What to do about a Curved Spine? On Data, ‘BodyCast’ and New Directions

I don’t often write about scoliosis, a health problem that’s been with me since age 6. The problem is that my spine is twisted, S-shaped, and – without the support of steel rods, titanium cages between lower vertebrae, seven or so bolts and a screw into my hip – I couldn’t walk or stand up much, if at all.

Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article on a rare, NIH-funded study evaluating treatment of this condition in adolescents. It’s an odd, semi-randomized trial: the researchers intended to randomize the patients to wear a back brace for at least 18 hours each day, or not. Not surprisingly, they had trouble enrolling young patients from over 1000 deemed  eligible; few were willing to be randomized to wear the brace, or not. In the end, they studied 242 patients. The endpoint was whether the kids who wore braces were less likely to need surgery.

How do you know if a child needs surgery for scoliosis? The authors state that “Curves larger than 50 degrees are associated with a high risk of continued worsening throughout adulthood and thus usually indicate the need for surgery,” based a 1983 report. The date of that limited old paper – and a greater point, I might add – is how little evidence there is for patients with scoliosis and their parents to guide treatment decisions.

An anatomical illustration from the 1921 German edition of Anatomie des Menschen

Anatomical illustration from the 1921 German edition of Anatomie des Menschen (wikimedia entry)

The NIH provides some information on scoliosis, although there’s not much on how common is the problem in moderate and severe forms. Significant scoliosis is far more common in girls than in boys. A lot of kids have a slight curvature, if you look hard for it, and many older adults develop curving of their spines. But the frank, debilitating kinds of deformity caused by an S-shaped spine at a young age, which limits the capacity of the heart and lungs, besides other problems, cosmetics aside, if of unknown frequency. And there’s little by way of hard data to distinguish among braces, surgical methods, duration of casting and other issues. I learned today that the USPSTF doesn’t recommend routine screening for this condition.

The NEJM study stopped early, because the results became clear. Wearing the brace significantly reduced the chances of an adolescent spine’s progression to severe curvature, from 72 percent down to 48 percent. So for the next friend of a friend or colleague’s acquaintance who calls me and asks what it was like to wear a Milwaukee brace as a child, and then to have surgery, I might refer them to this article, which supports the “bracing of adolescents” – quite a summary of 4+ years of my life, before the (brief) traction, surgery and casting.

Surgery for scoliosis is a much lesser and safer procedure than it used to be, but it’s nothing to choose if you can avoid it. When I was 14 years old, the orthopedist told us my chances of dying during the procedure were approximately 0.5 percent. I was good enough at math to comprehend it, and by then had been to enough doctors’ offices to know that he was probably making it seem better than it was. Besides, what were the non-fatal and long-term complications of the surgery?  I didn’t ask, but I’ve learned: Many –

Jump to yesterday evening, when by chance I got a front-row seat at Bodycast, an autobiographical performance art or “talk,” with bits of dance, music and neat images by Suzanne Bocanegra. The artist, now in her fifties, has scoliosis and wore a cast for two years as an adolescent in Texas. Frances McDormand, one of my favorite actresses, delivered the layered, piercing work. As Bocanegra mentioned, some people fetishize casting and bracing and putting women in traction and stuff like that, which is truly sick.

"Bodycast," by the artist Suzanne Bocanegra, at BAM

“Bodycast,” by the artist Suzanne Bocanegra, at BAM

I liked the show, and I’d be interested to see more of Bocanegra’s work. One of the threads was making order out of curves, art out of irregularities…She’s into tartans, and plaster casts, and art history, and classical notions of beauty. What she represented in Bodycast, as I saw it, was somehow putting different aspects of one’s life in order, and interweaving them, including the flaws.

Life is curved, usually, and maybe it’s better that way. Perhaps that was the Bocanegra’s point, or dot, as she might illustrate it.

And on that note, I’ll lead my readers to my new website: elaineschattner.com. What’s next?

I thank the artist for her work.

ES

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“The Dallas Buyers Club” Takes on AIDS, Peer Patients, and Not Taking “No” for An Answer

If you’re a doctor or nurse of a certain age, the Dallas Buyers Club will jog memories. If you’re among those who lost a loved one or friend to AIDS maybe 20 or 30 years ago, or not, this new film might wrench your heart. Anyone watching will be pushed to think hard about drug development today, the slow pace of progress for metastatic breast cancer and other young life-takers, and the FDA’s role in sanctioning, or blocking, treatments for adults with terminal illness.

