective and less brutal treatments for most patients. The problem with lifestyle modification – like staying active and not obese – is that it’s far from full-proof: You can be seemingly fit as a fiddle and get a lethal case of BC. Still, there are plenty of other health-related reasons for women to exercise and eat sensibly. As for avoiding carcinogens or, first, just knowing what chemicals contribute to BC formation and growth, the science isn’t there yet.  It’ll be a long haul before anyone can prove that a particular chemical causes this disease. That said, I advocate research in the slow-growing field of environmental oncology and wish there’d be more enthusiasm for regulating our exposure to likely-toxic chemicals.

The third priority is for improving education in math and science, starting at the elementary school level. Doctors need to understand statistics, but many don’t. They need to know about genomics and basic science in medicine. Patients need this kind of knowledge if they want to have a clue, if they want to engage meaningfully in decisions about which antibody to take, or pill, or whether they want to participate in a clinical trial of pills instead of surgery for a Stage II tumor with high levels of Her2, for example. That’d be a tough decision for an oncologist. I only wish that we could reach the point where we could have those kinds of truly informed conversations about clinical treatment of breast cancer, which happen every day.

We’ve got a lot of information in hand, but we need to learn how to apply that to more patients, faster and more openly.

All for a while. I’m open to ideas on this. Happy October!

ES

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Don’t Blur the Message on Cancer Screening

This week the USPSTF renewed its position on ovarian cancer screening. The panel reminded the public that there’s no value in doing blood tests, like measuring the CEA, or having sonograms to evaluate healthy-feeling women for the possibility of ovarian cancer. One problem with the CEA measurement is that it goes up in various conditions; it’s not a specific test. Similarly, abdominal ultrasounds tend to pick up all kinds of blobby images that are rarely ovarian tumors. More often than not, ovarian cancer screening tests lead women to undergo more tests, such as CT scans and even surgery, without any benefit. The CEA tests and ultrasounds rarely “catch” ovarian tumors in an early stage.

This information on the lack of effective ovarian cancer screening methods is hardly news. What I hope is that this week’s headlines and editorials don’t add to the blurriness of the public’s perception of cancer screening – that people might think it’s a bad thing all around. The details matter. For some cancers, screening the general population – if it’s done right – can save lives and dollars. That’s because for most tumor types, treating advanced, metastatic disease is costlier than treatment of early-stage, curable tumors.

A few words on other cancers and screening –

Prostate cancer screening by PSA testing has never been shown to save lives. Because prostate cancer is unusual in young men and occurs commonly in elderly men, and in those cases tends to be slow-growing, screening’s potential – even if it were safe and effective – to save men’s life-years is limited. What’s different, also – and I think this is where some journalists get the story wrong by omission – is that early treatment of prostate cancer is rarely beneficial. By contrast, early treatment of breast cancer is often life-saving.

Lung cancer screening may be helpful in people at high risk, such as smoking, but one could argue that the CT scans used in those studies – which involve more radiation exposure than do mammograms, besides that they’re more costly – need a higher threshold of benefit to justify their use.

Colon cancer screening has been shown to save lives. For this tumor type, I think the issue is whether it’s worth doing colonoscopy in everyone over the age of 50, periodically, or better to test everyone for tiny amounts of blood (or, in the future, cancerous DNA markers) in the stool. Checking for occult blood in stood samples is a simple and perfectly safe method of getting a little bit of information about the probability of someone having a polyp or frank malignancy in the gut. If people who want to be screened for colon cancer would reliably take a sampling, it’s possible they might safely skip colonoscopy if there’s no evidence for bleeding or other signs of disease.

As for cervical cancer screening, that has definitely been an advance. Pap smears and other liquid cytology methods, now, perhaps HPV testing, have successfully countered this disease. Years ago, women would present, typically in their 30s, 40s or 50s, with large cancers pushing into the body of the uterus and lower abdomen. These were rarely curable. Rather than a scrape, or slightly bigger procedure in a gynecologist’s office, the women needed hysterectomies and radiation to the pelvis, which caused problems down the road if they were lucky and survived. In communities where young women get gynecological care now, we rarely see advanced cases of cervical cancer. For this disease, the question now is in fine-tuning the frequency of screening and understanding how HPV tests can inform or supplement the Pap smear.

As for mammography in breast cancer screening, please don’t get me wrong. I am not fixed in my position that it’s worthwhile and should be performed every other year in most women over the age of 40 until they reach the age of 70 or so, depending on their wishes and overall health. Rather, I acknowledge it’s far from a perfect screening tool, and I genuinely hope that in the future we’ll prevent breast cancer entirely or at least find a better, safer way to detect it early on. But until that happens, for the time being, mammography is a well-established, routine procedure that is the best we’ve got to prevent tens of thousands of middle-aged women from dying every year in the U.S. from metastatic BC.

I generally ascribe to the “less is more” school of medicine. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore early-stage breast tumors, especially when they occur in young-ish women. Rather, it means that we should treat what cancers we do find carefully and conservatively, with the least therapy needed to raise a woman’s chances of leading a normal, healthy and full life.

All for now,

ES

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A Closer Look at the Details on Mammography, in Between the Lines

Recently I wrote a review of Between the Lines, a helpful handbook on bio-medical statistics authored by an acquaintance and colleague, Dr. Marya Zilberberg. In that post, I mentioned my concern about some of the assumptions and statements on mammography. One thing I liked the book, abstractly, is the author’s efforts to streamline the discussion so that the reader can follow the concepts. But simplification and rounding numbers, “for ease of presentation” (p. 29) can mess up facts, significantly in ways that some primary care doctors and journalists might not appreciate. And so I offer what I hope is a clarification, or at least an extension of my colleague’s work, for purposes of helping women understand the potential benefits and risks of mammography.

In the section on mammography (pp. 28-31), the author rounds down the incidence of breast cancer in women between the ages of 40 and 50 years, from “1 in 70” (1.43%) to “1 in 100” (1%). As any marketing professional might remind us, this small change represents a 30% drop (0.43/1.43) in the rate of breast cancer in women of that age group. This difference – of 30%, or 43%, depending on how you look at it – will factor into any calculation of the false positive (FP) rate and the positive predictive value (PPV) of the test.

For women ages 40-49 Have breast cancer Don’t have breast cancer
If estimate 1 in 100, 1.0 % 100 9,900
If estimate 1 in 70, 1.43 % 143 9,857

Keep in mind that these same, proportional difference would apply to any BC screening considerations – in terms of the number of women affected, the potential benefits and costs, for the 22,996,493 women between the ages of 40 and 49 counted in the 2010 U.S. Census,

My colleague estimates, fairly for this younger age group of women (who are relatively disposed to fast-growing tumors), that the screening technology (mammography) only picks up 80% of cases; 20% go undetected. In other words – the test is 80% sensitive; the false negative, FN, rate is 20%. In this same section, she considers that the FP rate as 10%. Let’s accept this (unacceptably high) FP rate for now, for the sake of discussion.

