Get Cancer. Lose Your Job?


Let’s start with this fact: If you are employed and get a breast cancer diagnosis, it’s less likely you’ll be working at your job four years later. A newly-published study of women in Los Angeles and Detroit found that among women less than 65 years with limited-stage breast cancer, 76 percent had a paying job at the time of their diagnosis. Based on follow-up surveys of the same women four years later, the number employed was reduced by 30 percent. That’s a huge drop.

The study was just published on-line in the Cancer Journal. The authors, including a corresponding and lead author in a department of radiation oncology at the University of Michigan, make a point in the paper’s title, Impact of Adjuvant Chemotherapy on Long-Term Employment of Survivors of Early-Stage Breast Cancer, that chemotherapy may be to blame. And there’s some truth in this. Chemotherapy causes fatigue and, occasionally lasting problems such as neuropathy, heart weakness and chemobrain that might limit or impair a person’s capacity to work effectively.

On the other hand, the likelihood of developing many of those chemo-related effects depend on the dose and regimen selected. Radiation, often, causes fatigue, and – when administered to the chest, can cause premature heart disease (atherosclerosis) and lung problems, besides secondary tumors as a late consequence of treatment. It happens, though, that hormonal treatments, like Tamoxifen, can cause chemobrain too.

As someone trained to give chemotherapy, I’ll point out that none of these options for adjuvant treatment (what’s given to patients with limited disease to lessen the likelihood of recurrence) is a walk in the park. Each bears the potential for short and long-term toxicity. So I don’t blame chemotherapy in particular, although the study authors emphasized that as a culprit based on a low-level statistical correlation.

More broadly –

This news comes as no surprise. I know too well how women at work may be treated after a breast cancer diagnosis. I am privy to the stories of dozens of women who say they were unduly turned down for promotions or good assignments, opportunities…Upon returning to work, if they took time off (which some didn’t, such as your author, during her BC treatment), they  – if they take pride in their work – find themselves missing their own doctors’ appointments, exercise and other aspects of survivorship care, just to “prove” that they’re still valuable to their office, team, business.

The harsh reality is that people who have had cancer treatment are sometimes perceived as a burden on a working group: a consultant who can’t travel quite so much, a sales rep who looks less beautiful, a nurse who has to take an occasional half-day off for a check-up. Some bosses worry, although you’d be hard-pressed to find this in writing, that an employee who had cancer treatment may suffer a recurrence, and so she can’t be counted on – no matter how capable and motivated she may be – to lead a fellowship program, or to complete an ambitious project.

What would help is for doctors to guide patients with more nuanced advice, to avoid over-treatment. And patients should ask their physicians, based on their circumstances, for the least therapy that makes sense based on the size and molecular details of their tumor, to avoid long-term toxicity. And for employers to treat their workers who have illness – and not just breast cancer – as potentially valuable workers, contributors, over the long haul.


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Palbociclib Appears to Prolong Progression Free Survival in Women with Metastatic Breast Cancer

Yesterday researchers at the annual AACR meeting announced the results of a clinical trial of a new drug with activity in some forms of breast cancer. Palbociclib (PD-0332991), a pill developed by Pfizer, was tested in women with metastatic breast cancer cells with estrogen receptors and lacking Her2. These ER+/Her2- tumors represent the most common breast cancer subtype, which is one reason so many people are eying the results of this relatively small, randomized study.

The phase 2 trial, called PALOMA-1 included 165 post-menopausal women with advanced ER+/Her2 negative disease. The research subjects were assigned to take either Letrazole (Femara, an aromatase inhibitor, a drug that inhibits estrogen synthesis) alone, or Letrazole and also the experimental drug, Palbociclib. The study found a highly significant difference in progression free survival (PFS), the intended endpoint: the mean time until disease progressed was 20.2 months among women who took Palbociclib, as opposed to 10.2 months for those assigned to Letrazole alone. The p-value for the difference between the arms (1-sided) was 0.0004. That’s a powerful  result.

But there was no statistically significant difference in overall survival between the two groups, a fact that was irksome to some observers, particularly in the biotech investment world, and to some who were reminded of the Avastin story and its fall-out. Most of the women lived for approximately 3 years after enrolling, with a trend of a few months favoring the Palbociclib arm. Another problem is that over half the patients were recruited to the study based on biomarker results, having to do with cyclin D1 amplification and/or loss of p16. So it could be the results are more relevant to breast cancer patients who have those particular changes. How those molecular features, enriched in the final study population, relate to Palbociclib’s usefulness in breast cancer and other tumor types warrants more evaluation, for sure.