Dallas Buyers Club image from FOCUS films copy

scene from “the Dallas Buyers Club” (Focus Films)

The movie draws loosely on the story of Ron Woodroof, a Texan rodeo rider who developed AIDS around 1985. A rail-thin Matthew McConaughey, who says he dropped nearly 50 pounds for this role, somehow nails the look of young, HIV-infected men who were filing into hospitals and clinics back then. After absorbing his diagnosis and said prognosis of 30 days to live, the cowboy teams up with Rayon, a (fictitious) transgender woman portrayed, memorably, by Jared Ledo. Together with an oddball group of sympathetic accomplices, the pair set up shop, to procure and distribute unapproved medications the doctors won’t prescribe. Jennifer Garner plays a sympathetic young physician, Dr. Eva Saks, who in the movie crosses lines a bit incredibly, too personally in the second half, to help the AIDS patients and commiserate. But otherwise the film is spot-on. It captures the desperation, determination and clinging together of people, then, affected by what was incurable disease.

One question that sticks with me, as a physician reflecting on the story, is how unclear it is which drugs, exactly, helped the protagonist. Woodroof, as depicted in the film, briefly takes AZT and then moves on to all kinds of substances including DDC (Zalcitabine) from Mexico, interferon of unknown purity or dose from Japan, protein supplements and more. Through a mix of stuff he lives until 1992, seven years beyond what the doctors first told him to expect. An old-school clinical trialist, almost any of my former teachers, and anyone who appreciates evidence-based medicine (as I do, for the record) would know and state and insist that you can’t draw any conclusions based on what happened to the movie’s protagonist, or Woodroof in real life.

On the other hand, clinical trials are painfully slow. Published trials can be flawed. Even if they’re randomized and well-analyzed, the findings can be hard to interpret when it comes to a single patient’s course and well-being. What’s a dying man to do?

Another relevant point, for people affected by almost any health problem, is the extent to which the patients took charge in the Dallas Buyers Club. They found and shared information about their disease independently of their physicians. The image of an AIDS patient using an old computer in a library, looking up articles about his condition, anticipates patient networks of which there are hundreds, on-line and in communities, today.

I came away from this movie feeling optimistic. Because when I was a student, 30 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that a man afflicted by AIDS, as McConaughey portrays, could now, likely, live for a long time.

#hope, and happy Thanksgiving,

ES

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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.

#whyIlikedit

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A Conference on Bioethics and Humanities, and Future Planning

Last week I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, where the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH)* held its annual meeting. Most of a thousand people participated in the four-day conference. The sessions drew a mix of nerdy physicians like me, nurses, professional bioethicists, philosophy professors, a few lawyers, historians and artists.

It was really a lot of fun. Fun, that is, if you’re into subjects like philosophy in medicine, literature in medicine, medicine in literature, ethics in medicine, technology and privacy, justice and parsimony in health care, etc. I hadn’t heard the word “epistemic” so many times since I was in college. I felt young and idealistic, talking seriously about philosophy, as though it matters. (For the record: it does.)  This was, clearly, a medical society meeting unlike others. For instance, an academic named Woods Nash, of the University of Tennessee, gave a talk on David Foster Wallace’s story, “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR.”

original cover image (Wikipedia) - link to Random House (publisher)

original cover image (Wikipedia), publisher: Random House 

On the first day, I walked into a provocative plenary talk by Julian Savulescu, an ethicist and Oxford professor. He presented an argument that that using medical tools for the purpose of moral bioenhancement might be a good thing. (If this topic brings to mind A Clockwork Orange, you’re on track. Think also of Huxley’s soma, as a questioner raised.) All very serious. The next day, a packed ballroom of people heard from Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania and Chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. She spoke about the concept of deliberative democracy, and the value of teaching ethics. Toward the end, she entered into a humorous and seemingly candid discussion of men and women in the workplace, “having it all,” and common sense. “Time is finite,” she mentioned.

I could go on, and list all the lectures and smaller sessions, but this post would get dry. Besides, I couldn’t possibly attend each one, nor can I give all the speakers’ due credit. Some talks were better than others, as meetings necessarily go. But I can’t resist a plug for the presentation by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a professor of women’s studies and English at Emory, on perspective and disability. Another favorite had to do with technology and science. David Magnus, of Stanford University, considered whether research accomplished through gamification – a means of crowd-sourcing science – on platforms like FoldIt, EteRNA and EyeWire should be covered by the usual rules for biomedical research. “Are the players scientists?” he asked.