As considered in Between the Lines:

If FP rate is 10%, prevalence 1 in 100 Really have BC Don’t have BC Total
Mammography + 80 990 1,070
Mammography – 20 8,910 8,930
Total 100 9,900 10,000

But the above numbers aren’t valid, because the disease affects over 1 in 70 women in this age bracket. Here’s the same table with a prevalence of 1 in 70 women with BC:

If FP rate is 10%, prevalence 1 in 70 Really have BC Don’t have BC Total
Mammography + 114 986 1,100
Mammography – 29 8,871 8,900
Total 143 9,857 10,000

In this closer approximation to reality, the number of true positives is 114, and false positives 986, among 1,100 abnormal screening results. Now, the PPV of an abnormal mammogram is 114/ (114+986) = 10.4%. So the main statistical point – apart from the particulars of this discussion –  is that a seemingly slight rounding down can have a big impact on a test’s calculated and perceived value. By adjusting the BC rate to its prevalence of approximately 1 in 70 women between 40 and 49 years, we’ve raised the PPV from 7.5% to 10.4%.

Here I must admit that I, too, have rounded, although I did so conservatively very slightly. I adopted a 1 in 70 approximation (1.43%) instead of 1 in 69 (1.45%), as indicated on the NCI website. If we repeat the table and figures using a 1 in 69 or 1.45% prevalence rate and 6% FPS, the PPV rises a tad, to 10.5%.

Now, we might insert a different perspective: What if the false positive rate were 6%, as has been observed among sub-specialist radiologists who work mainly in breast cancer screening?

If FP rate is 6%, prevalence 1 in 70 Really have BC Don’t have BC Total
Mammography + 114 591 705
Mammography – 29 9266 9,295
Total 143 9,857 10,000

As you can see, if we use a FP rate of 6% in our calculations, the total number of FPs drops to 591 among 10,000 women screened. In this better-case scenario, the PPV of the test would = 114/ (114+591) =16%. Still, that’s not great – and I’d argue that public health officials, insurers and patients should be pushing for FP rates closer to 2 or 3% – but that’s irrelevant to my colleague’s point and her generally instructive work.

My second concern has to do with language, and making the consequences of false positives seem worse than they really are. On page 29, the author writes: “ So, going back to the 10,000 women being screened, of 9,900 who do NOT have cancer… 10%, or 990 individuals will still be diagnosed as having cancer.” The fact is, the overwhelming majority of women with positive mammograms won’t receive a cancer diagnosis. Rather, they’ll be told they have “an abnormal result, or a finding that suggests the possibility of cancer and needs further evaluation,” or something along those lines. It would be unusual in practice to jump from a positive mammogram straight to a breast cancer diagnosis. There are steps between, and every patient and journalist should be aware of those.


Finally, if I were to write what I really think, apart from and beyond Between the Lines – I’d suggest the FP rate should be no higher than 2 or 3% in 2012. This is entirely feasible using extant technology, if we were to change just two aspects of mammography practice in the U.S. First, require that all mammograms be performed by breast radiologists who get extra training and focus in their daily work almost exclusively on breast imaging. Second, make sonograms – which, together with mammograms, enhance the specificity of BC screening in women with dense breasts– universally available to supplement the radiologists’ evaluations of abnormal mammograms and dense breasts in younger women.

By implementing these two changes, essentially supporting the practice of sub-specialists in breast radiology, we could significantly lower the FP rate in breast cancer screening. The “costs” of those remaining FPs could be minimized by judicious use of sonograms, needle biopsies and other measures to reduce unnecessary surgery and over-treatment. Over the long haul, we need to educate doctors not to over-treat early stage disease, but that goes far beyond this post and any one woman’s analysis of mammography’s effectiveness.

All for now,
ES

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What Does a Bikini Parade Have to Do with Breast Cancer?

A recurring question on this blog is this: Is there a limit, in terms of appropriateness or “correctness,” in fundraising for causes that would help put an end to breast cancer?

My blogging colleague and friend, fellow BC ~survivor/advocate/NBCC summit attendee and former chemo recipient, AnneMarie Ciccarella, @chemobrainfog wrote about an upcoming bikini parade planned by a tanning salon owner in Madison Lake, MN. Proceeds from the march will go toward a nonprofit group called the Breast Cancer Natural Prevention Foundation (preventbc.org). This true story is problematic at many levels, as AnneMarie points out.

But sometimes an extreme case of something – here what’s billed as a BC fundraiser – can be instructive. A few months ago I wrote about Boobstagram – a French website that asks women to submit pictures of their breasts to increase awareness of the value of healthy breasts. The site, vaguely and with few words, tries connecting the barely clad images with “the fight against cancer.” Although I’m still not convinced that the concept utterly lacks merit in principle, and maintain that some of the voices raised here were, perhaps, too quickly dismissive and uptight about the possibility of fundraising or BC activism by this method, I acknowledge that the men running that company seem to be doing nothing useful in terms of reducing breast cancer or its complications.

The Minnesota bikini march will take place on July 28. The line-up starts at noon. The walk will begin at 1PM. According to the announcement on the Electric Beach Mankato website, “only females in bikinis will be counted toward the world record.” The organizer and salon owner, Cynthia Frederick, needs 451 participants to break the Guinness World Records mark for largest bikini parade. That site lists the record as 357 women, based on a 2011 event in Queensland, Australia. But that achievement was recently surpassed in Panama City, FL. What’s different about the prior demonstrations is that there was no pretense of raising money or awareness to help fight, prevent or cure breast cancer.

Minnesota bikini parade participants will pay $20 or $25 for tee shirts. Net proceeds will to go the Breast Cancer Natural Prevention Foundation. The foundation’s site suggests that sunlight prevents BC by increasing vitamin D levels (which is total BS, to be perfectly clear). Taking too much vitamin D can do damage, as can excessive sun exposure.

As I read this, a tanning salon – a business that causes melanoma and other skin cancers – is promoting a walk of bikini-wearing women in midday summer sun to break an amusing world’s record. The parade will, if anything, harm those women who, naively or otherwise, believe they’re supporting a legitimate effort to prevent breast cancer. Any funds raised will support a foundation that promotes what’s tantamount to snake oil for the disease.

So there is a line, in the sand… And it’s been crossed!

If I were an investigative journalist, I’d want to know more about the organization that calls itself the “Breast Cancer Natural Prevention Foundation.” Does it get tax breaks? If so, why?

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How Much Do You Want Your Doctors To Say About Risks of Treatment?

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was working as a board-certified oncologist. The initial decisions most patients face – which doctor to see, what kind of doctor to see, and at which medical center to see them – were basically non-decisions. I knew, within an instant of my diagnosis, who I’d ask to be my oncologist, surgeon and plastic surgeon. Those choices were straightforward, because I knew what those physicians were like in terms of how they cared for patients, their knowledge and other aspects of their practices and personalities.

The harder decisions were what treatment to take, or not, for my early-stage breast cancer. I was perhaps the most informed cancer patient who could walk into an oncologist’s office. I was familiar with the different regimens. I knew that adjuvant chemotherapy would, roughly and over the long haul, reduce my odds of recurrence by a third. I was aware that, if I opted for a lumpectomy, radiation treatment would reduce the local recurrence rate but was unlikely to affect my long-term survival. I understood that dose-intense regimens were more likely to make me sick and more likely to cause problems down the road.

And yes, in the back of my head I knew that chemotherapy can cause another cancer. Did I think about that possibility? The best answer is, probably, not so much. I was coping with the present.