My feeling is that this may prove to be a useful drug, not just in breast cancer. Any medication which interferes with cell growth by blocking cyclin-dependent kinases (enzymes) called CDK-4 and -6 could be useful in quite a few malignancies. The main side effect was suppression of the bone marrow (low blood cells). Some questions I’d like to ask the researchers, and which I hope they’ll address in the Phase III study, is if certain types of mets (e.g. lung vs. bone) or certain molecular subtypes are more tempered by this drug.

As for 10 months of PFS – if it pans out in a formal, published work, that’s valuable. Imagine that you’re 55 years old and living with metastatic breast cancer. A drug that is likely to delay, by most of 2 years, your tumor’s expansion into the lungs (causing shortness of breath), or bones (causing fractures and pain) or liver, and elsewhere can be worth a lot. It’s about the quality of life, whether or not it’s extended.

One final concern is that this study wasn’t blinded, so the doctors’ assessment of how the patients were doing, and the patients’ assessment of how they were feeling,  may have been influenced by their knowing which arm they were on. Also, because this new drug is a pill, some insurance may not cover it – a policy issue that applies to many new cancer drugs.

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More on Mammography, Breast Cancer, Misleading Arguments, Emotion and Women’s Health

It’s a holiday week. But when this morning’s paper delivered yet another op-ed by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, citing (and breaking an embargo on) yet another, misleading and manipulative two-author analysis of breast cancer screening by him and one other scientist, I thought it worth documenting some concerns.

I’ll start by mentioning that Dr. Welch and I seem to agree on one point – that women should have access to information so they might make reasoned decisions about breast cancer screening. He refers, also, to controversy among professionals about the relative benefits and harms of screening mammography. That there is debate is incontrovertible. No argument there.

The problem is that educated, middle-aged women are being nudged, and frightened, or even charmed into not going for mammography. Nudged, by papers like the one in JAMA today, which acknowledges controversy about statistics and then suggests a falsely low range for lives saved per number of women who get screened. Frightened, by headlines that highlight the risks of overdiagnosis, a statistical concept. If a woman finds out she has an early-stage breast tumor, she and her doctor can (and should) actively decide how much therapy she should have based on the molecular subtype of her tumor, stage and other factors. Just because you find a Stage 0 or small tumor by screening, doesn’t mean you have to over-treat it. If medical education were what it should be, there would be little or no overtreatment because doctors would discuss appropriate options with women and not advise them to have too much therapy. And charmed, yes – by the false notion that breast cancer is often nothing to worry about, that in many cases it can be let alone. That it might just disappear.

I am not aware of a single pathology-documented, published case of a breast tumor going away on its own. Yes, there are slow-growing tumors that may not do harm. But those tend to occur in older women. Those cases are, in general, irrelevant to discussions of breast cancer screening in women between the ages of 40 and 60 or so. What matters most in assessing screening benefits is the number of life-years saved, which is potentially huge for women in this age bracket, and quality of life changes due to the intervention, as assessed over decades.

Mammography (Wikimedia image)

Mammography (Wikimedia image)

For today, I’ll point to just a few issues in the JAMA paper. The authors state that among 1000 U.S. women age 50 years who are screened annually for a decade, “490 to 670 will have 1 false alarm.” But as detailed in Table 2 of their paper, it turns out the range for women who undergo false-positive biopsies is far lower: between approximately 50 and 100 per thousand women, depending on the age group and study from which the authors draw the “data.” What that means, according to the numbers they’ve culled from studies of non-specialized radiologists, is that only 1 in 10 women would undergo a breast biopsy, and not have cancer, per decade of screening. So the numbers of false positives involving biopsy are not so high.

Most of the false positives are callbacks for additional imaging. Welch and his colleague talk about frequency and anxiety produced by “false alarms.” They go as far as to cite studies documenting that “anxiety may persist for at least 3 years and produce psychological morbidity…” But if women appreciated the data to support that, in most cases – approximately 85 percent – breast cancer can be removed and metastatic disease avoided, over the long haul, by early detection, most of us, and certain anyone making decisions based on reason, wouldn’t mind the follow-up and worrying about irregularities noted on a screening test. Most of us can handle the emotional aspects, and uncertainty, of screening over the course of a few days. To suggest otherwise is patronizing.