The tone, overall, was intense. Intellectual, brain-stimulating… By contrast to other medical meetings I’ve attended, there was little glitz, scant makeup and limited Wireless. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ASBH conference was the distribution of freebies at booths in a display area, where attendees gathered for an opening evening reception and, on other days, breakfasts. Of course it was all minor stuff handed out, like pens and candy, mainly from university departments seeking applicants for fellowships, and academic presses selling books. The most substantive, and useful, gift I received (or “accepted” – a term with greater moral accuracy, from my perspective) was a green umbrella from the Hastings Center – a bioethics stronghold where I’d love to spend some time learning and doing research, in the future.

On Sunday morning, I attended one of the last sessions, on decision aids in bioethics. We lingerers were treated to three terrific talks. I can’t cover them all. So to close this post, I’ll refer to the promising work of Michael Green, a physician and bioethicist at the Penn State College of Medicine. He and colleagues have been developing an on-line decision tool for advanced care planning with grant support from the NIH, the American Cancer Society and elsewhere. The website, MakingYourWishesKnown.com, enables individuals to detail their wishes through an interactive questionnaire. Green and his colleagues collect and publish data on users’ feelings upon using the decision aid. They can measure, for instance, if it gives people a sense of control, or reduces fear, and if patients’ families and doctors find the “outputs” useful. I, for one, intend to try out the MYWK website.

And I do hope to attend another ASBH meeting. Next year’s is planned for October, in San Diego.

All for a while,

ES

*disclosure: I joined the society.

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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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A Case for Slower Medicine

A few days ago I met Katy Butler, author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Her revealing book about her elderly father’s slow death and her mother’s reaction to that – by learning to question doctors and, ultimately, choosing “less” – is a cautionary tale of too much medicine. The prose is elegant, and daughter’s point of view, graspable.Knocking on Heaven's Door

What emerges, through Butler’s voice about her parents’ ordeal, is anger. She tells of the pacemaker that was placed in her father’s heart. It kept him alive through multiple strokes and progressive debility. Her father’s protracted illness became a burden to her aging mother, who cared for her husband through thick and thin. Butler minds the costs of the procedure and doctors who, with seemingly little contemplation, inserted the device and billed for it. When her mother, in her eighties, became weak with heart valve problems, she opted not to have surgery. That was a triumph, Butler suggests – that her mother didn’t let the doctors take her heart, too.

And so she writes. There’s value in this intensely personal story. Because every day in hospitals patients receive treatments they don’t want, that they wouldn’t have selected if they had understood in advance what the consequences would or could be. Too many people, especially the elderly, die after they’ve had futile, intensive or just plainly aggressive care. Butler points to the pitfalls of a system that pays doctors to do procedures rather than to communicate.

Anger is an understandable reaction to a system that dehumanizes us (patients), that treats human bodies as containers of billable ailments and broken parts. I get that. But most of the many doctors I know go about their daily work with good intention – to heal. Plus, there’s a danger of underselling, or not choosing, care that could extend life, with good quality, for years or decades.

It’s not easy to reconcile the positions of over-treated patients and over-worked doctors. Some say the answer is in better medical education, in programs like narrative medicine, in patients’ gaining knowledge and asking more questions, or in revamping doctors’ payment incentives. I don’t see an easy solution from the doctors’ side, except for what’s obvious:  practicing physicians need time to think, to contemplate the purpose of what they’re advising in each patient’s case. They should be paid for intellectual and communicative (non-PR) efforts. And they should learn, or be given enough minutes in each visit assigned, to hear, listen and respond to patients’ concerns.

The author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Katy Butler, mentioned that she’s eager to give grand rounds, to speak before doctors including cardiologists. She’d love to tell and teach them, and us, a thing or two.

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Seeing ZocDoc, And Listening To A Panel On Improving Health Care

A few evenings ago, I visited ZocDoc. The youthful company, seemingly approaching middle age among startups that began in 2007, looks to be thriving. ZocDoc keeps its headquarter downtown in a loft-like, mainly open, SoHo space replete with a ping-pong table, open kitchen and mock street signs pointing (abstractly) to concepts like “Make Work Fun” and “Patients First.” The vibe amongst the crowd – a hundred or so by my crude estimate: a mix of doctors and entrepreneurs, a few journalists, insurance executives and investors, along with some ZocDoc employees – was strictly positive.