But that knowledge did influence the decision I made to take a relatively “light” dose of chemotherapy. I was lucky, also, in that I understood my pathology. My tumor, at 1.5 cm, with a negative sentinel node and generous expression of hormone receptors, was a good-prognosis tumor. I was 42 years old, and wanted to live for a few more decades if I survived my spine surgery (another story). I chose the minimal amount of chemo that had been shown in clinical trials to reduce the odds of recurrence.

Last week, I wrote a piece for the Atlantic on how doctors and patients talk about the risks of chemotherapy, or not, and whether patients listen or necessarily want to listen. The reason I put it out there is because I’ve seen doctors shy away from this part of the conversation about cancer treatment. I’m a firm believer in informed consent, and in patients’ access to as much information as they choose to have. If you get chemotherapy, you have the right to know about these risks, and to ask your doctor about them.

I’ve been there with patients who’ve said: “please, don’t tell me this. I can’t deal with it.” Some might even consider it cruel to tell patients with a serious, urgent and treatment-needing condition details of all the possible side effects. Many ask, “what would you do, doctor, if it were someone in your family?” And if they like and respect you, they go with your recommendation.

This kind of paternalism, when a doctor assesses the risks and benefits, and spares the patient’s “knowing” seems anachronistic. But it may, still, be what many people are looking for when and if they get a serious illness. Not everyone wants a “tell me everything” kind of physician. What do you think?

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This Week’s Triple, Tough Dose of Real Stories on Women with Cancer

Dear Readers,

It’s been a tough week on the breast cancer front.

Many in the community first learned that Ellen Moskowitz, a former leader at the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network (MBCN), died. Ellen was a funny, articulate woman who lived with MBC. When I interviewed her for an article on the value of a day designated to awareness about metastatic disease, she kept me laughing.

Robin Roberts, a co-host of Good Morning America who was treated for breast cancer less than 5 years ago, announced that she’ll be getting a bone marrow transplant for MDS. The blood condition is, in some cases, a complication of chemotherapy. I wrote a piece about this for the Atlantic Health. This unfortunate news reminds us an aspect of cancer treatment some of us would rather put out of our heads. The main message – which I hope came through editing – is that all cancer patients should take careful notes on their planned treatments and ask their doctors about the long-term consequences of therapy. Not all chemo is the same; the risks vary among regimens and doses. The reality is that some of us – patients and doctors – prefer not to think about late, long-term, possible effects of treatment, like secondary tumors, when there’s a life-threatening condition in hand. This doesn’t mean chemo isn’t the right choice. Often it is, but it should be weighed out, carefully.

Finally, we learned that Dr. Susan Love, a breast surgeon and professor at UCLA, and leader of an Army of Women, has leukemia. Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book is a reference my friends and patients turned to in the 1990s, before the Internet was so loaded with cancer info, and many still do. She has, through that book and through her Foundation, besides through her work as a surgeon, helped an army of women to heal, and more.

My thoughts are with each of these remarkable women, and their loved ones, now.

ES

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FDA Approves Pertuzumab for Advanced, Her2+ Breast Cancer

We’re on a roll for new treatments of the Her2+ form of breast cancer. On Friday the FDA approved Pertuzumab, a monoclonal antibody, for advanced cases. As indicated, the drug would be given along with another monoclonal antibody, trastuzumab (Herceptin) and a chemotherapy, docetaxel (Taxotere) to patients with advanced breast tumors with high levels of Her2.

The new treatment’s brand name is Perjeta. Like Herceptin, this reagent works by attaching to the Her2 receptor on a cancer cell’s surface. But it differs by binding a distinct part of the molecule; its mechanism of action is said to complement that of Herceptin.  You might recall that HER protein family members are complex signaling molecules that span cell membranes. Her1 is the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor; it’s turned on when bound by its partner, or molecular ligand, Epidermal Growth Factor(EGF). The others are Her2, -3 and -4.

EGFR (Her1) signaling, Wiki-Books image

The science behind drugs that interfere with Her2 receptors and signaling is nicely summarized in a recent, open-access Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology article. Herceptin binds a particular segment of Her2 on the outside of the cell; this leads to failed signaling on the inside, including cell division signals, and causes cell death by several mechanisms. Pertuzumab binds a distinct segment of Her2 in such a way that it can’t form a complex with the related Her3 molecule; this interaction is needed for Her2 to stimulate cell growth.

The FDA’s approval rests largely on results of the CLEOPATRA (Clinical Evaluation of Pertuzumab and Trastuzumab) study, published earlier this year in the NEJM. In that Phase III study, just over 800 patients were randomly assigned to receive a standard regiment – Herceptin in combination with Taxotere plus a placebo infusion, or the Herceptin-Taxotere combination plus Pertuzumab.

The patients who received Pertuzumab did better in terms of Progression Free Survival (PFS, 18.5 months vs. 12.4 months; this difference holds strong statistical merit). There is a trend, also, in terms of Overall Survival: at a median follow-up point of 19.3 months, there were more deaths in the placebo group. But a statistically significant difference was not reached. Toxicity was reported as “generally similar” in the two groups, but there was more diarrhea, dry skin and rashes among those who got Pertuzumab (Table 3). Heart problems, a known toxicity of the Herceptin-Taxotere regimen, were slightly less common with Pertuzumab. Hair loss, presumably from the chemotherapy part of the regimen, was common in both groups.

One curious thing I noticed, in re-reading the January report, is that although the median age for both patient groups was 54 years, the control patients ranged from 27 – 89 in age; those who got Pertuzumab ranged from 22 – 82 years. Although the younger “shift” of Pertuzumab-receiving patients relative to the controls is unlikely to affect the PFS, it’s odd to include an 89 year old patient on an experimental protocol involving infusions of two monoclonal antibodies along with chemo.

This is a super-costly regimen. Like Herceptin, and like the experimental compound antibody, DM1, about which I wrote last week, Perjeta is manufactured by Genentech. As detailed by Andrew Pollack in the NY Times: the wholesale price for Perjeta will be $5,900 per month for a typical woman; Herceptin costs $4,500 per month. So we’re talking about a treatment in which the monoclonal antibodies alone cost over $10K per month. “A typical 18-month course of treatment would be more than $187,000,” he indicated. But if you add on the costs of the Taxotere, drugs like Benadryl and Decadron to minimize allergic reactions, anti-nausea meds, charges for the infusion and monitoring…It’ll be a lot more than that.

As the FDA notes in its press release, production of Perjeta is currently limited due to a technical issue at the Genentech manufacturing plant. Meanwhile, investigators, doctors and patients will have to sort out the relative value of this drug, on top of the others – including pills – for Her2+ disease.

My opinion is not quite formed on this new antibody. The FDA’s decision was based on results from one trial of 808 patients, half of whom didn’t get the experimental drug. Accrual began in 2008; its broad clinical effects, and long-term toxicities, can’t be established yet. It may be, ten years from now, that Perjeta will be used routinely in patients with other, Her2+ kinds of cancer. Or it may be a toxic bust.  How (and if) we’ll test and compare different doses of Perjeta and potential combinations with other drugs, small pills and traditional chemotherapies – which are many – is not clear. You could, for example, combine one or both of the antibodies with a drug like Lapatinib (Tykerb), that inhibits Her2-triggered growth signals inside the cell.

