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Cancer, Research, Stanford News, Surgery, Women's Health

Breast cancer patients are getting more bilateral mastectomies – but not any survival benefit

Breast cancer patients are getting more bilateral mastectomies - but not any survival benefit

woman looking out window2The most common cancer diagnosis you or a woman you love is likely to receive is early stage breast cancer, probably after detection by mammogram. One would think that given the regularity with which it’s diagnosed, treatment options for early stage breast cancer would be streamlined. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.  There’s a staggeringly large menu of potential surgeries and treatments from which a patient and her doctor must choose, each with their own risks and benefits. Not including all of the different hormone blocking and chemotherapies, patients must pick one of three surgeries, shown here in order of escalating invasiveness and risk of complication:

  • Breast-conserving surgery (removal of the tumor only), followed by radiation
  • Single mastectomy (removal of the entire affected breast and any affected lymph nodes)
  • Bilateral mastectomy (the above plus the the unaffected breast)

One also would assume that the medical evidence base providing the benefits to the risk/benefit equations for each surgery would be large and up-to-date. Surprisingly, it is not. The randomized trials comparing lumpectomy and single mastectomy were conducted 30 years ago, and they showed similar risks of death. There has not been (and probably will never be) a randomized trial comparing bilateral mastectomy to one of the less invasive choices for healthy women. Angelina Jolie and other women positive for the breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) are in a different situation. For these women, clinical studies have observed a survival benefit after prophylactic mastectomy. For the 99 percent of women without mutations in these or other high-risk genes, existing trial data do not speak to current trends.

Even after accounting for [numerous factors], we found no evidence of lower mortality for women who had bilateral mastectomy in comparison to breast-conserving surgery

The complexity of choosing a breast cancer surgery – and how evidence should play into that choice – has been a hot topic in the last two months, after the publication of a large study calculating (based on predictive models) that bilateral mastectomy ultimately provides little to no improvement  in life expectancy as compared to a single mastectomy. Soon thereafter, on the New York Times’ opinion page, journalist Peggy Orenstein discussed the emotional reasons why women remove their remaining healthy breast, but firmly labeled bilateral mastectomy as  the wrong approach to breast cancer, saying, “It’s hard to imagine… that someone with a basal cell carcinoma on one ear would needlessly remove the other one ‘just in case’ or for the sake of ‘symmetry’.” Other journalists shared why they chose bilateral mastectomy knowing that it wouldn’t necessarily save their life.

To improve the evidence regarding outcomes after the three surgery types, our team at the Stanford Cancer Institute and the Cancer Prevention Institute of California used one of the largest cancer databases available: the cancer registry for the entire state of California. We tracked all 189,734 women diagnosed with stages 0-III breast cancer from 1998-2011 to learn which surgeries they were undergoing for breast cancer treatment and how long they survived afterwards.  These are all women who should have been eligible for breast conserving surgery with radiation. Our results were published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association today and have already received media attention.

We found that bilateral mastectomy for early stage breast cancer increased from 2 percent in 1988 to more than 12 percent in 2011.  The rate of increase was fastest among women younger than age 40 at diagnosis, among whom over one-third of those diagnosed in 2011 had a bilateral mastectomy. Bilateral mastectomy was more often chosen by non-Hispanic white women, those with private insurance, and those who received care at a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center; while unilateral mastectomy was more often chosen by non-white women and those with public/Medicaid insurance. Even after accounting for characteristics of the women themselves, their tumor types, and their hospitals, we found no evidence of lower mortality for women who had bilateral mastectomy in comparison to breast-conserving surgery. Surprisingly, we found that women who underwent unilateral mastectomy had higher mortality than those who had the other two surgery types. We concluded that despite the growing popularity of bilateral mastectomy, it likely does not provide a better outcome than a less invasive procedure.

These data and the public response to them underscore the need for more updated and more personalized information regarding outcomes after common surgeries. Ideally, these would be accessible real-time by patients and their doctors in easily-understood formats.

Christina A. Clarke, PhD, is a Research Scientist and Scientific Communications Advisor for the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, and a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Previously: At Stanford event, cancer advocate Susan Love talks about “a future with no breast cancer”, Exploring the reasons behind choosing a double mastectomy and Researchers unsure why some breast cancer patients choose double mastectomies
Photo by Alex

Cancer, Parenting, Pediatrics, Public Health, Research

Study shows number of American teens using sunscreen is declining

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Despite an increase in cases of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, growing percentage of high school students get a failing grade when it comes to using sunscreen. HealthDay reports:

The number of U.S. teens using sunscreen dropped nearly 12 percent in the last decade, a new report shows.

