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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Birth of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance

This week marks 11 years since my breast cancer diagnosis. My feelings are mixed. On the one hand, I’m keenly aware, and constantly appreciative, of the fortune of being alive and, as far as I know (knock on virtual wood), free of the disease. That’s great, of course, but I’m lucky – so far at least, still vying not to be cast off by some strange turn of statistical, informed roulette. I can’t help but think, especially today, of my countless BC “sisters” with metastatic disease.

October 13 is Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. In 2009, the U.S. Congress voted to designate this day for attention to the particular needs of people with metastatic breast cancer (MBC). Although it’s been unofficial since that year, the day has been adopted by several breast cancer agencies as a time to rally in support the cause – and needed research – for people affected by MBC.  For people who are living with MBC, the immediate goals are not so much to prevent breast cancer, or necessarily to cure it, but to find better treatments so they can live longer and fuller lives.National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awarness Day avatar 180 by 180 px

The number of women living with metastatic breast cancer is unknown. Almost all deaths from the disease occur in people who have advanced or metastatic (Stage 4) cases. This year, some 40,000 women and 400 men will die from breast cancer in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, cancer is the number 1 cause of death in women between the ages of 35 and 64 years. Only lung cancer accounts for more cancer deaths among women. Almost all deaths from breast cancer occur in women with Stage 4 disease. The World Health Organization reports that approximately 458,000 will die from breast cancer this year, around the globe.

These are the kinds of numbers that can be hard for some people to face, or think about too much. Deaths from breast cancer amount to 110 people each day in the U.S., or 1,255 each day, around the globe. I’m thinking of a lecture room of women every day in the U.S., or a train’s worth.., every single day, on average. Hard to envision. But it’s almost impossible not to get the message if just one woman, perhaps at the table over a lunch meeting, tells you about her daily life with relapsed or otherwise metastatic disease, and no end of treatment in sight.

If you break the deaths down by age group, as does the American Cancer Society in its most recent report on Breast Cancer Facts & Figures, you’ll find these numbers in Table 1: over 1,000 women die of breast cancer each year under the age of 40 years; an additional 4,780 die under the age of 50; almost 12,000 die between the ages of 50 and 64; the remainder of BC deaths (nearly  23,000) occur in people age 65 and older. The overwhelming proportion of cases arises in women, although there’s a trend of more cases in men. The median age of a breast cancer diagnosis is 61 years; this is largely a disease of middle-aged women.

Some encouraging news on the research front, besides new drugs in the pipeline and ongoing trials, is the formation of a new, cooperative coalition of breast cancer charities that will work together to address the problem MBC. The new Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance includes a spectrum of pink and gray agencies, young and old, working together. The main thing is to promote knowledge and research about breast cancer metastases – to reduce formation and growth of metastases, and to treat those affected with better, less toxic meds.

I’m delighted to see an example of BC agencies working together, constructively. Sure, each group has its particular priorities and “personality,” if you will. But we all want to end misunderstanding, and we all hope to improve the lives of people living with Stage 4 disease. Breast cancer is not “easy.” It’s serious and life-destroying. The more research and scientific attention that we devote to men and women with metastatic breast cancer, the more likely will be an extension of their survival, and improved quality of what lives they’ve living, now and hopefully in the future.

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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.


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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.


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Breast Cancer Stats: Notes from the 2012 ACS Report, and a Key Question

Earlier this month, the ACS released its annual report on Cancer Facts and Figures. The document, based largely on analyses of SEER data from the NCI, supports that approximately 229,000 adults in the U.S. will receive a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer (BC) this year. The disease affects just over 2,000 men annually; 99% of cases arise in women. Non-invasive, aka in situ or Stage 0 BC, including DCIS, will be found in approximately 63,000 individuals.

The slightly encouraging news is that BC mortality continues to decline. This year, the number of expected deaths from BC is just under 40,000. From the ACS document: “Steady declines in breast cancer mortality among women since 1990 have been attributed to a combination of early detection and improvements in treatment.”