The problem is that oncologists, and facilities including academic centers where revenue is generated by giving drugs by infusion, now have a huge financial incentive to give the Herceptin-Perjeta-Taxotere regimen. This regimen is approved for first-line treatment of metastatic, Her2+ breast cancer; you don’t have to have “failed” another regimen, as was required for the EMILIA trial. As I understand this approval, an oncologist seeing a woman with recurrent or metastatic Her2+ breast cancer could, immediately, prescribe the 3-drug combination.

It’s impressive that the CLEOPATRA folks included an 89 year old patient in the study. But at some point, you have to wonder where we might draw lines. I’ve no answers on that.

All for now, maybe for the week,

ES

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On Sheryl Crow’s Report that She Has a Meningioma, and Singing Loud

This morning CNN fed a headline: Sheryl Crow: ‘Brain Tumor is a Bump in the Road.’ This concerned me, not only because I’m a huge fan, but because in 2006, she began treatment for breast cancer at age 43. “Singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow says she has a brain tumor,” says the first line of the CNN story. I was concerned. It seemed liked she’d been getting a little bit closer…to feeling fine.

Fortunately, the LATimes and People magazine got Crow’s story right. Their headlines, and text, emphasize the benign nature of Crow’s newly-diagnosed condition, a meningioma. Most meningiomas are benign, local expansions of the cells that line the brain and spinal cord. These growths occasionally cause neurological symptoms. Some patients have surgery to relieve or avoid complications of these non-malignant growths, but many don’t need intervention. When I was an oncology fellow I learned that meningiomas were relatively frequent in women with breast cancer, but that association turned out to be untrue. The “lesson” back then was that if a scan shows a brain mass in a woman with breast cancer, you shouldn’t assume it’s a brain met, because meningiomas were not rare in women with a history of breast cancer. According to the NCI website today, meningiomas are more common in women than in men.

Singing ‘Rock and Roll,” on top of a piano

Cancer scares aside – I’m glad that Sheryl Crow’s brain mass is benign, and that she can keep on singing if she chooses. I’ve seen her twice in concert, and she’s amazing. I have several favorite songs of hers, but the most memorable moment from a performance I’ve seen was when she got up on top of the piano at Radio City and sang Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll. I wish I could do that! She’s a powerful woman, for sure.

—-


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Sad News, from the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network

Dear Readers,

I was saddened today to learn of the death of Suzanne Herbert. Last October, I met Suzanne at a conference. She seemed familiar; that was because I’d read about her life with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) a few months back in the New York Times. Like some women I’ve known w/ MBC, Suzanne didn’t appear sick. At least not then. She seemed positive, and thoughtful. Energetic, even.

According to the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network, Suzanne lived with metastatic disease for over 7 years. She died last week at age 47.

– ES

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EMILIA Trial: T-DM1 Appears Helpful in Women with Her2+ Metastatic Breast Cancer

This weekend the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), to which I belong, is holding its annual meeting in Chicago. Some of the biggest buzz has to do with a new breast cancer drug called T-DM1. ASCO just lifted embargo of the relevant abstract.

The new agent is a hybrid of an old monoclonal antibody, Herceptin, that’s chemically attached to DM1, a traditional kind of chemotherapy. The chemo part, DM1 – also known as emtansine – is manufactured by ImmunoGen. It’s derived from maytansine, a compound that binds tubulin, a protein critical for microtubule formation in dividing cells. According to the NCI website, this chemical, which has antibiotic properties, was extracted from an Ethiopian plant, Maytenus serrata.

T-DM1 was designed by linking the DM1 compound to the trastuzumab (Herceptin) antibody. Trastuzumab is old news in breast cancer. It binds a signaling molecule, Her2, that’s expressed at high levels in approximately 1 in 5 breast tumors. The FDA approved Herceptin for use in patients with metastatic, Her2+ breast cancer in 1998 and, for some women with localized, lymph node positive disease, in 2006. In this new, hybrid drug, the antibody works like a tagged, toxic messenger. In effect, the antibody delivers and inserts the chemo into the malignant cell, where it causes cell death.

The new data, from the Genentech-sponsored EMILIA trial, were presented today:

The Phase III study evaluated 991 women with metastatic breast cancer. All participants had tumors with high levels of Her2 (confirmed in a central pathology lab, for the trial). All had disease that progressed despite treatment with Herceptin and, in most cases, other drugs too. After randomization, 978 women received either of two treatments: the experimental agent, T-DM1, every 3 weeks, by intravenous infusion, or a combination of two pills, “XL” – Xeloda (capecitabine) and Tykerb (lapatinib). Median follow-up was just over 1 year – not bad for a study of MBC, but not great, either.

The big news is this: Among the patients who got the experimental drug, T-DM1, the median time until disease progressed was 9.6 month; for those who took the XL pill combination, it was 6.4 months. This different was statistically significant. Although a difference of 3 months may not sound like much – and isn’t – each regimen in the study held the women’s disease in check for over half a year.

It’s striking that T-DM1 was used as a single agent. Most chemotherapy drugs, like those for HIV, work best in combination; it could be that we’ll see more powerful results in a few years, once we learn how to optimally combine drugs for women with Her2+ breast cancer.

As far as overall survival, the initial results seem quite favorable. Among women on the study for 2 years, 65 percent were alive who received T-DM1; among those taking the XL regimen, 47 percent were alive at 2 years. (The statistical details for this comparison are not available; evidently it was of weak significance.) The problem is – if only a few patients were analyzed “so far out” on the survival curves, the difference observed between the two study arms might be random. Still, and independently of the comparison, survival of 65 percent at 2 years in this patient group is (sadly) impressive, especially if it comes by a single agent with comparatively few side effects.

The main T-DM1 toxicities were low platelets and abnormal liver function, which were, reportedly, reversible. The XL combination caused more toxicity, overall, including diarrhea, hand-foot syndrome and nausea.  A much greater fraction of women on the XL arm (53 and 27 percent, respectively for Xeloda and lapatinib) needed dose reductions, as compared to the T-DM1 (16 percent had dose reductions due to toxicity). Evidently hair loss isn’t an issue for women who get T-DM1, which is nice.

My main, initial concerns are two:

First, the study, though randomized, is not “blinded,” and can’t be.  It’s impossible for women who are getting an intravenous drug, and their doctors, not to know that they’re not on the pill study arm. Although there were independent evaluators of progressive disease, which is a far more subjective measurement than overall survival, progression free survival can be influenced by the doctors’ and patients’ knowing they’re getting the T-DM1. That said, the initial, observed difference in overall survival – a clear, objective measurement – is impressive.

If these trial results, published in abstract form, pan out, and the quality of patients’ lives is maintained, that’d be helpful to as many as 1 in 5 women with MBC. It is plausible that an antibody like Herceptin that targets the tumor cells could, in fact, “deliver” the chemo effectively into the cancer cells with relatively low toxicity. And if the women are feeling better, which is hard to know from an abstract, great.

