Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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Breast Cancer (112 posts)  RSS

Maybe It's Time To Rethink Patient Safety When 1/3 Of The Cancer Professionals Would Have Prescribed The Wrong Treatment In Response To A Lecturer's Question

by Dr. Len March 20, 2013

I was sitting in a large lecture hall with about 1000 of my oncology colleagues this past week when I had one of "those moments." It wasn't a spectacular moment, and I doubt that anyone else in the room really paid much attention to the moment, but for me it was a significant moment--and frankly a bit chilling if not frightening.

In short, in answer to an audience response question--which admittedly is not a scientifically valid survey--over 1/3 of the oncology professionals sitting in the audience would have prescribed a treatment for advanced colon cancer that not only has been shown not to work, but also shorten lives. At that moment, I became very concerned about the implications of that response and what it may mean for patient care.

Maybe I am overdramatizing this a bit, but what happened pointed out to me that we may have a serious problem in cancer care, and it is imperative that we do something about it. More...

Annual Report to the Nation on Cancer Trends: Cancer Deaths Continue to Fall, But We Can Do Better

by Dr. Len January 07, 2013

The positive news continues: cancer death rates have continued to fall in the United States, for men and women, maintaining a trend that began in the early 1990's. That's the essence of a report released today by the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The report, titled in part "Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975-2009" also features a special section on the burden and trends in Human Papilloma virus (HPV) associated cancers and HPV vaccination coverage levels. Unlike the continuing decline in cancer deaths in the United States, we could be doing a much better job of getting young folks vaccinated against HPV and reducing the incidence and death rates from several HPV-associated cancers, according to the authors of the report and an editorial that accompanied the report.

This report comes out every year. It is a summation of what we know about the trends in incidence rates for the most common cancers in the United States among both men and women as well as the trends in death rates from those cancers that lead to the highest mortality in the general population as well as specific ethnic groups. It is in a real sense a report card on our progress, which in large part is good but in a number of cancers, not so good.

The good news is what we have come to expect: since the year 2000, the overall cancer death rates have continued to decline 1.8% per year in men, 1.4% in women and 0.6% per year in children. That may not sound like much, but when you consider the fact that this is an average change seen every year, those numbers begin to add up. More...

Breast Cancer Screening: The Search For Truth

by Dr. Len November 21, 2012

 We are on a search for truth, but will we ever find it? That summarizes how I feel after reading an article in today's New England Journal of Medicine, which once again raises the question of how much screening mammography contributes to the progress we have made in reducing deaths from breast cancer in the United States, and by inference, in other parts of the world.

The research paper-written by Dr. Gilbert Welch and Dr. Archie Bleyer, two highly regarded researchers-concludes that over the past 30+ years, screening mammography has contributed modestly, at best, in the progress we have made in decreasing death rates from breast cancer.  In contrast, based on their analyses, the doctors conclude that much of the gains we have seen are due to better treatment. An additional observation is that 31 percent of the women diagnosed and treated for breast cancer in 2008 - that's more than 70,000 women - were in fact treated unnecessarily, since if left alone or not diagnosed their cancers would never have caused them a problem during their lifetime. In contrast, they say, these women have endured surgery, perhaps radiation and chemotherapy, all of which have serious consequences and in fact did not contribute to their health or their longevity.

 This is not the first research that has been done on this very important-and very emotional--topic nor is this the first time that the question of "over diagnosis" and "over treatment" of breast cancer has become part of the national debate over the value of early detection of breast cancer.

 As the authors acknowledge, there has been a considerable body of research that has tried to answer the question regarding the value of mammography, and assess the "harms" of screening mammograms (which, for the patient may include repeat examinations such as additional mammograms, ultrasound and MRI, and for some women, breast biopsy in order to determine whether or not a suspicious lesion is in fact cancer). There have also been a number of studies-some of which are included in an online table which accompanies the Welch and Bleyer report-which try to determine how many women were treated for their breast cancer without health benefit.

 So let's acknowledge two basic principles:

 One: Many experts agree with the principles espoused in this current report. Yes, some women do have to undergo additional studies to determine if something seen on a screening mammogram is in fact a cancer.