During that same time period, the number of teens using indoor tanning beds barely decreased. Both indoor tanning and failure to use sunscreen increase the risk of skin cancers, including deadly melanomas, the researchers noted.

“Unfortunately, we found a decrease in the overall percentage of teens who reported wearing sunscreen, from 67.7 percent in 2001 to 56.1 percent in 2011,” said lead researcher Corey Basch, an associate professor in the department of public health at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.

“Using sun-protective behaviors like applying sunscreen and avoiding intentional exposure to tanning devices will be key [to lowering cancer risk],” she added.

Use of indoor tanning devices by white girls decreased only slightly, from 37 percent in 2009 to 29 percent in 2011, she said.

Study authors say more research is need to understand why teens aren’t following national guidelines regarding sun protection.

Previously: Melanoma rates exceed rates of lung cancer in some areas, Beat the heat – and protect your skin from the sun, Working to protect athletes from sun dangers and Stanford study: Young men more likely to succumb to melanoma
Photo by Alex Liivet

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Cancer, Men's Health

Managing a prostate cancer diagnosis: From leader to follower, and back again

We’ve partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories; this month’s bonus column comes from patient advocate Jim Rieder.

Caring for others has always been part of my approach to life. I built my career in health care serving as the CEO of a statewide non-profit foundation, in addition to being the CEO of seven diverse types of hospitals. Naturally, I was intimately familiar with the steps necessary for a person to become an empowered patient. But when I was forced into the role of being the patient, the initial transformation was surprisingly more intense and unsettling than I had imagined it would be.

Managing prostate cancer is a battle. Recognize it as such. Invest the time and energy necessary to empower yourself with the knowledge you’ll need to make informed choices about your path of treatment

When a person is diagnosed with any type of cancer, the obvious objective is to get rid of it completely as quickly as possible. After being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002 and doing my due diligence, I ultimately decided that a radical prostatectomy was the best course of treatment for me. I had the surgery in 2003, and I’m very happy to report that I’ve been cancer-free ever since. However, it’s important to recognize that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for treating prostate cancer.

In response to prostate cancer diagnosis, it’s critical to take a step back, take a few deep breaths, and try to approach the situation calmly and logically. Don’t let anyone rush you. There’s ALWAYS time to evaluate the medical options and get a second opinion from another medical expert who ideally is not affiliated with the same practice as the physician who provided the initial diagnosis or treatment recommendations. Know that watchful waiting or active surveillance can be viable options. Every treatment has side effects, which typically include erectile dysfunction and/or incontinence. The skill of the physician and the amount of experience specific to the procedure being performed are very important in minimizing the presence and ongoing impact of these side effects.

Some guys pursue their treatment and quietly return to business as usual without ever talking about their prostate cancer or its side effects. While I respect the option of maintaining privacy, I encourage anyone who’s facing a diagnosis of prostate cancer to reach out for help from others who have already traveled the same path, and to reciprocate down the line by helping others who will be grappling with the involuntary transition into joining the prostate cancer community. Also recognize that prostate cancer affects spouses or partners, as well as family members. Their support is also very important.

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Cancer, Genetics, Research, Science, Stanford News

Unraveling the secrets of a common cancer-causing gene

Unraveling the secrets of a common cancer-causing gene

The Myc protein can cause a lot of trouble when it’s mutated or expressed incorrectly. Under those condition it’s called an oncogene, and it’s associated with the development of more than half of all human cancers. But because its cellular influence is vast (it controls the expression of thousands of genes and regulatory molecules), it’s been tough for scientists to learn which of its many effects are cancer-causing.

Now oncologist Dean Felsher, MD, PhD, and his colleagues have found that just a handful of genes are responsible for the Myc oncogene’s devastating outcomes. Their work was published today in Cancer Cell. As I wrote in our release:

The genes identified by the researchers produce proteins that govern whether a cell self-renews by dividing, enters a resting state called senescence or takes itself permanently out of commission through programmed cell suicide. Exquisite control of these processes is necessary to control or eliminate potentially dangerous tumor cells.

In particular, the researchers found that Myc works through a family of regulatory RNA molecules that govern how (and when) tightly packaged genes in the DNA/protein complex called chromatin are made available for transcription into proteins that do much of the work of the cell. Understanding this process might help researchers find ways to throw a molecular wrench into the Myc mechanism.