My second concern is how this drug will mesh with others now available and in the pipeline for patients with Her2+ disease. In a December, 2010 editorial in the JCO, two clinical investigators wrote: “the unique aspect of T-DM1 is clearly its high clinical activity by itself, without the need of concomitant additional systemic chemotherapy.” They’re right. The question – as considered by those authors – is how T-DMI will be used in the context of expanding treatment options for women with Her2+ breast cancer. This is an expensive (price not yet known) monoclonal antibody-conjugate that’s necessarily given by infusion. Testing this drug against all the other current and up-and-coming alternatives, in varying combinations and doses, will be tricky. The trials alone will cost big bucks, besides toxicity and women’s lives.

These EMILIA results are promising for some women with MBC and, possibly, patients with other cancer forms in which Her2 is expressed. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to help those women with breast cancer whose tumors that lack Her2+.

I’ll write soon about this new class of oncology drugs – antibodies conjugated to chemotherapies, as a group.

All for now,

ES

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The NBCC Holds Annual Summit and Pushes for Deadline 2020

Last week the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC) held its annual summit. The meeting drew over 600 women to its opening rally in a Crystal City ballroom on Saturday, along with students who participated in sessions for Emerging Leaders, and a few men who joined in lectures and panels, and lobbied on Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

The NBCC aims to get HR 3067, the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act, passed by the House of Representatives and, ultimately, into law. The bill ties in with Deadline 2020 and with the conference theme: “It’s Time.”

The opening rally, organized in the style of a political convention, was lively. When I entered, participants – or “activists,” as they might be called – were rocking to Three Dog Night’s Joy to the World. Attendees congregated by state and region. Most wore festive garments and signs over black tee shirts carrying the Deadline logo: women from Maine wore floppy red lobster hats; a contingent from Pennsylvania held brightly-decorated kite-posters; a group from Oregon played kazoos (to We’re Not Gonna Take It) and supported multicolored umbrellas over their heads; members of the CBCC lifted Rosie the Riveter boards proclaiming: “We Can Do It!” Each region offered a progress report. In videos, these demonstrated a mix of activism (“waving breast cancer goodbye” on a Rhode Island beach) and seriousness (scientist in a lab, explaining why the research matters).

Fun aside – the meeting’s mood was overwhelmingly serious. Each day’s session opened with a moment of silence to recall women who have died from breast cancer. There were plenary lectures, and smaller educational meetings on topics like “A Critical Review of New Therapies for Metastatic Breast Cancer,” “Estrogen Exposure throughout the Life Cycle,” “Nuts and Bolts of Congress,” “and “The Environment and Breast Cancer.” Many of the women there have metastatic cancer, or had cancer. I had lunch one day with a woman whose early-stage cancer came back after 15 years. Many of the college-age people attending have moms with advanced disease or who died from that. There were young people who’d had breast cancer – some under 30 years old. The few men I spoke with were affected by their wives and mothers’ illnesses. You couldn’t walk a few feet without hearing a sad tale, or seeing the outcome of loss, in motivating people to take action.

In her remarks, Fran Visco, the NBCC Founder and leader, reminded the group that breast cancer remains a leading cause of cancer deaths. Each day, on average, 110 women die in the U.S. from breast cancer. That’s the equivalent of a woman dying every 14 minutes from the disease, she explained. “This should not be considered success, or even meaningful progress.”

“We need to take a less comfortable approach,” she said. “The system rewards safe ideas. We need to take risks.” She spoke of the Artemis project, an NBCC-supported research program to develop a preventive breast cancer vaccine. “There’s a moral imperative to do these trials,” she said. “We’ll get scientists to form new collaborations, to change their focus not on the next grant, or publication, but on the real goal, which is saving patients’ lives.”

In the 20 years since NBCC was founded there’s been progress, she said. “But we’re nowhere near close enough.” She referred to Dr. Jonas Salk, whose polio vaccine came through after just seven years in the lab, and – as did others at the same meeting – to JFK’s 1961 promise to put a man on the moon. That seemingly impossible mission got done in less than nine years. The idea of the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act is to leverage our nation’s prior investment in biotechnology, and to use that work – including much research already done – to end to breast cancer and stop metastases. Visco hopes to deliver a petition to the President on inauguration day in January, 2013.

Through the meeting, I gained a better sense of the organization and Deadline’s purpose. In the words of Senator Kirsten Gillebrand, who met with a delegation from New York on Tuesday: “It creates an urgency about the issue.”

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10 Newly-Defined Molecular Types of Breast Cancer in Nature, and a Dream

Breast cancer is not one disease. We’ve understood this for decades. Still, and with few exceptions, knowledge of BC genetics – information on tumor-driving DNA mutations within the malignant cells – has been lacking. Most patients today get essentially primitive treatments like surgical hacking, or carving, traditional chemotherapy and radiation. Some doctors consider hormone therapy as targeted, and thereby modern and less toxic. I don’t.

Until there’s a way to prevent BC, we need better ways to treat it. Which is why, upon reading the new paper in Nature on genetic patterns in breast cancer, I stayed up late, genuinely excited. As in thrilled, optimistic..The research defined 10 molecular BC subgroups. The distinct mutations and gene expression patterns confirm and suggest new targets for future, better therapy.

The work is an exquisite application of science in medicine. Nature lists 31 individuals and one multinational research group, METABRIC (Molecular Taxonomy of Breast Cancer International Consortium), as authors. The two correspondents, Drs. Carlos Caldas and Samuel Aparicio, are based at the University of Cambridge, in England, and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Given the vastness of the supporting data, such a roster seems appropriate, needed. The paper, strangely and for all its worth, didn’t get much press –

Just to keep this in perspective – we’re talking about human breast cancer. No mice.

The researchers examined nearly 2000 BC specimens for genetic aberrations, in 2 parts. First, they looked at inherited and acquired mutations in DNA extracted from tumors and, when available, from nearby, normal cells, in 997 cancer specimens – the “discovery set.” They checked to see how the genetic changes (SNPs, CNAs and/or CNVs) correlated with gene expression “landscapes” by probing for nearly 29,000 RNAs. They found that both inherited and acquired mutations can influence BC gene expression. Some effects of “driver” mutations take place on distant chromosomal elements, in what’s called a trans effect; others happen nearby (cis).

Next, they honed in on 45 regions of DNA associated with outlying gene expression. This led the investigators to discover putative cancer-causing mutations (accessible in supplementary Tables 22-24, available here). The list includes genes that someone like me, who’s been out of the research field for 10 years, might recall – PTEN, MYC, CDK3 and -4, and others. They discovered that 3 genes, PPP2R2A, MTAP and MAP2K4 are deleted in some BC cases and may be causative. In particular, they suggest that loss of PPP2R2A may contribute to luminal B breast cancer pathology. They find deletion of MAP2K4 in ER positive tumors, indicative of a possible tumor suppressor function for this gene in BC.

Curtis, et al. in "Nature": April 2012

The investigators looked for genetic “hotspots.” They show these in Manhattan plots, among other cool graphs and hard figures, on abnormal gene copy numbers (CNAs) linked to big changes in gene expression. Of interest to tumor immunologists (and everyone else, surely!), they located two regions in the T-cell receptor genes that might relate to immune responses in BC. They delineated a part of chromosome 5, where deletions in basal-like tumors marked for changes in cell cycle, DNA repair and cell death-related genes. And more –

Cluster Analysis (abstracted), Wikipedia

Heading toward the clinic, almost there…

They performed integrative cluster analyses and defined 10 distinct molecular BC subtypes. The new categories of the disease, memorably labeled “IntClust 1-10,” cross older pathology classifications (open-access: Supplementary Figure 31) and, it turns out, offer prognostic information based on long-term Kaplan-Meier analyses (Figure 5A in the paper: Supplementary Fig 34 and 35). Of note, here, and a bit scary for readers like me, is identification of an ER-positive group, “IntClust 2” with 11q13/14 mutations. This BC genotype appears to carry a much lesser prognosis than most ER-positive cases.