According to its website*, ZocDoc is:

… a free service that allows patients to find a nearby doctor or dentist who accepts their insurance, see their real-time availability, and instantly book an appointment via ZocDoc.com or ZocDoc’s free apps for iPhone or Android.

Basically it’s a small-but-not-tiny, growing health IT company that provides an on-line way, like an app, for people to find doctors who accept their insurance and have available time slots. (Think of OpenTable, but for health care?) Since 2007, ZocDoc has expanded. The company, with some 450 employees, claims over 2.5 million users monthly in over 1,800 cities.* Its business model includes that doctors, dentists and possibly other provider-types, pay an annual fee to participate ($300 per month, an employee told me). Since it started, ZocDoc has received significant press and gained prominent investors like Goldman Sachs and Jeff Bezos. It’s won awards as a top-notch place to work. Kudos!

The main event was a panel discussion of a dry-sounding subject:  “Improving Healthcare: The Public and Private Sectors’ Shared Responsibility.” ZocDoc’s founder Chief Operating Officer, Dr. Oliver Kharraz, introduced a formidable panel of speakers, in this order: Senator Tom Daschle, Dr. Brad Weinberg, of Blueprint Health, Senator and Dr. Bill Frist, Rich Fernandez, of the Boston-based Steward Medical Group and Dr. Amanda Parsons, of the NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Dr. Kharraz opened with a question on how technology and medical startups, like ZocDoc, will fare in the context of Obamacare and upcoming, uncertain changes in the health care landscape. Daschle was first to answer, and he did so by congratulating the company for its talent and the passion it brings to a turbulent, transformative health care environment. A fit-looking Frist, a former heart surgeon, spoke enthusiastically on opportunities in the private sector. Other panelists chimed in, with words like “value,” “exciting,” “risk,” “entrepreneurial,” “wellness” and “opportunity.”

No word cloud is needed; we were in one. And it’s hard not to be charmed by the brightness of enthusiastic and eager tech-folks who want to make it easier for people to get to doctors they might need. In theory. The ZocDoc space bore no semblance to any hospital or office where I’ve been a doctor or a patient.

At the end of the discussion, one of the panelists noted the group’s apparent agreement on the terrific-ness of the enterprise. Rather than opening the session up to questions from the audience, we were invited to mingle and ask questions of the speakers. If I’d had the chance, I’d have asked a few:

1. Does ZocDoc help people get well, or is it simply a web-based system for procuring appointments with doctors who sign on?

2. What does ZocDoc offer that another health IT program, or portal, can’t or couldn’t provide?

3. How does ZocDoc help patients who don’t have insurance? (OK, it doesn’t; but that’s not the company’s aim)

4. Sure, ZocDoc has value. It helps a small fraction of the population who might be traveling and for one reason or another need to make a doctor’s appointment without having time to ask around or call in, or prefer to just click for an appointment (as I do for groceries), but…Does ZocDoc improve the quality of health care received?

5. How do you reconcile the money being invested in start-ups like these, which make health care “easier” for a few, with the lack of resources faced by real, nearby NYC hospitals closing?

Keep in mind, my concerns are based in my enthusiasm for technology in health care, and for giving providers, aka doctors, a “shot in the arm” of modern-ness. Enter the 21st Century…But there’s no hands-on a patient, no real medicine here. It’s too clean. I’m not convinced the value’s true.

*all links accessed 9/19/13

addendum, 9/20: a ZocDoc representative has informed me by email that the fee for providers is based on an annual contract priced at about $300/month, and so I have adjusted the post accordingly. (I’d originally stated that the fee was approximately $300 per year, based on my recollection of what an employee told me during the event.) – ES

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Visiting an Exhibit on Early AIDS at the New York Historical Society

School’s back in session. With fall approaching, your author has resumed teaching and attending lectures. Today I had the chance to visit the New-York Historical Society where an exhibit, AIDS in New York: The First Five Years is winding down. The display closes in two days.