Years ago, breast cancer screening was widely considered an act of empowerment, a way for women to take control of their bodies, and to avoid the disfiguring and sadly lethal effects of late-stage breast cancer, besides the potential need for treatment until the end of life. Now, mammography is more accurate and involves less radiation than ever before. Women might be demanding universal access to better, state-of-the-art facilities, rather than shying away from the test.

As for those women who do get called for needle breast biopsies, I say that’s not such an onerous prospect. What’s key is that the procedure be done under local anesthesia, under imaging (typically ultrasound) guidance in an office by a skilled radiologist. The sample should be reviewed by a well-trained breast pathologist, and molecular studies evaluated in a central lab that routinely runs those kinds of tests.

Finally, in the end of today’s op-ed, Welch suggests that the way to reduce uncertainties about breast cancer screening is to carry out costly and somehow randomized clinical trials to see how much and how often screening is needed to demonstrate a survival benefit. But, as his tone suggests, I suspect he doesn’t really favor investment in those clinical trials.

The fact is, I don’t either, at least not for mammography at this point in the U.S.  As I and others have pointed out, it takes 15 – 20 years of follow-up in a trial to demonstrate that screening and early detection reduce breast cancer deaths. In North America, the availability of mammography correlates with a reduction in mortality from breast cancer by over a third. He and others have attributed improvements in survival to better treatments. I and others would suggest that while therapy has improved quite a bit since 1985, the greatest benefit derives from most women avoiding the need for life-long treatment by having small tumors found and removed before they’ve spread. This applies in over 80 percent of invasive cases. The survival boost is from the combination, with early detection playing a significant (large) role in the equation.

Why I don’t support starting new randomized trials for mammography, besides that they’d be costly and hard to carry out, is that we can’t wait 20 years to know how best and often to screen women. Rather, it would be better to spend those theoretical research dollars in finding how to prevent the disease. If in 20 years breast cancer is less common, as we all hope will be the case, and true positives are rare, screening of the population won’t be needed. (If breast cancer rates do climb, Bayes’ theorem would support screening, because the positive predictive value of the test would, unfortunately, be higher.) Either way, by 2034 the technology would have improved, or we might have a valid alternative to mammography for screening, and so the studies would be, again, out of date.

It would be better to spend what resources we invest in mammography on improving the quality of screening facilities, now, so that women who decide to go for the procedure can, at least, know that it’s being performed with modern equipment and by doctors and technicians who are capable of state-of-the-art procedures involving the lowest level of radiation exposure possible, careful reading of the images, and application of sonography to further examine the appearance of women with dense breasts, when needed.

All for now.

I wish all my readers a happy and healthy 2014,


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Why I Like the (Absurd) Dancing in the OR Video

Last Thursday I was struck by a video of a woman dancing in the O.R. The Huffington Post lifestyle editor called it awesome. “Deb’s Flash Mob” lasts 6 minutes and 14 seconds. The scene takes place in an ordinary-appearing operating room. The song, Get Me Bodied, by Beyoncé, beats familiarly, throughout. And flash mobs, well, they’ve happened in all kinds of places.

What I’d never seen before – what’s news – is a furiously lively woman dancing with doctors, nurses and other others in the operating suite where she would soon undergo a bilateral mastectomy. She, the patient, is shaking and grooving. She’s clad in two hospital gowns, one flipped backwards (for modesty; a trick those of us who’ve been there know), a cap and hospital ID bracelets. An IV part dangles from the crook of one arm. Despite the circumstances, it looks like Deb’s having fun, smiling and, in the end – as her surgery nears, she’s thanking and hugging people who appear to be her friends, dressed in scrubs and adorned with health care accessories like stethoscopes.

Deb’s OR Flash Mob

As of this post, Deb’s OR Flash Mob has been viewed over 6.3 million times on YouTube. Not everyone, including a breast cancer patient and blogger I respect, loved the clip. (And I must admit it gets a bit long; at 3 minutes in, I was ready to concentrate, again, on what I’d been writing.) There are a hundred things wrong with this video, not the least of which is that if every patient were to ask for a dance party before surgery, the hospitals would lose money and (more importantly) precious operating room time. It’s a completely unreasonable, and, maybe, selfish thing to do.