“One of the biggest unanswered questions in oncology is how oncogenes cause cancer, and whether you can replace an oncogene with another gene product,” Felsher told me. “These experiments begin to reveal how Myc affects the self-renewal decisions of cells. They may also help us target those aspects of Myc overexpression that contribute to the cancer phenotype.”

The reliance of many cancer cells on oncogenes like Myc is called oncogene addiction. In many cases, blocking the expression of an oncogene, or tinkering with its activity, causes cancer cells to stop growing and tumors in animals to regress. Recently Felsher and his colleagues published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describing how inactivating two oncogenes at once can work better to fight cancer in animal models by making it more difficult for the cancer cells to develop resistance to therapy.

Previously: Tool to identify the origin of certain types of cancer could be a “boon to doctors prescribing therapies” and  Smoking gun or hit-and-run? How oncogenes make good cells go bad

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Cancer, Health Costs, In the News, Stanford News, Videos

TV spot features a more humane approach to late-stage cancer care

Updated 8-4-14: The video is no longer posted on the Al Jazzera website, but the online story is still available.

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7-30-14: Is it possible to cut the costs of late-stage cancer care by 30 percent and provide a much better experience for patients?

That’s the question that recently brought an Al Jazzera America TV news crew out to the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, to interview patients enrolled in a new Stanford-designed pilot study on cancer care. You can watch their 9-minute video on this topic here.

The guiding principle behind this cancer-care program is this: Make sure that patients are fully informed about survival odds and treatment side effects well before they’re on the brink of death, when emotions overwhelm the decision-making skills of patients, their families and clinicians.

“Eighty percent of all cancer patients express a desire to die at home, yet only 10 percent do,” says Manali Patel, MD, the VA hospital oncologist running this study. “These end-of-life conversations, which typically take two hours in the beginning and require many follow-on conversations, are too hard, time-consuming and draining for a busy oncologist to do well.”

For these life-and-death discussions, patients are assigned personal care coaches who help them understand the big picture — treatment side effects, survival odds and pain-relief options. They also have access to a 24-hour symptom-management hotline and an option for in-home chemotherapy.

Architects of this new cancer care model, working with Arnold Milstein, MD, at Stanford’s Clinical Excellence Research Center, estimate that this program will lead to fewer unwanted treatments and expensive emergency room visits, saving the overall heath-care system money, while at the same time improving patient quality of life.

Previously: Communicating with terminally ill patients: A physician’s perspective, Identifying disparities in palliative care among cancer and non-cancer patients, Uncommon hero: A young oncologist fights for more humane cancer care, The money crunch: Stanford Medicine magazine’s new special report and New Stanford center to address inefficient health care

Cancer, Dermatology, In the News, Public Safety, Research, Stanford News

A closer look at new research showing disproportionate rates of melanoma in Marin County

Last week, Cancer Prevention Institute of California/Stanford Cancer Institute researcher Christine Clarke, PhD, shared results of a new report (.pdf) showing that a county in California has higher numbers of melanoma skin cancer than the rest of the state. On this morning’s Forum Clarke joined two other guests, including Stanford dermatologist Susan Swetter, MD, director of the Pigmented Lesion and Melanoma Program at the Stanford Cancer Institute, to discuss the research and to offer skin safety and screening tips for the summer.

It’s worth a listen – especially if you live in the county just north of San Francisco.

Previously: Melanoma rates exceed rates of lung cancer in some areasWorking to protect athletes from sun dangers, As summer heats up take steps to protect your skin, Stanford study: Young men more likely to succumb to melanoma, New research shows aspirin may cut melanoma risk and Working to prevent melanoma

Cancer, Genetics, Research, Stanford News

Stanford partnering with Google [x] and Duke to better understand the human body

Stanford partnering with Google [x] and Duke to better understand the human body

Most biomedical research is focused on disease and specific treatments for illness, rather than on understanding what it means to be healthy. Now researchers at Stanford, in collaboration with Duke University and Google [x], are planning a comprehensive initiative to understand the molecular markers that are key to health and the changes in those biomarkers that may lead to disease. The project was featured in a Wall Street Journal article today.

The study is at the very early stages, with researchers planning to enroll 175 healthy participants in a pilot trial later this year. The participants will undergo a physical exam and provide samples of blood, saliva and other body fluids that can be examined using new molecular testing tools, such as genome sequencing.  The pilot study will help the researchers design and conduct a much larger trial in the future.

“We continue as a global community to think about health primarily only after becoming ill,” Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD, professor and chair of radiology, told me. “To understand health and illness effectively, we have to have a better understanding of what ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ really means at the biochemical level.”