A group advocating AIDS research marches down Fifth Avenue in June, 1983. (Mario Suriani/AP) - NYHS image

A group advocating AIDS research marches down Fifth Avenue in June, 1983. (M. Suriani/AP image) NYHS 

The opening scene, by the first room’s entrance, is breathtaking in a way. There’s a huge picture of men, countless, basking in the sun on a Hudson pier. The men looked relaxed, comfortable and healthy – blissfully unaware of what lies ahead. The exhibit takes you through the late 70’s club scene, with just a few pictures of that, and then moves to confusing and odd reports of unusual infections in homosexual men, intravenous drug addicts, hemophiliacs and Haitians. The show moves on into the early 80’s, when science steps in slowly, and most politicians keep away.

What’s clear is that most doctors didn’t know what was going on. The young men weren’t sure either. There were rumors but also credible denials about a disease affecting the community. Gradually, the city’s Department of Health and CDC started tracking the problem. There were protests, and activists, and friends helping friends to die. There was no therapy back then, except to temper some of the infections and treat the once-rare cancers we were seeing with strange frequency.

I had the fortune of walking through the exhibit today among a group of suburban high school students – kids who were born after the invention of anti-retroviral therapy. Their questions – some simple and others intense, and the relatively young guide’s recounting of her experiences during the early AIDS years, made me realize how crucial is this history. It was a terrifying health problem, then.

Yes, the historical society’s exhibit is neat and tidy. I remember, well, caring for young people who died, hopelessly. The gravity of the epidemic isn’t captured. But it’s a worthwhile review, nonetheless – especially for its bits on low-end media, like typed bulletins from the early Gay Men’s Health Crisis and early posters on safe sex. Those frank messages provided the only information some people at risk received about the emerging disease. The display includes a few passages and images having to do with patients helping patients. That was the best part.

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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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On Friends Affected by Cancer, and Environment Oncology

Dear Readers,

Yesterday I learned that a woman I know slightly, a journalist, has Stage 4 lung cancer. Debra Sherman is a reporter for Reuters and began a blog, Cancer in Context.  It’s a moving start of what I hope is a long journey.

What struck me is how Debra describes crossing a line, a bit the way I felt when I found out I had breast cancer. She writes:

I have been writing about medical technology and healthcare for more than a decade. I’ve covered the major medical meetings, including the big one on cancer. I’ve written stories about new cancer drugs and treatments…I wrote those stories objectively and never imagined any would ever apply to me.

She’s shifted from what you might call a “straight” reporter to an i-reporter journalist. And although it’s true that Debra may be less objective than some other writers on the subject, she’s already knowledgeable – through her prior work – on many of the relevant terms and issues. Much of what she knows already, vocabulary included, may allow her to make more informed decisions. It’s possible it may enable her to write in a way that helps readers more than ever.

Earth, from space (NASA image, Wiki-commons)

Earth, from space (NASA image, Wiki-commons

I wish her the best with her column, and with her health ahead.

The bigger issue, of which the story reminds me, is that we’re living among too many young and middle-aged people who have cancer. Every day I read or hear of another case among my neighbors, a friend, a blog. Each reminds me of the need for research, better drugs, and greater knowledge of why so many tumor types – including lung cancer in women who haven’t smoked much, and breast cancer in young women – are on the rise.

The ASCO meeting, where believe me I wish I could be but can’t now, offers a bright picture for targeted drugs, genomics, novel immunotherapy and better data access and analyses through a huge new platform called CancerLinQ, All good. Great, really.

In thinking about each new case in my “world” – if I could pick a field for future investigation that might lead to insight on cancer’s causes and, ultimately, reduce the cancer burden 30 and 50 years from now, I might choose the tiny, under-funded area of environmental oncology

That’s a tough field. Most oncologists want to work with patients. Researchers want to publish papers. Cause-and-effect is hard to demonstrate, especially when most of the data is untenable and you’re up against businesses, politics and people who, understandably, don’t recall precisely what they ingested years ago. But to stop cancer from happening so much, that’s where the money is. IMO, nothing more.

All for this week,

ES

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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 GoodRx.com  – so we’re talking just over $110/year x 5 or 10 years. That’s small change as oncology drugs go, although the numbers add up over so many patients affected…

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

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

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

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

Here are 2 questions for aTTom:

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

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

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

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

All for now,

ES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading Toms River

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

river landscape, by Frits Thaulow

river landscape, by Frits Thaulow

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

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

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

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

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

#humannature

 

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Finding Kindness and Introspection in ‘Half Empty,’ a Book of Essays by David Rakoff

Regrettably, I found the essayist David Rakoff by his obit. It happened last August. The Canadian-born New Yorker died at age 47 of a malignancy. In a reversal of a life’s expectancy’s, the writer’s death was announced by his mother, according to the New York Times.