But the dance party is humanizing. I’d go so far as to suggest it adds value to the Deb’s health care experience, and, remotely, might make a good outcome more likely. Why’s that? Because if the nurses and doctors, including the anesthesiologists who take care of the patient during surgery are reminded of her personality – her spirit, or spark, or whatever you want to call it – before they start monitoring and cutting, they are more likely to pay attention, to take care of her body, of which she’s relinquished control, than if they simply perceive her as a physical human container of a tumor with flesh, bones, a beating heart, lungs and other organs.

It turns out the patient is a physician, Dr. Deborah Cohan. She’s an obstetrician and AIDS researcher at UCSF. I can only infer that her position was a factor in the medical center’s indulging her request for a dance party before her mastectomy. On a Caring Bridge site, she offers few details of her circumstances. What all of us who’ve been there, after that kind of surgery, know is that the recovery isn’t always easy. Drains and all that. The dance party was a week ago tomorrow, early in the morning before the bilateral mastectomies. I hope that the patient is recovering well.

What Deb did, and I thank her for this, is offer an extreme example of patient-centered care. Among other things, she did everything possible to assure that the people caring for her perceive her as a human being who dances and enjoys music.

In reality, many and probably most breast cancer (and other) patients can barely get their legitimate questions answered about their surgery or treatment options, or have sufficient time with doctors to discuss those thoroughly. If only every doctor would “see” each patient as a vibrant human, that might help. Each of us deserves a dance party equivalent, or at least a good conversation and attention from the people we trust with our medical care.


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Good News from SCOTUS on Gene Patents, But Questions Remain

Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision on the Myriad Patent case, having to do with the company’s ownership of BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 gene sequences. The main opinion, authored by Justice Thomas, says this:

“A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring.

At first glance, this is terrific news for patients world-wide. It means is that no company, university, other entity or individual can patent human genes.

Keep in mind – the case doesn’t just apply to BRCA and evaluating a person’s risk for breast and ovarian cancers. Rather, there are hundreds of human genes implicated in cancer that are potential targets for treatment, that might be evaluated, and thousands linked to other diseases. The decision continues:

“Myriad did not create or alter either the genetic information encoded in the BCRA1 and BCRA2 genes or the genetic structure of the DNA. It found an important and useful gene, but groundbreaking, innovative, or even brilliant discovery does not by itself satisfy the… <patent law>

West façade of U.S. Supreme Court Building. (Franz Jantzen)

West façade, U.S. Supreme Court (Franz Jantzen), gov’t image

What’s clear is that gene sequences, as they occur in human cells, can’t be owned just because they’re found, no matter how important they are. This circumstance should allow other researchers and firms to create cDNA from the natural sequences to develop new (competing and potentially less costly) assays and, even better – do their own work – tantamount to providing “second” and “third” opinions (etc. & n.b. IMO more is better!) research to understand how the genes lead cause disease in some people and might targeted for therapy. Great –

But the decision suggests that many lab-generated complementary DNA (cDNA) strands remain patentable, or up for grabs once created – which may be the reason some biotech stocks have rising values today. I’m neither a lawyer nor an analyst, but I do know from my experience as a researcher that it’s essentially trivial to generate cDNA from a short DNA segment, potentially with a mutation of interest. So how might the cDNA be patented, if anyone who has access to the original genetic sequence might form the cDNA by routine lab methods?

Near the end of the opinion, the justice writes:

“…but the lab technician unquestionably creates something new when cDNA is made. cDNA retains the naturally occurring exons of DNA, but it is distinct from the DNA from which it was derived. As a result, cDNA is not a ‘product of nature’ and is patent eligible under <patent law §101>, except insofar as very short series of DNA may have no intervening introns to remove when creating cDNA. In that situation, a short strand of cDNA may be indistinguishable from natural DNA.

The document clarifies the cDNA issue just slightly:

“It is important to note what is not implicated by this decision. First, there are no method claims before this Court… the processes used by Myriad to isolate DNA were well understood by geneticists at the time of Myriad’s patents ‘were well understood, widely used, and fairly uniform insofar as any scientist engaged in the search for a gene would likely have utilized a similar approach’…

Nor do we consider the patentability of DNA in which the order of the naturally occurring nucleotides has been altered. Scientific alteration of the genetic code presents a different inquiry, and we express no opinion about the application of <patent law §101> to such endeavors.

How I interpret this is that if a researcher generates a short cDNA segment based on a gene, that’s not patentable, but if it’s a long strand involving lots of clipped introns, that might be patentable.