Survival data, from the report:

For all women diagnosed with BC, the 5-year relative survival rate has risen from 63% in the 1960s to 90% today. At 10 years, for women of all stages combined, the relative survival is 82% and at 15 years, 77%. Traditional staging still matters: For women with localized BC (that has not spread to glands or elsewhere outside of the breast), the 5-year relative survival at 5 years is 99%. For women with lymph node involvement, 5-year relative survival is 84%.

For those with metastatic disease, 5-year relative survival is 23%. The report cautions: these “stats don’t reflect recent advances in detection and treatment. For example, 15-year relative survival is based on patients diagnosed as early as 1990.”

Since 1990, we’ve seen testing and widespread use of (no longer) new drugs like Herceptin, taxane-type chemotherapies, aromatase inhibitors and other meds in women with MBC. In addition, it’s possible that better palliative care and supportive strategies, along with more effective treatments for infectious and other complications, may have extended survival.

What we’ve got to ask, and about which data are remarkably elusive, is this: What is the median survival for women with metastatic BC (MBC) in 2012?

Your author has spoken with several leading, national authorities on the subject, and no one has provided a clear answer. The reason for this informational hole is that SEER data includes the incidence of new cases at each stage, and mortality from the disease, but does not include numbers on stage conversion – when a woman who had early-stage disease relapses with Stage IV (MBC). There’s astonishingly little current data about on how long women live, on average, after relapsing.

20 years ago, oncology fellows learned that the median survival of women with MBC was around 3 years. Now, that is pretty much still what doctors tell patients, but there’s a sense that the picture is no longer so bleak. Much of what we know about survival of women with MBC comes from clinical trials of patients with particular subtypes (e.g. Her2+ or negative disease). That information, on subtypes and responsiveness to particular drugs, is crucial. But we also need to know the big picture, i.e. exactly – give or take a few thousand women – how many are alive now with MBC?

This information might inform research funding, planning of medical and social services, besides understanding the course of the illness and extensiveness of this problem. And if survival has indeed improved, that measurement, straightforward as it should be, might offer hope to those living with the disease, today.

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ACS Issues Annual Report on Cancer Stats: Some Key Findings, and Notes on Survivorship

ACS (annual report header)

This week the ACS released its annual report on Cancer Facts and Figures in the U.S. The journal Cancer analyzes and considers the data in a helpful articleSome of the key and mainly positive findings have been covered elsewhere:

Between 1990 and 2008, death rates from cancer in the U.S. declined rather steadily, overall, by 22.9% in men and 15.3% in women. More recently, between 2004 and 2008, the incidence of cancer has declined slightly in men (0.6% per year) but it’s been stable in women. During this most recent period for which complete data are available, the overall death rates continued to drop – by 1.8% in men and by 1.6% per year in women.

This is generally good news. Still, the total number of people in the U.S. who will receive a new cancer diagnosis in 2012 is estimated at 1,638,910. Some 577,190 people will die of a malignancy, which approximates to 1,500 cancer deaths per day in the U.S. Cancer is second only to heart disease as the cause of death in North America. Most cancers, some 77%, arise in people aged 55 or older; conversely, approximately 23% arise in people under 55 years of age. The NIH estimates that in 2007, direct health expenditures for cancer in the U.S. totaled $103.8 billion.

Some notes on survivorship:

The latest estimate is that 12 million people are alive in the U.S. after a cancer diagnosis. This number includes people who are undergoing treatment and many who are in remission. Another encouraging detail: from 1975-77, the overall 5-year survival was just 49%. Now, between 2001 and 2007, overall 5-year survival stands at 67%. In other words, in 1975, just over half of cancer patients died within 5 years of their diagnosis; by 2007, two thirds of cancer patients were alive at 5 years.

The report includes a critical section on a few kinds of cancers for which the rates are increasing. These include cancer in the oropharynx (mouth and throat) associated with human papillomavirus (HPV); esophageal cancer (adenocarcinoma type), melanoma and tumors of the pancreas, liver, bile duct, thyroid, and some kinds of kidney cancer. The Cancer journal has a separate article on these.

The full and detailed document, at 68 printed pages, deserves close review in many particulars. Next week I’ll go over the new data for breast cancer.

All for now,


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The BC Sisterhood Takes on Sex After Cancer and What Oncologists Don’t Say

A hit in the women’s breast cancer Twitter league came my way from the Breast Cancer Sisterhood®. Brenda Coffee, a survivor and founder of the Survivorship Media Network, offers a serious post on What Your Oncologist Doesn’t Tell You About Sex.

