Living Like It’s Shark Week, Take 3

It’s Shark Week, or at least that’s the situation over at Discovery Channel. The annual, virtual immersion into the world of cartilaginous fish has been adopted by your author as some sort of metaphor, but she’s not sure…

Uncertainty Rules (on Eyjafjallajokull, volatility and a patient’s prognosis)

As pretty much anyone traveling in Europe this week can tell you, it’s sometimes hard to know what will happen next. Volcanologists – the people most expert in this sort of matter – simply can’t predict what the spitfire at Eyjafjallajokull will do next.

It comes down to this: the volcano’s eruption could get better or it could get worse…

When ‘No’ Turns Positive in Medical Care and Education

The medical word of the month is a most definite “no.”

The word is featured, explicitly and/or conceptually, in recent opinions published in two of the world’s most established media platforms – the New York Times and the New England Journal of Medicine. Their combined message relates to a point I’ve made here and elsewhere, that if doctors would or could take the time to provide full and unbiased information to their patients, people might choose less care of their own good sense and free will.

Let’s start with David Leonhardt’s April 7 column, “In Medicine, The Power of No.” In this excellent essay…

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…

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:

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.

Are Doctors Necessary?

Ten years ago, my colleagues and I squirmed in our swivel chairs when a few tech-savvy patients filed in bearing reams of articles they’d discovered, downloaded and printed for our perusal.

Some of us accepted these informational “gifts” warily, half-curious about what was out there and half-loathing the prospect of more reading. Quite a few complained about the changing informational dynamic between patients and their physicians, threatened by a perceived and perhaps real loss of control.

How a decade can make a difference. In 2008 over 140 million Americans…

Looking Ahead on Breast Cancer Screening

The risks and costs of breast cancer screening are exaggerated and misrepresented in the recent news…. My conclusion is that rather than ditching a life-saving procedure that’s imperfect, we should make sure that all doctors and radiology facilities are up to snuff.

We need to distinguish between errors in the measurement (cancer or not) and errors in decisions that we – patients and doctors – make after upon detecting a premalignant or early-stage malignancy in a woman’s breast.

Information Overload

Last week I received an email from a former patient. He has hemochromatosis, an inherited disposition to iron overload. His body is programmed to take in excessive amounts of iron, which then might deposit in the liver, glands, heart and skin. He mentioned “some amazing videos on hematology and hemochromatosis and genetics” he’d discovered on YouTube.

This is the future of medicine, I realized. … Whether physicians want their patients to search the Internet for medical advice is beside the point. We’re there already, whether or not it’s good for us and whether what we find there is true.

Legitimate Concerns and Unfortunate Timing on Radiation from C.T. Scanning

The risks of radiation from CT scanning will almost certainly add to the current confusion and concerns about the risks of breast cancer screening.

Mammography differs from CT scanning in several important ways:

1. Mammograms involve much less radiation exposure than CT scans.
2. Mammography is well-regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other agencies. The Mammography Quality Standards Act (MQSA) requires…
3. Women who undergo screening mammograms can control when and where they get this procedure. Screening mammograms are elective by nature..

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…

On Juno and Screening Test Stats

“Well, well” says the convenience store clerk. “Back for another test?”

“I think the first one was defective. The plus sign looks more like a division symbol, so I remain unconvinced,” states Juno the pregnant teenager.

“Third test today, mama-bear,” notes the clerk.

…”There it is. The little pink plus sign is so unholy,” Juno responds.

She’s pregnant, clearly, and she knows she is.

(see clip from Juno the movie*)

Think of how a statistician might consider Juno’s predicament…

Dinner with my Family

Family gatherings centered on two things – food, and talk about medicine. We spoke of interesting cases (always nameless), challenging conditions and, even back then, the constraints of health care costs. My fiancé, now husband of over 20 years, couldn’t get over how debate over health care dominated our Rosh Hashanah and Thanksgiving feasts…

…when I learned I had breast cancer, I knew exactly what to do. The decisions, though difficult, were almost straightforward, buttressed by my knowledge and familiarity with the language of medicine…

Hello Readers!

Well, I went ahead and started this blog without a proper introduction. Why was I in such a hurry?

Because I think the media’s getting – and giving – the wrong message on breast cancer screening. When it comes to long, boring medical publications like those published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, perhaps it’s not the devil that’s in the details so much as are the facts.

More on that tomorrow –

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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