Taking in all this, which is far from simple, I have a question and a wider point:

What goes unaddressed by the justices is the patentability of cDNA based on common genetic variants in cancer. Those are “naturally occurring” mutations, inasmuch as they arise in humans. But the cDNA generated from those sequences might remain patentable. There are loads of examples in this regard: Consider, for example, the genetic mutations in EGFR, and ALK, that are used in lung cancer diagnosis, treatment decisions and development of new targeted drugs. In the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors report on SALL4, a gene that occurs in some liver cancers and might be a good, useful target for therapy in that disease.

The point is that the Supremes – and those would be lawyers – need to know about biology. Justice Scalia, sadly in my view, wrote his own opinion not because he disagreed with the others, but because he felt there was too much science in the decision. From the Scotus Blog today:

“Many readers no doubt will share the view of Justice Antonin Scalia, in a short, separate opinion refusing to join in a section “going into the fine details of molecular biology,” of which he said he had neither knowledge nor belief.  Scalia said he did understand enough …

This scares me, that one of the Justices, our most accomplished lawyers who might make decisions on cloning, and stem cells and who knows what in the future, copped out because he lacks science education – what should be required high school biology in  U.S. schools, public and private – to form an opinion that matters so much.

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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  – 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,


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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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News on Occupational Exposure to N-PropylBromide, a Neuro-toxin

Yesterday’s NY Times drew my attention with a front-page article on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and its inability to prevent harm among furniture and cushion factory workers in the U.S.  Even though hundreds of workers in North Carolina handling nerve-damaging glues have developed neurological toxicity, OSHA failed to suppress use of likely chemical culprits.

structure of n-propyl bromide (Wiki-image)

structure of n-propyl bromide (Wiki-image)

Regulating industry is complicated. The Times reporter, Ian Urbina, focuses on a compound, n-propyl bromide, aka nPB or 1-bromopropane, that’s used by “tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation.”

Problem is – it’s hard and possibly impossible, based on studies of factory workers, to prove cause and effect. He writes:

Pinpointing the cause of a worker’s ailment is an inexact science because it is so difficult to rule out the role played by personal habits, toxins in the environment or other factors. But for nearly two decades, most chemical safety scientists have concluded that nPB can cause severe nerve damage when inhaled even at low levels…

The lack of absolute proof – that a particular chemical substance has cause disease in an individual –is exacerbated by the fact that many cushion and glue workers’ symptoms, like numbness and tingling, are subjective: At one company, Royale, a ledger of employees’ illness is said to list “Alleged Neurologic Injury.” This phrase reflects the evaluators’ doubt of the handlers’ complaints and, by insinuation, adds insult to injury – some so severe the workers couldn’t button a shirt, feel a cut, bleeding foot, or stand for more than a few minutes.

The government agency that might respond, OSHA, is woefully understaffed. According to the Times:

“OSHA still has just 2,400 responsible for overseeing roughly eight million work sites — roughly one inspector per 60,000 workers, a ratio that has not changed since 1970. The federal budget for protecting workers is less than half of that set aside for protecting fish and wildlife…

Regulation of industry kills jobs, some say – it’s for this reason that some individuals most likely to suffer harm from manufacturing align with corporations. What’s more, if people lack education about chemistry and need employment, they may not choose or know what’s in their long-term best interests. This piece, like the story of Toms River, points to the unfortunate reality that many citizens tolerate and even take pride in a damaging local business, especially if the health problems it causes are insidious, affect some but not all exposed, and the facts aren’t in full view.


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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,


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Talking About Physician Burnout, and Changing the System

Dear Readers,
I have a new story at the Atlantic Health. It’s on burnout among physicians. The problem is clear: Too many have a hard time finding satisfaction in the workplace. Many struggle with work-life balance and symptoms of depression.

With many difficult situations, the first step in solving a problem is in acknowledging it exists. After that, you can understand it and, hopefully, fix it. Our health care system now, as it functions in most academic medical centers and dollar-strapped hospitals, doesn’t give doctors much of a break, or slack, or “joy,” as Dr. Vineet Arora suggested in an interview. You can read about it here. The implications for patients are very real.

Glad to see that research is ongoing about physicians’ stress, fatigue and depression. Thank you to Drs. Tait Shanafelt, Mary Brandt, Vineet Arora and others for addressing these under-studied and under-discussed issues in medicine. Through this kind of work, policy makers and hospital administrators might better know how to keep doctors in the workforce, happy and healthy.


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