There’s a music video, Don’t Touch Me that’s annoying but depressingly right on how some women feel in menopause –  a frequent and under-discussed aspect of chemo or hormonal therapy for BC, followed by a grounded and unusually frank discussion about what happens to women after cancer treatment, menopause and sex.

Brenda’s right; none of this was included in my med school curriculum or oncology fellowship. Although, in fairness and quite seriously, this was a subject on mine and some other oncologists’ radar long ago. Cancer treatments can have lasting effects on sexuality in men and women.

Worth checking out Brenda’s network and her candid post. You can follow her @BCSisterhood on Twitter.

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Thinking of Someone with MBC in the Hospital Now

My fingers stopped this morning for a while when I came upon a reference to @whymommy. Last thing I read about her condition, she was at home having a tough but cozy Thanksgiving at home. Now she’s in the hospital and in her words, OK.

Susan is a woman in her 30s with metastatic breast cancer. People, including me, have described Susan as an astrophysicist, mom, wife… But the main thing is she’s a person.

Each counts.

Hope she gets to go home soon and feels better –


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NEJM Publishes New Review on Breast Cancer Screening

With little fanfare, the NEJM published a feature on breast cancer screening in its Sept 15 issue. The article, like other “vignettes” in the Journal, opens with a clinical scenario. This time, it’s a 42 year old woman who is considering first-time mammography.

The author, Dr. Ellen Warner, an oncologist at the University of Toronto, takes opportunity to review updated evidence and recommendations for screening women at average risk for the disease. She outlines the problem:

Worldwide, breast cancer is now the most common cancer diagnosed in women and is the leading cause of deaths from cancer among women, with approximately 1.3 million new cases and an estimated 458,000 deaths reported in 2008.(1)

On screening:

The decision to screen either a particular population or a specific patient for a disease involves weighing benefits against costs. In the case of breast-cancer screening, the most important benefits are a reduction in the risk of death and the number of life-years gained….

She breaks down the data for mammography by age groups:

For women between the ages of 50 to 69 the evidence is clear, she says. For those over 70, there are little data to support breast cancer screening. There’s a consensus that screening isn’t appropriate for women with serious coexisting illnesses and a life expectancy of less than 5-10 years.

For those between the ages of 40-49, Warner challenges the revised 2009 USPSTF recommendations on several counts. She critiques those authors’ weighting of data from the Age trial of 161,000 women, emphasizing the use of an antiquated (single view) mammography technique and flawed statistics. She considers:

…However, this change in remains highly controversial,22, 23 especially because of the greater number of years of life expectancy gained from preventing death from breast cancer in younger women. According to statistical modeling,19 screening initiated at the age of 40 years rather than 50 years would avert one additional death from breast cancer per 1000 women screened, resulting in 33 life-years gained.”

What I like about Warner’s analysis, besides its extreme attention to details in the data, is that she’s not afraid to, at least implicitly, assign value to a procedure that impacts a young person’s life expectancy relative to that of an older person.

She goes on to consider digital mammography and the Digital Imaging Screening Trial (DMIST [NCT00008346]) results. For women under 50 years, digital mammography was significantly more sensitive than film (78% vs. 51%).

The article is long and detailed; I recommend the full read including some helpful tables, with references to the major studies, and charts.

In concluding, the author, who admits receiving grant support from Amersham Health (a GE subsidiary), consulting fees from Bayer and lecture fees from AstraZeneca, returns to the hypothetical patient, and what might be said to a woman in her 40s who lacks an outstanding risk (such as a genetic disposition or strong family history):

…Mammography screening every 2 years will find two out of every three cancers in women her age, reduce her risk of death from breast cancer by 15%. There’s about a 40% chance that further imaging (such as a sonogram) will be recommended, and a 3% chance for biopsy with a benign finding….

In my opinion (ES) this is key – that the chances of a false positive leading to biopsy are only 3% for a woman in her 40s. If those biopsies are done in the radiology suite with a core needle, every 2 years for women of average risk, the costs of false positives can be minimized.

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