Finally, in what’s tantamount to a 2nd report, the researchers probed a “validation set” of 995 additional BC specimens. In a partially-shortened method, they checked to see if the same 10 molecular subtypes would emerge upon a clustering analysis of paired DNA mutations with expression profiles. What’s more, the prognostic (survival) information held up in the confirmatory evaluation. Based on the mutations and gene expression patterns in each subgroup, there are implications for therapy. Wow!

I won’t review the features of each type here for several reasons. These are preliminary findings, in the sense that it’s a new report, albeit a model of what’s a non-incremental published set of observations and analysis; it’s early for patients – but not for investigators – to act on these findings. (Hopefully, this will not be the case in 2015, or sooner, preferably, for testing some pertinent drugs in at least a subset of the subgroups identified.) Also, some of the methods these authors used came out in the past decade, after I stopped doing research. It would be hard for most doctors to fully appreciate the nuances, strengths and weaknesses of the study.

Most readers can’t know how skeptical I was in the 1990s, when grant reviewers at the NCI seemed to believe that genetic info would be the cure-all for most and possibly all cancers. I don’t think that’s true, nor due most people involved with the Human Genome Project, anymore. The Cancer Genome Atlas and Project should help in this regard, but they’re young projects, larger in scope than this work, and don’t necessarily integrate DNA changes with gene expression as do the investigators in this report. What’s clear, now, is that some cancers do respond, dramatically, to drugs that target specific mutations. Recently-incurable malignancies, like advanced melanoma and GI stromal tumors, can be treated now with pills, often with terrific responses.

Last night I wondered if, in a few years, some breast cancers might be treated without surgery. If we could do a biopsy, check for the molecular subtype, and give patients the right BC tablets. Maybe we’d just give just a tad of chemo, later, to “mop up” any few remaining or residual or resistant cells. The primary chemotherapy might be a cocktail of drugs, by mouth. It might be like treating hepatitis C, or tuberculosis or AIDS. (Not that any of those are so easy.) But there’d be no lost breasts, no reconstruction, no lymphedema. Can you imagine?

Even if just 1 or 2 of these investigators’ subgroups pans out and leads to effective, Gleevec-like drugs for breast cancer, that would be a dream. This can’t happen soon enough.

With innovative trial strategies like I-SPY, it’s possible that for patients with particular molecular subgroups could be directed to trials of small drugs targeting some of the pathways implicated already. The pace of clinical trials has been impossibly slow in this disease. We (and by this I mean pharmaceutical companies, and oncologists who run clinical trials, and maybe some of the BC agencies with funds to spend) should be thinking fast, way ahead of this post –

And given that this is a blog, and not an ordinary medical publication or newspaper, I might say this: thank you, authors, for your work.

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Boobstagram Collects and Displays Breast Photos, Says Aim is to Boost Cancer Awareness

Boobstagram (Twitter)

I’m not sure what to make of Boobstagram. The French company breaches most cancer culture norms, if such exist. A headline in the UK’s Daily Mail reads: Women capture their cleavage on Instagram to raise awareness of cancer and encourage regular exams. And that pretty much sums it up.

The idea is for women to take photos of their breasts, send them in, and raise awareness about the importance of healthy breasts.

You can look and “like” Boobstagram on Facebook. Over 20,000 have registered their appreciation for the site, so far. The timeline reveals that Boobstagram opened a FB account last November and first uploaded images late in February. The About page starts with this message: Send us your boobs at boobstagram@… When I visited yesterday, at around 7PM EST, over 9,000 people were “talking” about Boobstagram on FB. Boobstagram’s Twitter following is on the small side, relatively, perhaps because it’s an image-oriented source of awareness.

Instagr.am, for those readers who use Blackberries or might be otherwise out-of-the-loop, is a phone app that lets you take and share photos in a flash. Coincidentally, Facebook recently purchased Instagram for $300 in cash, plus.

On its main website, the company’s tag line is translated into English: “Showing your boobs on the web is good, showing them to your doctor is better.” The explanation continues:

…The fight against cancer is long-standing…We cannot all become doctors or surgeons. But we can all take part in prevention, for ourselves, for our friends and family and for others. But how?

…How to avoid the pitfall of moralism ? How to build a popular communication matching with the up-to-date scientific knowledge ? And how to create a rather fun prevention campaign when most campaigns use fear ?<sic>

Capiche? Not sure I do. (Please forgive me if I mix languages and messages, for the moment.) This topic’s ripe, pre-blended. And sort-of fun, as things go here.

Fact is – once I’d narrowed the post topic selections to either Boobstagram or a recent report on 10 distinct genetic breast cancer variants, I chose Boobstagram. The Nature paper is very important work. Fox News called it a landmark study, correctly from what I’ve read elsewhere. I should read up on the new genotypes, and learn how those relate to old-fashioned BC subtypes, and the prognosis and potential for targeted therapies directed to each. And so should, I suppose, breast cancer patients and their loved ones who wish to make informed decisions. Practicing oncologists should know all about that paper by now, digested it entirely.

Business Insider covered Boobstagram, but overall there’s not been a whole lot of attention in the U.S. HuffPo U.K. was on it, but not here, where I might post if I choose. I’m not sure if I will, or should –

This company, founded by two men, seems to be having some fun with cancer, women’s breasts and phones. Is it exploitative? I’m not sure whether to laugh, cry, or blow it off as boys behaving badly. Or girls behaving badly. Or both, together, normally.

It’s sexist, yes – but so’s an ordinary half-time show during a football game, or a pair of 4-inch heels. Besides, many tolerate infantilizing and commercializing events in the context of BC awareness, as Gayle Sulik points out. Those campaigns – some tawdry, some tasteful, and usually bright pink – rake in money for research and patient care. Is Boobstagram so different? Strictly off-limits?

Seriously, what if the website brought in 180 million Euros through ads next year, and the company founders gave it all to the IARC and a few really solid cancer research agencies? Maybe next year their American friends will open a similar platform to raise money for the strapped NCI.

Are we too uptight? Or is the problem simply that the French website lacks meaningful relevance to any cancer cause?

The almost-obvious, pat and probably correct answer, would be to call out Boobstagram for what it’s worth: a farce. There’s no hint that this company has a specific plan or funds to support cancer research or help patients in any meaningful way. I can’t support it. But maybe – and this is a stretch – in the long term cultivating love, or admiration… of women’s breasts raises their value, and reminds us of the tragedy that is breast cancer.

Prevention would be a lot better than cutting, or lopping them off.

WDYT?

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The Outlier’s Message, and Evolutionary Science in Breast Cancer

This past week I read several attitude-altering articles about breast cancer.