I was moved to read one of Rakoff’s books, Half Empty, and in that discovered a man who, I like to think, might have been a friend had I known him. It’s possible our lives did cross, perhaps in a hospital ward when I was a resident or oncology fellow, or in Central Park, or through a mutual friend.

The last essay, “Another Shoe,” is my favorite. Rakoff learns he has a sarcoma, another cancer, near his shoulder – a likely consequence of the radiation he received for Hodgkin’s in 1987. He runs through mental and physical calisthenics to prepare for a possible amputation of his arm. He half-blames himself for choosing the radiation years before: “I am angry that I ever got the radiation for my Hodgkin’s back in 1987, although if it’s anybody’s fault, it is mine,” he wrote. “It had been presented to me as an easier option than chemotherapy.” He reflects on his decision as cowardly and notes, also, that it didn’t work.

He wound up getting chemo anyway, a combination – as any oncologist might tell you, but not in the book –that’s a recipe for a later tumor.  So one take-away from this sort-of funny book, among many, is that how doctors explain treatments and options to patients – the words we use – matter enormously, not just in clinical outcomes, but in how people with cancer feel about the decisions they’ve made, years later.

The other part on words, which I love, is a section on the kinds of things ordinary people – friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers…tell people who have cancer. It appears on pages 216-217 of the paperback edition:

“But here’s the point I want to make about the stuff people say. Unless someone looks you in the eye and hisses, ‘You fucking asshole, I can’t wait until you die of this,’ people are really trying their best. Just like being happy and sad, you will find yourself on both sides of the equation over your lifetime, either saying or hearing the wrong thing. Let’s all give each other a pass, shall we?

I look forward to reading more of Rakoff’s essays, and appreciate that he’s given me so much to think about, on living now.

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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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Reading and Hearing ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’

image from the 1973 film

Recently I read Bang the Drum Slowly, a 1956 novel by Mark Harris about players on a fictional baseball team. According to the University of Nebraska Press website, this book was once ranked among the top 100 sports books of all time by Sports Illustrated.

This is a rare cancer narrative. I’d give it 4 stars, or maybe even 5 – depending on my mood and your scale. The story’s told from the perspective of the New York Mammoths’ reliable and usually-winning pitcher, Henry Wiggen. With reason, his teammates call him “Author.” Early on, Author learns his team’s less verbal catcher, Bruce Pearson, had traveled, covertly, to Rochester Minnesota for treatment of Hodgkin’s disease.

In the patient’s words, he’s “doomeded.” Author’s immediate response reveals a clear sense of obligation to his teammate: “I will come,” he says, despite that it’s far away and his wife is pregnant. When he gets to the medical center in Minnesota, he finds Bruce looking deceptively well:

“…and in he come, all dressed, all fit as a fiddle, looking as tip-top as I ever seen him, and I said, ‘This is sick? This is why I dropped everything back home and risked my life in a snowstorm and went to the expense of a new wardrobe in Minneapolis?’   (p. 11)

Harris’s insights and skepticism about physicians in white coats and research funding are familiar now. As his protagonist (Author) remarks:

“’…You are the boys that send me 50 letters a day looking for contributions for your rotten hospitals. What do you do with the contributions I send?’

‘We done many great things,’ said the first doctor. ‘We are only human and cannot do everything.’ (p. 13)

This slim work, oddly elegant in its tenderness and guyish language, resonates today. Some of the pertinent issues include Author’s difficulty in keeping the knowledge of his friend’s illness to himself, the others’ varied responses to the catcher’s disease and cope with his looming death, some acquaintances trying to take advantage of the situation while others reach out and help, fear of the disease…It’s loaded!

An unmissable medical message – apart from the work’s cultural aspects – is that the young player with Hodgkin’s lymphoma had what was accepted as an incurable illness back then. Today, approximately 90 percent of young people with that cancer type survive for decades after the illness and may have a full life after treatment. With so much talk about the costs of care, and research, it’s easy to forget that this was a usually-lethal disease, even at the best of medical centers six decades ago.

I plan to see the two cinematic versions of this story. The first appeared on TV in a 1956 episode of the United States Steel Hour, with Paul Newman as Author and Albert Salmi playing the infirm catcher, among others. More of you may be familiar with the 1973 movie, called Bang the Drum Slowly, starring Michael Moriarty and Robert DeNiro.