 Two: many experts acknowledge that we do treat some women who would otherwise have done perfectly well had we not found their breast cancers in the first place. More...

A Moment Of Reflection As The Pink Of Breast Cancer In October Gives Way To The Reality of Lung Cancer In November

by Dr. Len November 05, 2012

Now that we are saying goodbye to the pink of October as we move onward from breast cancer awareness month, let us welcome the month of November, when we will shift our attention to lung cancer.

An article I read this past week posted on "Fair Warning" highlighted these issues, using breast cancer and lung cancer as a frame of reference. It carefully and in my personal opinion very professionally looked at the differences. Not casting blame, not failing to report both sides of the story, the author concisely pointed out how the way we relate to these two cancers is so fundamentally different.

In October we are awash in pink. Sometimes it seems the whole world is "pinked."  Breast cancer is a passionate and compassionate topic, one that touches so many aspects of our sensitivities and sensibilities. It is a disease which frightens many women. It is a disease worthy of our efforts to find a preventive strategy that is acceptable and a treatment that will provide a cure. It is a disease which in our minds is almost always curable, if only we find it early. And-please keep this in mind-it is a disease where the perception is common that women (and the rare man) didn't do something specific to cause in the first place, other than occasionally to have the unfortunate fate of having been born to parents who carried a genetic trait that increased their risk.

Although lung cancer is a disease that merits our concern and our focused and committed efforts to reduce its incidence and impact on our lives, our families and our society, the reality is that how we talk and act about lung cancer is eons away from how we approach the topic of breast cancer. After all, lung cancer is in the minds of many a disease that people bring on themselves. If only they didn't give in to tobacco. If only they had stopped when they knew the real risks. If only, if only, if only...

Lung cancer is almost always a fatal disease. It is a disease that frequently strikes in the later years of life, when other diseases are also prevalent, and those other diseases (think heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease) can substantially impact the ability to treat lung cancer. It is a disease where screening has proven to be successful, but we forget that the vast majority of people screened for lung cancer still died and a significant number of folks who were screened but didn't have lung cancer died from the investigations needed to prove they didn't have lung cancer in the first place.

Breast cancer touches almost everyone, and the survivors (fortunately) are legion. They carry the flag to promote early detection, research into treatment, political attention to issues of interest (think mammography and more recently breast density), and fundraising for the cause.

Lung cancer is, in comparison, much more hidden, even perhaps shunned and shamed, since it is perceived as a disease of blame. There is no army of survivors. Much less is spent on lung cancer research compared to breast cancer. Lung cancer does not get a lot of political attention unless we are talking about laws to decrease smoking (which are not bad in and of themselves). But when you think about it, many of those laws are backed not by the smokers-who still want the right to expose themselves to second hand smoke in the last refuges available, such as bars frequented only by adults-but rather by the legions of people who understandably will no longer tolerate the true evils of second hand smoke where they work, where they play and even where they live (smoking in communal buildings such as apartments and condominiums is becoming a hot topic). More...

How Do Cancer Survivors Cope So Well?

by Dr. Len October 10, 2012

Last week David Sampson, who is a colleague of mine here at the American Cancer Slociety, sent me a blog written by a woman well known in the breast cancer community who days previously had been diagnosed with recurrence of her breast cancer. The blog has captivated me, perhaps more so now that I have been facing some of my own health issues. And it reminded me about how special patients living with cancer really are.

 

Lisa Bonchek Adams blogs at http://lisabadams.com/. She was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer shortly after the birth of her 3rd child, more than five years ago. Last week she was told that her disease had progressed to stage IV, and treatment planning is currently underway.

 

What is so remarkable to me is that in the face of an overwhelming circumstance, Ms. Adams had the presence of mind to write a commentary titled, "What to do when you get diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer: some starting thoughts...especially about children." She then proceeds to lay out in a very organized, almost dispassionate way some very practical advice on how to approach the circumstance of discussing the change in your life that happens when diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, concluding:

 

"I will be posting more tips about what I'm doing in the weeks and months ahead. Hopefully they will help you or someone you care about. There is so much you can't control during this time, and that's unnerving. Even taking steps like these can give you concrete tasks and a feeling of accomplishment that you are helping yourself and those you love." (emphasis mine)

 

 

The advice is practical, but what really got to me was how her commentary was so straightforward. And this from a lady who just heard the news no one wants to hear: your cancer has spread; the length of your years uncertain. More...