Kathy Rich, as featured in ‘O’ Magazine

The first lesson, if I might call it that – in the way an oncologist can learn from variations in her patients’ pathology and clinical outcomes – comes from the case of Katherine Russell Rich, who died last week at the age of 56. As reported by Katherine O’Brien in the I Hate Breast Cancer Blog, Rich lived with metastatic BC (MBC) for 18 years. That’s phenomenal, was my first reaction to this news. The prognosis for MBC is said to be around 3 years, and Rich lived for 18 years beyond her tumor’s recurrence with stage IV disease.

As sad and unsatisfactory as this outcome may seem, and it is, Rich’s story offers hope for life beyond the 3 or 4 or 5 years some women with MBC pray, “ask” or otherwise bargain for, fingers-crossed…

As she detailed in an O article, Rich’s initial diagnosis came when she was 32 years old, in 1988. The Times, in an obituary, tells of her lumpectomy, chemo and radiation. In 1993 her cancer came back in bones including her spine. She had a bone marrow transplant, but the disease progressed. Ultimately, she coursed through various and some archaic hormone treatments.

Along the way, she lost or quit a job in publishing, or both, and traveled to India, and authored two books. In a 2010 first-person story about her case, she told of updating her status – of being alive – at Breastcancer.org each year. She wrote:

…I tell the women how deeply I believe there’s no such thing as false hope: all hope is valid, even for people like us, even when hope would no longer appear to be sensible.

Life itself isn’t sensible, I say. No one can say with ultimate authority what will happen — with cancer, with a job that appears shaky, with all reversed fortunes — so you may as well seize all glimmers that appear.

My take, as an oncologist and former clinician, is that patients sometimes surprise you. Hard to know which woman will respond to a non-targeted treatment, or even a drug like an estrogen modulator, without trying. And I wonder – and this is speculative, but maybe, likely, the two together – doctor and patient – worked together to see what worked in Rich’s case over nearly 2 decades, and what didn’t work.

A Bell Curve

If a drug helps, keep it going; if it hurts, stop. There are so many algorithms in medicine, and molecular tools, but maybe the bottom line is how the, one, your patient is doing.

Which leads me to another post, by Dr. David Gorski, a breast cancer surgeon and researcher who blogs as Orac – what once was imagined as a fabulously capable information processor, at Respectful Insolence. He describes how tough it can be to define, and thereby target or destroy, any individual patient’s breast tumor because the cancer cells are constantly changing. Within each woman’s tumor, an evolution-like process is ongoing, leading to selection of treatment-resistant cells. This is not news in oncology; the concept has been understood for years as it applies to “liquid” tumors like leukemia, as he points out.

In breast cancer, understanding the complexity of each case is more recent. Gorski considers a genetic analysis of 104 triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) cases presented at the recent AACR meeting and published last week in Nature:

“…The 59 scientists involved in this study expected to see similar gene profiles when they mapped on computer the genomes of 100 tumours.

But to their amazement they found no two genomes were similar, never mind the same. “Seeing these tumours at a molecular level has taught us we’re dealing with a continuum of different types of breast cancer here, not just one,” explains Steven Jones, co-author of this study.

…TNBC is not a single disease. In fact, even an individual TNBC tumor is not a single disease. Tumor cells evolve as they proliferate, so that the cells in them are genetically heterogeneous. The cells growing in one area of a tumor can and often do harbor markedly different genetic mutations from the cells growing in another part of the tumor…

The team found that each tumor displayed multiple “clonal genotypes,” suggesting that the cancer would have to be treated as multiple diseases, rather than a single entity.

So besides that there are distinct subtypes of breast cancer, those labeled as TNBC are diverse and contain variation within; each patient harbors sub-clones of malignant cells that, in principle, respond differently to treatment.

Orac, the fictional supercomputer (Wiki-Commons image)

Putting these links together –

The message from Katherine O’Brien, who lives with MBC and blogs about it, is that one outlier – like Katherine Russell Rich – can provide hope to other patients and, maybe, clues for scientists about why she lived for so long with metastatic BC. The message from Orac, a physician-scientist blogger, is how hard it is to pinpoint an individual breast tumor’s molecular aspects, because the disease is so mutable and diverse.

The problem, and this reflects evolution in my thinking over a long while, is that published data – the gold standard, what supports EBM – are largely limited to findings based on trials of groups. We understand now, better than we did 10 or 20 years ago, that each patient’s tumor is unique and can evolve over time, naturally or in response to therapy. Clinical trials, though rigorously planned and elaborately structured, are incredibly expensive and flip-floppy, disappointing overall.

What I’m thinking –

Algorithms – except in the broadest sense – may not offer the optimal approach to cancer treatment. Maybe the median doesn’t matter so much as we’d thought.

Here’s a ~retro idea: In 2012, maybe the ideal and most cost-effective oncology practice would blend low-tech observations – like findings on physical examination and how the patient’s feeling – with occasional, high-tech analyses – like markers for genetic drift within a tumor. If doctors are well-trained and non-robotic, in either the literal or figurative sense, and if they lack COIs regarding treatment decisions, they’d provide better, more effective and personalized treatments than what’s typically offered based on evidence reached through elaborate, costly clinical trials of many patients with similar but non-identical cancers.

All for now,

ES

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New Article on Mammography Spawns False Hope That Breast Cancer is Not a Dangerous Disease

This week’s stir comes from the Annals of Internal Medicine. In a new analysis, researchers applied complex models to cancer screening and BC case data in Norway. They estimated how many women found to have invasive breast cancer are “overdiagnosed.” I cannot fathom why the editors of the Annals gave platform to such a convoluted and misleading medical report as Overdiagnosis of Invasive Breast Cancer Due to Mammography Screening: Results From the Norwegian Screening Program. But they did.

Here are a few of my concerns:

1. None of the four authors is an oncologist.

2. The researchers use mathematical arguments so complex to prove a point that Einstein would certainly, 100%, without a doubt, take issue with their model and proof.

3. “Overdiagnosis” is not defined in any clinical sense (such as the finding of a tumor in a woman that’s benign and doesn’t need treatment). Here, from the paper’s abstract:

The percentage of overdiagnosis was calculated by accounting for the expected decrease in incidence following cessation of screening after age 69 years (approach 1) and by comparing incidence in the current screening group with incidence among women 2 and 5 years older in the historical screening groups, accounting for average lead time (approach 2).

No joke: this is how “overdiagnosis” – the primary outcome of the study, is explained. After reading the paper in its entirety three times, I cannot find any better definition of overdiagnosis within the full text. Based on these manipulations, the researchers “find” an estimated rate of overdiagnosis attributable to mammography between 18 -25% by one method (model/approach 1) or 15-20% (model/approach 2).

4. The study includes a significant cohort of women between the ages of 70-79. Indolent tumors are more common in older women who, also, are more likely to die of other causes by virtue of their age. The analysis does not include women younger than 50 in its constructs.

5. My biggest concern is how this paper was broadcast – which, firstly, was too much.

Bloomberg News takes away this simple message in a headline:  “Breast Cancer Screening May Overdiagnose by Up to 25%.” Or, from the Boston Globe’s Daily Dose, “Mammograms may overdiagnose up to 1 in 4 breast cancers, Harvard study finds.” (Did they all get the same memo?)