Toward the end of the book, a character nick-named Piney sings an old tune about a dying cowboy with this verse: “O bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly, Play the dead march as they carry me on, Put bunches of roses all over my coffin, “Roses to deaden the clods as they fall.” Some of the players mind the music more than others. The author admits feeling sad.

Though I didn’t find much on the original music behind those verses, which probably exists and has a long history, I did find a clip of Emmylou Harris singing a newer song of the same name.

Emmylou Harris sings another version of "Bang the Drum Slowly" (YouTube)

Emmylou Harris sings another version of “Bang the Drum Slowly” (YouTube)

All these “lessons” – stories of patients, from patients, about patients, form a trail.

ES

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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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A Comedian Tells the Story of His Child’s Cancer

Yesterday a video came my way on Facebook. It’s a stand-up piece by Anthony Griffith, who tells what it was like working as a comedian when his 2-year old daughter had recurrent cancer and died.

This 9 minute clip packs sadness and pain:

The Moth Presents Anthony Griffith

“If you don’t know about cancer, when it comes back it comes back hard.” It’s “meaner and stronger,” he explains. To compensate for its added aggressiveness, doctors raise doses of chemo and radiation. That’s not easy for anyone, a child no less.

He reflects on his daughter’s condition back then: “So she’s bald, which she doesn’t mind because every kid in the ward is bald, and she thinks it’s a part of life…”

He recalls his predicament, as a parent: “You’re not prepared for this. There’s no books, there’s no home-ed class to teach you,” he says.  Therapists were off-limits in his community. “So you try to figure it out.”

“What did I do?” he wondered, trying to make sense of his daughter’s illness. His musings cross all kinds of barriers.

Griffith was thrilled to appear several times on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. But NBC is “all about nice and everything is going to be OK.” He felt pressured to keep everything “light” when he wanted to speak honestly.

He recounts how he felt. “And I’m hurting, and I want everyone else to hurt because somebody is to blame for this,” he shouts, two decades later. He suppressed his anger, bucked up, and performed.

Rage persists, understandably, still.

The powerful clip is produced by the Moth, an NPO dedicated to storytelling. H/t to Jen Singer.

Thank you to Mr. Griffith, the comedian and actor, for telling it like it is.

 

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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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Why Hurricanes Remind Me of Patient Care

Last week, Tropical Storm Isaac started tracking toward the Gulf of Mexico. As usual, the prediction models offered varying forecasts. Nonetheless, by this weekend a consensus emerged that the tempestuous weather system would, most likely, affect the City of New Orleans.

National Hurricane Center image

The Mayor, Mitch Landrieu, didn’t panic. I watched him on TV on Sunday evening in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Erin Burnett. Isaac wasn’t a hurricane yet, although a Category I or II storm was predicted by then. He didn’t order an evacuation. Rather, he emphasized the unpredictable nature of storms. There’d be business as usual the next day, on Monday morning August 27. Mind the weather reports, and do what you need to do, he suggested to the citizens. He did mention there’d be buses for people who registered.

“Don’t worry,” was the gist of his message to the citizens of New Orleans. The levees should hold. He exuded confidence. Too much, perhaps.

Some people are drawn to leaders – or doctors – who blow off signs of a serious problem. “It’s nothing,” they might say to a woman who fell after skiing and hit her head, or to a man with a history of lymphoma who develops swollen glands and fever. It’s trendy, now, and sensible, to be cost-conscious in medical care. This is a terrific approach except when it misses a treatable and life-threatening condition or one that’s much less expensive to fix earlier than later.

“Every storm is different,” meteorologist Chad Myers informs us.

Like tumors. Sometimes you see one that should have a favorable course, like a node-negative, estrogen-receptor breast tumor in a 65 year old woman, but it spreads to a woman’s bones within a year. Or a lymphoma in a 40 year old man that looks to be aggressive under the light microscope but regresses before the patient has gone for a third opinion. But these are both exceptions. Cancer can be hard to predict; each case is a little different. Still, there are patterns and trends, and insights learned from experience with similar cases and common ways of spreading. Sometimes it’s hard to know when to treat aggressively. Other times, the pathology is clear. Sometimes you’re wrong. Sometimes you’re lucky….

In New Orleans, the Mayor’s inclination was to let nature take its course. He’s confident in the new levees, tested now by Isaac’s slow pace and prolonged rains. I do hope they hold.

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