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month We Must Not Only Celebrate Success, But Reflect On Our Limitations As Well

by Dr. Len October 03, 2012

I find myself sitting here to write a blog in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness month, and frankly it's not as easy as I anticipated. And I am asking myself why that is.

 

We have made considerable progress in the early detection of breast cancer. I have commented frequently about the differences in breast cancer detection, treatment and survival today and when I started my medical training and career in the 1970's.

 

Early detection is clearly a success story if the measure of success is whether or not we can find breast cancer when it is "small" in most women. Our technology lets us do that with mammography techniques that are far more accurate and sophisticated than they were a few decades ago. Much of our discussion today centers around what role newer approaches, such as MRI, ultrasound, and most recently 3-D mammography have in early detection of breast cancer.

 

Our treatments are much more refined than they were in 1970, as well. We now have lumpectomy and radiation as a valid replacement for many mastectomies. We have sentinel node biopsy instead of axillary node dissection, which for some women adds nothing but long term misery caused by swelling of the arm. We have hormone-related treatments, chemotherapies, and biologic therapies that can prevent cancer from recurring; and we have an increasing number of promising approaches to treat the disease if it does come back.

 

We have genetic tests that can help pinpoint women at higher risk of developing breast cancer, and others that can help some women and their doctors decide whether or not they need to receive chemotherapy as part of their adjuvant (preventive) treatment after primary treatment with surgery.

 

We certainly have increased awareness of breast cancer beyond anything imagined in 1970. It's hard to imagine, but back then, cancer was not discussed in polite company (really). Some women did everything they could to hide their disfigurement and even what they thought was their "shame." Today, breast cancer is discussed openly and frankly (most of the time), and the voice of advocates is being heard at levels never dreamed of decades ago.

 

So with all this progress, why shouldn't I be celebrating our successes? More...

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month We Must Not Only Celebrate Our Success But Also Understand Our Limitations

by Dr. Len October 03, 2012

I find myself sitting here to write a blog in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness month, and frankly it's not as easy as I anticipated. And I am asking myself why that is.

 

We have made considerable progress in the early detection of breast cancer. I have commented frequently about the differences in breast cancer detection, treatment and survival today and when I started my medical training and career in the 1970's.

 

Early detection is clearly a success story if the measure of success is whether or not we can find breast cancer when it is "small" in most women. Our technology lets us do that with mammography techniques that are far more accurate and sophisticated than they were a few decades ago. Much of our discussion today centers around what role newer approaches, such as MRI, ultrasound, and most recently 3-D mammography have in early detection of breast cancer.

 

Our treatments are much more refined than they were in 1970, as well. We now have lumpectomy and radiation as a valid replacement for many mastectomies. We have sentinel node biopsy instead of axillary node dissection, which for some women adds nothing but long term misery caused by swelling of the arm. We have hormone-related treatments, chemotherapies, and biologic therapies that can prevent cancer from recurring; and we have an increasing number of promising approaches to treat the disease if it does come back.

 

We have genetic tests that can help pinpoint women at higher risk of developing breast cancer, and others that can help some women and their doctors decide whether or not they need to receive chemotherapy as part of their adjuvant (preventive) treatment after primary treatment with surgery.

 

We certainly have increased awareness of breast cancer beyond anything imagined in 1970. It's hard to imagine, but back then, cancer was not discussed in polite company (really). Some women did everything they could to hide their disfigurement and even what they thought was their "shame." Today, breast cancer is discussed openly and frankly (most of the time), and the voice of advocates is being heard at levels never dreamed of decades ago.

 

So with all this progress, why shouldn't I be celebrating our successes? More...

Expert Opinion: A US Perspective On Beating Cancer

by Dr. Len September 06, 2012

(Author's note: The following blog was posted today on the "Science Update Blog" hosted by Cancer Research UK, where you can read it in its entirety. My thanks to Cancer Research UK and especially to Oliver Childs who made this opportunity available.)