The Washington Post’s Checkup offers some details: “Through complicated calculations, the researchers determined that between 15 percent and 25 percent of those diagnoses fell into the category of overdiagnosis — the detection of tumors that would have done no harm had they gone undetected.” But then the Post blows it with this commentary, a few paragraphs down:

The problem is that nobody yet knows how to predict which cancers can be left untreated and which will prove fatal if untreated. So for now the only viable approach is to regard all breast cancers as potentially fatal and treat them with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of approaches, none of them pleasant options…

This is simply not true. Any pathologist or oncologist or breast cancer surgeon worth his or her education could tell you that not all breast cancers are the same. There’s a spectrum of disease. Some cases warrant more treatment than others, and some merit distinct forms of treatment, like Herceptin, or estrogen modulators, surgery alone…Very few forms of invasive breast cancer warrant no treatment unless the patient is so old that she is likely to die first of another condition, or the patient prefers to die of the disease. When and if they do arise, slow-growing subtypes should be evident to any well-trained, modern pathologist.

“Mammograms Spot Cancers That May Not Be Dangerous,” said WebMD, yesterday. This is feel-good news, and largely wishful.

A dangerous message, IMO.

Addendum, 4/15/12: The abstract of the Annals paper includes a definition of “overdiagnosis” that is absent in the body of the report: “…defined as the percentage of cases of cancer that would not have become clinically apparent in a woman’s lifetime without screening…” I acknowledge this is helpful, in understanding the study’s purpose. But this explanation does not clarify the study’s findings, which are abstract. The paper does not count or otherwise directly measure any clinical cases in which women’s tumors either didn’t grow or waned. It’s just a calculation. – ES

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Thank You, Rachel and Susan

Yesterday morning, two women who were active in the on-line breast cancer community died.

Rachel Cheetham Moro (1970 – 2012) was a critical thinker who vigorously supported BCAction and the NBCC’s 2020 deadline. She was a generous and thoughtful on-line friend to many women in the metastatic and more general BC community, where she used the handle @ccchronicles. Her blog provided a running, witty commentary on breast cancer news and trends. Interspersed, she detailed occasional and lately, more frequent visits to the hospital, a Florida vacation, and reflections on her earlier years. In a recent post, she included this wonderful high school photo.

high school photo, from the Cancer Culture Chronicles

Dr. Susan Niebur was a mother in her late 30s, an astrophysicist and blogger who generously shared her experiences at her Toddler Planet blog and elsewhere, including on Twitter as @whymommy. She dealt with inflammatory breast cancer starting in April, 2007. In recent months she wrote less frequently, but  positively somehow, while taking radiation treatments for painful bone mets, going in and out of the hospital and, most recently, receiving hospice care at home.

Susan Niebur in 2011, Toddler Planet

Each of these women inspired many people I know. They were brave and open, and helped others to understand what it’s like to face progressive, metastatic disease. Their words didn’t only affect people with breast cancer, but influenced also their loved ones, and individuals who face all sorts of limiting illness.

Thank you, both, for what you’ve taught me about life.

ES

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Study Finds Wide Variation in Reoperation Rates after Lumpectomy for Breast Cancer

The Feb 1 issue of JAMA includes a major report on the practice of lumpectomy in the U.S. The study examined what happened to 2,206 women at four medical centers who opted for breast-conserving surgery at the time of breast cancer diagnosis. The main finding was that after lumpectomy, nearly one in four women had another operation to remove cancerous cells in the breast. Among all the breast cancer patients who began with a lumpectomy, 8.5% wound up with a mastectomy.

These are staggeringly high rates of re-operation in women who opted for small procedures to begin with. Many of the women who had additional procedures did so for concern over having “clean margins” – that upon removal of a tumor, the edges of the specimen don’t reveal malignant cells. Re-excision for patients with negative margins varied by hospital; at one medical center the re-excision rate was 1.7%, at another it was 20.9%. Analysis by surgeon revealed huge variation, with re-excision rates ranging between 0 and 70%. The incidence of positive margins was 14%.

What further clouds the story is that among women who did have positive margins, meaning that cancerous cells were evident along the edge of the lump removed, nearly 15% didn’t have a second procedure. The big picture is that there was little pattern – or reason evident, at least at the collective level – for the surgeries and decisions to re-operate after lumpectomy for breast cancer.

The study, funded by the NIH, was sufficiently large to merit concern. It involved careful chart and pathology review of the specimens through a consortium of four medical centers around the country: the University of Vermont, Kaiser Permanente Colorado, Group Health in Washington State and the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin. And it reflects current practice; the surgeries took place between 2003 and 2008.

Lumpectomy is a very common procedure – and a significant issue, in terms of costs, and risks, and decisions women make every day upon receiving a new BC diagnosis. An estimated 60-70% of newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients choose breast-conserving surgery. So we’re talking about 160,000 or so lumpectomies per year in the U.S. (very approximate, ES: 2/3 of 240,000 new BC cases).  The variable results affect cosmetic outcome – the very reason many women choose lumpectomy to begin with and, potentially, the rate of BC recurrence.

The authors discuss: “Our finding…suggests that patients under similar clinical conditions are likely to undergo reexcision based on the treating surgeon and not just the clinical characteristics.” They offer possible explanations, including differences in surgical training, surgeons’ confidence in their operative techniques, how tumors are assessed in the operating room, and variation in how pathologists review specimens and “call” the margins positive or negative.

All of this meshes with my experience – knowing women who’ve had breast-conserving surgery and then got mixed information about the results and what to do next. You’d think lumpectomy would be a standard procedure by now, and that decisions about what to do after the procedure, surgically speaking (let alone decisions about chemo, hormonal treatments and radiation) would be straightforward in most cases.

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Komen Update – Future Plans?

As many ML readers are aware, late this morning, the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced it will not cut current grants or funding to Planned Parenthood. This reversal comes as welcome news to those who support the agency and its work. The New York City branch issued this statement.

Still, many breast cancer advocates, activists and others question Komen’s priorities. This episode draws attention to debate within the BC community about the relative merits of spending charity dollars on screening, education, awareness, research and other concerns.

The long-term fallout from this week’s news and the agency’s reversal aren’t known. As I suggested earlier, Komen’s leadership might take this opportunity to reassess its mission and goals.

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A Note on the Komen Fiasco

When I first heard the Susan G. Komen Foundation is nixing its financial support of Planned Parenthood, I thought it might be a mistake. Maybe a rogue affiliate or anti-choice officer had acted independently of the group’s core and mission, and the press got the early story wrong. I waited for Nancy G. Brinker, Komen’s surviving sister, to step in and deny the BC agency’s change of plans. That didn’t happen.

Rather, in a stilted video released yesterday, Brinker defends her agency’s decision as part of a “strategic shift” having to do with funding for any organization under investigation. That’s a bogus excuse, as others have detailed.

Komen, the world’s largest BC agency, has been under scrutiny for some time. Through its early fundraising campaigns and walks, the group raised public awareness – and discussion – of the disease. Since its inception in 1982, the agency has invested over $1.9 billion in education, breast-cancer screening, research and other grants. The discourse has changed, though. Now, many are critical of Komen’s historic focus on BC education and screening, including mammography, and tire of seeing so much pink.

This week’s outcry over the agency’s political turn has been fierce. It’s not too late for Komen’s leadership to take note, change course and revise its agenda.

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