A Small Study Offers Insight On Breast Cancer Patients’ Capacity and Eagerness to Participate in Medical Decisions

Last week the journal Cancer published a small but noteworthy report on women’s experiences with a relatively new breast cancer decision tool called Oncotype DX. This lab-based technology, which has not received FDA approval, takes a piece of a woman’s tumor and, by measuring expression of 21 genes within, estimates the likelihood, or risk, that her tumor will recur.

As things stand, women who receive a breast cancer diagnosis face difficult decisions…

Considering Targeted Therapies For Cancer

I first heard about STI-571 (Gleevec, a targeted cancer therapy) from a cab driver in New Orleans in 1999. “Some of the doctors told me there’s a new cure for leukemia,” he mentioned.

We were stuck in traffic somewhere between the airport and the now-unforgettable convention center. His prior fare, a group of physicians in town for the American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting, spoke highly of a promising new treatment. It seemed as if he wanted my opinion, to know if it were true. Indeed, Dr. Brian Druker gave a landmark plenary presentation on the effectiveness of STI-571 in patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) at the conference. I was aware of the study findings.

“Yes,” I said. “There is a new drug for leukemia.”

Since then, oncologists’ enthusiasm for targeted therapies – medications designed to fight cancer directly and specifically – has largely held. But the public’s enthusiasm is less apparent. Perhaps that’s because many people are unaware of these new drugs’ potential, or they’re put off by their hefty price tags.

Today’s Press on Targeted Therapy for Cancer

Today the NY Times printed the third part of Amy Harmon’s excellent feature on the ups and downs and promise of some clinical trials for cancer. The focus is on a new drug, PLX4032, some people with melanoma who chose to try this experimental agent, and the oncologists who prescribed it to them.

What I like about this story is that, besides offering some insight on the drug itself, it balances the patients’ and doctors’ perspectives; it explains why some people might elect to take a new medication in an early-stage clinical trial and why some physicians push for these protocols because they think it’s best for their patients.

And it provides a window into the world of academic medicine, where doctors’ collaborate among themselves and sometimes with corporations.

Here’s some of what I learned:

News on Aspirin After Breast Cancer

There’s promising news on the breast cancer front.

A study published on-line this week in The Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO) suggests that regular, low-dose aspirin use reduces the risk of recurrence and death from breast cancer among women who’ve had stage I, II or III (non-metastatic) disease.

This is a phenomenal report in three respects:

1. The dramatic results: among women who’ve had breast cancer, regular aspirin use was associated with a reduced risk of recurrence and of death from cancer by more than half;

2. The relevance; these findings might affect millions of women living after breast cancer, today;

3. The cost: aspirin is widely available without patent restriction. Aspirin costs around $5 for 100 tablets, several months’ supply.

Health Care Costs, Communication and Informed Choices

For those of you who’ve been asleep for the past year: the health care costs conundrum remains unsolved. Our annual medical bills run in the neighborhood of $2.4 trillion and that number’s heading up. Reform, even in its watered-down, reddened form, has stalled.

Despite so much unending review of medical expenses – attributed variously to an unfit, aging population, expensive new cancer drugs, innovative procedures, insurance companies and big Pharma – there’s been surprisingly little consideration for patients’ preferences. What’s missing is a solid discussion of the type and extent of treatments people would want if they were sufficiently informed of their medical options and circumstances.

Maybe, if doctors would ask their adult patients how much care they really want, the price of health care would go down. That’s because many patients would choose less, at least in the way of technology, than their doctors prescribe. And more care.

What I’m talking about is the opposite of rationing. It’s about choosing.

How Well Do You Really Want to Know the “Red Devil?”

I know what it’s like to get the “red devil” in the veins.

You can learn about Adriamycin, a name brand chemotherapy, on WebMD. Or, if you prefer, you can check on doxorubicin, the generic term, using MedlinePlus, a comprehensive and relatively reliable public venture put forth by the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. If you’re into organic chemistry, you might want to review the structure of 14-hydroxydaunomycin, an antibiotic and cancer therapy first described 40 years ago…

To Screen is Human

Smack in the midst of October-is-breast-cancer-awareness-month, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a provocative article with a low-key title: “Rethinking Screening for Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer.” The authors examined trends in screening, diagnosis and deaths from cancer over two decades, applied theoretical models to the data and found a seemingly disappointing result.

It turns out that standard cancer screening is imperfect.

The subject matters, especially to me. I’m a medical oncologist and a breast cancer survivor, spared seven years ago from a small, infiltrating ductal carcinoma by one radiologist, an expert physician who noted an abnormality on my first screening mammogram…

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