 

Expert opinion: a US perspective on beating cancer

Posted on September 6, 2012 by Oliver Childs

 

 

Dr Len Lichtenfeld is deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. We invited Len to share his thoughts about our shared challenge of beating cancer.

As well as giving his unique perspective on the US's "war on cancer", Dr Len writes about the similarities and differences between the US and UK in our approaches to preventing, detecting and treating the disease:

 

It has been a long slog since we started our war on cancer here in the United States in 1971.

 

At times I am not certain that this has been so much of a war as opposed to a series of skirmishes that occasionally have produced incredible moments of optimism. But there have been a fair share of frustrations as well along the way. Our science and our care have made significant progress, but sometimes we find ourselves asking, "What have you done for me lately?"

 

I think it is important to reflect on the progress that we have made on several fronts in detecting cancer earlier, treating it more effectively and providing quality of care for those who find themselves caught in the jaws of illness, especially for those whose journey has not been successful. More...

A Personal Reflection On Lance Armstrong: A Moment In Time, A Powerful Commitment To Cancer Research and Survivorship

by Dr. Len August 30, 2012

Like many of you, I have been reading the various news stories about Lance Armstrong, especially one this past weekend in a major newspaper, which went into great detail about the allegations surrounding Lance Armstrong's cycling career.

 

But what I didn't see in all of that coverage was much mention of the other side of the man, the side that I witnessed up close and personal one Friday in Texas a couple of years ago, the side that has led me to share my thoughts with you today.

 

I saw something that day that I had never-let me repeat, never-seen before. It was a moment that has forever influenced my opinion of Mr. Armstrong, even as these various charges have swirled about him these past couple of years. And the impression it created was indelible.

 

I am not here to hash/rehash the incriminations. I am here to stand up and say that no matter what the truth is regarding the allegations, this is a man who has forever changed the cancer landscape for millions of people in this country and around the world. This is a man who lent his prestige and his personal power to a cause that was dear to him, in what I believe a heartfelt and selfless effort to make the lives of others more comfortable, and more meaningful. This is a man who has offered hope to those in emotional and physical pain, and no matter what he may or may not have done, no one should ever dismiss or forget his accomplishments for our humanity. More...

Will Genomics Lead Us To A Brave New World Of Cancer Diagnosis?

by Dr. Len June 03, 2012

 

One of the things I enjoy about coming to meetings like the current annual session of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is that it gives me a chance to give thought to some larger questions that face cancer care. A presentation I attended Friday afternoon on the impact of genomics on cancer diagnosis and treatment in the future has offered just such an opportunity.

 

Most of you I suspect give little thought to the actual processes that we use to diagnose cancer. One has a tumor somewhere in the body, the doctors take a specimen, send it to the pathologist and the pathologist makes the diagnosis. Simple and straightforward. Get it done and get on with treatment.

 

But in fact it isn't so simple and straightforward. And in the world we live in, it is getting more and more complex.

 

Looking at cancer tissue under the microscope is something that has been done for over a century. More recently, we have seen the advent of special additional tests that tell us for example whether or not a cancer such as breast cancer is hormone sensitive or whether it has other markers such as HER2. We can send specimens of the cancer to a lab to find out whether or not it is more or less aggressive and we can even do tests to find out whether or not--for example--a woman with a breast cancer really needs to take traditional cancer chemotherapy. There are even special stains that can be applied to tumor tissue through a variety of techniques that can further refine the characteristics of a particular tumor and help us determine what kind of cancer it may be, or what subgroup of a family of cancers, such as lymphoma, a particular cancer fits in to.

 

All of that is well and good, but unfortunately that simple explanation does neither justice to how doctors diagnose cancer, nor does it say much about the problems that can occur in making cancer diagnoses, especially with all of the new tests that are available. I suspect that many physicians will agree that simply looking at the tissue under the microscope just doesn't tell us anymore all the things we should know about a particular individual's cancer. More...

About Dr. Len

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP - Dr. Lichtenfeld is Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society.

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