“The study being planned will allow us to better understand the variation of many biomarkers in the normal population and what parameters are predictive of illness and may eventually change as a given individual transitions from a healthy to a diseased state. This will be a critical study that will likely help the field of health care for decades to come,” said Gambhir, who also directs the Canary Center at Stanford for Cancer Early Detection.

The researchers hope the work will provide insights on a variety of medical conditions, such as cancer and heart disease, and point to new methods for early detection of illness. Their studies will focus on the genetic basis of disease, as well as the complex interplay between genes and environment.

These kinds of studies haven’t been done before because of the cost and complexity of molecular measurement tools, the scientists say. However, the cost of some technologies, such as DNA sequencing, has been steadily declining, while some new tools and new ways of analyzing large quantities of data have just recently become available. So a first step in the study is to determine how best to use these technologies and determine what questions need to explored on a larger scale.

The work is sponsored by Google [x] and will be led by Andrew Conrad, PhD, a cell biologist and project manager at the company.

Cancer, Dermatology, Public Health, Research, Stanford News

Melanoma rates exceed rates of lung cancer in some areas

Melanoma rates exceed rates of lung cancer in some areas

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Californians, step away from the beach and grab a hat and sunscreen. Our team of researchers from the Cancer Prevention Institute of California/Stanford Cancer Institute released a new report (.pdf) this week documenting the rapidly growing burden of melanoma in Marin County, California. This small, homogenous (and wealthy) county just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco has been the focus of cancer studies before, as high rates of breast cancer were first reported there in the late 1990’s (rates declined there as in the rest of the country in 2003 when women stopped taking hormone therapy).

Our most recent cancer registry data show that rates of malignant melanomas in Marin County are 43 percent higher than the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area and 60 percent higher than other parts of California among non-Hispanic whites, who because of their fairer skin tones are diagnosed with melanoma at 20-30 times the rate of other ethnic groups. Also of concern is that the death rate due to melanoma is 18 percent higher in Marin whites than whites in other regions, a significant difference not seen before. Most of the elevated rates are limited to persons over age 65, especially men.

The Bay Area news media reported our findings as front-page news. Most coverage centered on the question of why the rates are so much higher in Marin County. Our best guess is that the higher average socioeconomic status of its residents corresponds to a higher proportion of people with the known risk factors for melanoma: fair complexion (pale skin, blonde or red hair, blue or green eyes) and a history of “intense intermittent” sun exposure over their lifetimes (exposure in big doses like you might get on a beach vacation in the winter).

However, it is also likely that better access to health care and skin screening has resulted in earlier diagnosis, a notion confirmed by the higher proportion of melanomas in Marin County caught when thin and more curable. Local dermatologists reacted to the statistics with some surprise, but didn’t change their standing advice regarding skin cancer prevention: talk to your doctor about skin screening and stay sun safe by wearing hats, long-sleeves and broad-spectrum sunscreen during outdoor activities.

One statistic mostly overlooked by the media was our finding that melanoma is now the second most common cancer diagnosed in men living in Marin County, as rates have surpassed those for lung cancer. This pattern is very different than that observed for whites in the US and world, for whom prostate or lung are first, and melanoma is ranked much lower. With one of the most successful public tobacco control efforts in the world, most populations in California have seen rapid declines in the incidence of smoking-related cancers of the lung and respiratory system.

Unfortunately, it seems for older white persons in Marin County (as well as parts of Utah and Hawaii, where smoking rates have also declined), melanoma and skin cancers represent a major—and relentlessly growing—cancer threat. Perhaps putting down the cigarettes was accompanied by more time at the pool or beach without adequate sun protection. Although California was the first state to ban tanning bed use by minors, we should look to Australia and other countries also battling rising skin cancer rates for innovative new policies and strategies for encouraging safe sun exposure in our at-risk communities.

Christina A. Clarke, PhD, is a Research Scientist and Scientific Communications Advisor for the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, and a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Previously: Beat the heat – and protect your skin from the sun, Working to protect athletes from sun dangers, As summer heats up take steps to protect your skin, Stanford study: Young men more likely to succumb to melanoma and How ultraviolet radiation changes the protective functions of human skin
Photo by stefan klocek

Cancer, Imaging, In the News, Patient Care, Stanford News, Technology

New technology enabling men to make more confident decisions about prostate cancer treatment

New technology enabling men to make more confident decisions about prostate cancer treatment

To watch and wait, or operate? There’s quite a bit of confusion, and a variety of differing opinions from the medical community, regarding prostate cancer treatment – so it’s no wonder that some men question whether the treatment path they’ve chosen is the right one. A new technology at Stanford, though, is hoping to alleviate some of the confusion and help with the decision-making process.

By using a combination of ultrasound and MRI imaging, Stanford physicians can use the resulting 3D images to get a far more detailed look at the level of cancer and its aggressiveness than they were able to in the past. Patients, in turn, will be empowered with the knowledge to make more confident decisions about how, and whether, to proceed with treatment. ABC7 News recently aired a story on the new technology.

Previously: Six questions about prostate cancer screening, Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions on prostate cancer and the latest research and Making difficult choices about prostate cancer

Cancer, Patient Care

“As a young lung cancer patient, I had to find my own path”: Fighting stage IV with full force

We’ve partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories; this month’s bonus column comes from patient advocate Emily Bennett Taylor.

When I was diagnosed at age 28 with stage IV lung cancer (yes, you read that right: 28. Non-smoker, college athlete, lung cancer), I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. No, not in the joyous, “share-my-news” type of way. The concept was so unfathomable that I sometimes felt the only way it would really sink in is if I screamed it out loud in public. I didn’t, of course. While many social norms, like dressing to leave the house or even showering, went completely out the window as I underwent treatment, I’m happy to report that I managed to maintain at least a semblance of sanity in public. And I’ve thankfully found better venues – such as this article – to share my story.

I learned very quickly that as a young lung cancer patient, I had to find my own path. In a cancer normally associated with older smokers, I was constantly telling my doctors: “I’m different. I’m strong. I want to be as aggressive as possible.” Standard of care is to treat stage IV patients palliatively, but that didn’t sit well with me – I wanted a cure. I was told “no” to surgery countless times. I kept seeking second, third, multitudes of opinions in order to find a doctor who would see me as the young, strong person I was with my whole life ahead of me.

While I tested negative for all known genetic mutations (I know one is out there – please find it for me!), I was fortunate to be part of a small percentage of patients who respond to traditional chemotherapy. After six rounds of carboplatin, Alimta and Avastin, and two additional infusions of Avastin, I found my white knight in Raja Flores, MD, of Mount Sinai Hospital. My husband and I relocated from our home in California to New York City for three months, and on February 8, 2013, Dr. Flores removed my entire right lung, pleura, half my diaphragm, all mediastinal lymph nodes, and the pericardial sac (around my heart), which he rebuilt with Gore-Tex.

Three weeks into my recovery, I began a follow-up course of 28 rounds of high-dose radiation to my right lung cavity. If there were any cancer cells left, Dr. Flores and I intended to fry them into oblivion – even if side effects had me vomiting and nauseated for the better part of six weeks, and exhausted for another six months.

My reward? Dr. Flores declared me N.E.D. – No Evidence of Disease. I’ve lived with that diagnosis for almost a year and a half now, and it feels fantastic.

Is life with one lung difficult? Sometimes. But the most important thing to me is that it’s still life. Lots of surgeons told me “no” because they believed removing a lung would diminish my “quality of life.” For me, losing a lung meant gaining my life, and that’s a trade-off I think any patient would make if given the choice.

If you’re a medical student looking for an area where you can make a serious impact, consider lung cancer. In the past few decades, survival rates for other major cancers (breast, prostate, colon) have increased to well above 50 percent, some reaching the upper 90s. Lung cancer, the nation’s No. 1 cancer killer? A dismal 16.8 percent.

This is a field ripe for advancement. We need researchers developing better treatments and methods of early detection. We need doctors who both understand that the face of lung cancer is changing and are also willing to push the envelope with their patients to find an individualized, aggressive cure.

Every lung cancer is different, and every patient deserves a treatment plan with the goal of preserving life. You can be the difference. You can make an impact. And you can change the course of someone’s life, just like Dr. Flores did for me.

Emily Bennett Taylor, a former state track champion, college volleyball player, and finance manager, is now a Stage IV lung cancer survivor and spokesperson/patient advocate for the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. Her story has been highlighted on the Steve Harvey Show, the Atlantic Monthly, and on her blog - embenkickscancer.wordpress.com - named to Healthline’s Top Lung Cancer Blogs in 2013 and 2014.  She writes candidly about her treatment and life with one lung, as she works to raise awareness about the leading cancer killer.  Emily lives in Southern California with her husband Miles and their two lovable mutts, Ginny & Tonic.

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