Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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Palliative Care Is About Quality Of Life Throughout The Cancer Journey

by Dr. Len August 09, 2013

A newspaper story last week caught my eye when it headlined: "Senators Revive Push for End-of-Life-Care Planning." It reported on new legislation making the rounds in Washington to address care planning for those with advanced illnesses.

You remember "end of life care planning," don't you? It was part of the Affordable Care Act debate several years ago, and quickly became translated into "death panels" where opponents made the argument that the government wanted to help people decide not to receive needed treatment. That was a moment that will live in my memory forever, and it's not a pleasant memory.

So here we are with this new bill, and a headline that suggests we may be headed down the same path once again. This time, however, I hope we can have a more rational and appropriate discussion about an issue that is rapidly evolving in cancer care, supported by medical evidence and medical professionals, not to mention organizations like the American Cancer Society who believe the time has come to engage our patients, their families and caregivers, and the nation at large in understanding the need for compassion as we care for patients with serious illness, including cancer. More...

It's Guns vs. Butter (Again): How Do We Reconcile Expensive Cancer Treatments With The Need To Improve The Basics Of Cancer Care?

by Dr. Len June 03, 2013

As we walk the halls and sit in the lectures at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, there's an elephant in the room. It is right there in front of us, but not many of us seem willing to talk about it. Fewer still are making any commitments to do something about it.

So what is this ubiquitous juxtaposition that is right in front of us but we can't seem to see?

It is the contrast between incredibly sophisticated science and computer data that will help us understand cancer and its treatment vs. the reality that we can't have medical records that really work. It is the fact that we have million dollar machines to treat cancer but we have tens of thousands of lives lost to cervical cancer in underdeveloped and underserved countries that could be saved with saved using vinegar. It is cancer care's version of the "guns vs. butter" debate of the 1960s. More...

Genomics And Personalized Medicine: Is It Really Different This Time?

by Dr. Len June 01, 2013

Another year and another annual meeting for the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago. This is a meeting that regularly attracts many thousands of doctors, researchers, pharmaceutical folks and others interested in the science and business of cancer from around the globe to learn, to discuss, to persuade, to educate on the progress being made in clinical cancer research and treatment.

And like every year, there are themes that emerge, that tend to dominate the discussions. And there are other themes that aren't so visible, that don't get as much attention yet in my mind are equally important as they reflect not only on the item of the moment but on how we deliver on the promises we have made in the past and the hopes we all have for the future.

Clearly, the dominant and visible theme at this year's gathering is personalized medicine.

What strikes me about this topic is that over the past year it has gone from a "niche" discussion to a dominant theme not only here at ASCO but everywhere I turn. I am even seeing routine television news shows and commentators talking about the promise of personalized medicine. A talk that I planned six months ago to deliver in a couple of weeks from now in Boston where I was going to discuss (once again) the promise of personalized medicine in cancer care is now passé. Everyone knows about it, thanks to the incredible coverage it has been receiving literally everywhere. Now anyone who has been paying attention to the evening news could give that talk. The topic is ubiquitous.

So what is personalized medicine? At heart, what this is all about is harnessing our exploding knowledge of the human genome and applying it to the treatment of severe disease for individuals based on genetic analysis. Our focus today is on cancer, but other diseases such as degenerative brain diseases also will be impacted by our knowledge of the human genome.

As I sat in a lecture yesterday afternoon on the topics of genomics and personalized medicine, I was amazed about how much knowledge we have garnered in what appears to be such a short period of time. We now are hearing about new approaches to analyze how cancer cells work to discover master regulatory cells. The promise, of course, now that we have insight into the pathways of how cancer cells work internally is that we can target our efforts to those master regulators and conquer them, thus converting the cancer cell back to normality. Sounds simple, but it's not. And it has taken a lot of research to get us to that point.

So one comes away from those discussions imbued with a new enthusiasm that the cure is around the corner. We are almost there. We will succeed--hopefully in the very near term.

But then I pinch myself and say, "Really?" More...

American Cancer Society Celebrates Its 100 Year Anniversary Today With A Vision Of Making This Century Cancer's Last

by Dr. Len May 22, 2013

One hundred years.

That is a long time. And although thriving, remaining relevant and engaged for 100 years is a remarkable accomplishment for any organization, the American Cancer Society today takes pride not only in reflecting on the accomplishments of the last 100 years but also in our commitment to continue the fight, and make this century cancer's last.

A lot will be written about the remarkable accomplishments of the Society over the past century. The American Cancer Society takes pride in the fact that it has been able to serve millions of people during that time. It has put its mark on numerous improvements in the science and treatment of cancer. We have made incredible strides in understanding cancer, what causes it and what influences it, including the role of tobacco and overweight/obesity. We have funded 46 Nobel Prize winners at some time during their careers, frequently when they needed a start to develop their theory which led to great discoveries. And we have funded numerous investigators who have made other important and lifesaving contributions to understanding cancer and reducing its burden.

But the list is not complete. There is still too much we don't understand about cancer, its causes, and its impacts on patients, their families, their communities. We have come to a "tipping point" in the cycle where we have unlocked the genetic code of cancer and are just beginning to transform that information into lifesaving treatments. We wrestle with the early detection and prevention of some cancers, at a time when we thought--incorrectly, as it turns out--that simply finding cancer early was enough. We struggle with finding a way to get access to lifesaving or life comforting treatments to those who are diagnosed with cancer but don't have the resources to follow their journey in the best way possible. We have millions of survivors, yet understand too little about the problems they face long term, let alone being able to provide them with a system of care to respond to their needs. We have made remarkable progress in keeping children with cancer alive, free of disease into adulthood, but we haven't acknowledged the terrible price some of them have to pay from the side effects of their treatments. More...

National Minority Health Month Is A Call To Action

by Dr. Len April 18, 2013

April is National Minority Health Month.

That's the "dry" statement. The impact statement is that-unfortunately-for many in this country, this is more than a phrase. It's a reality that their health and their health care are in crisis. And the sooner more of us understand this, the sooner we can make a genuine effort to implement effective strategies that will address the sad state of affairs many people find themselves in when it comes to their health, and preventing and appropriately treating their diseases.

This is about more than high blood pressure and diabetes. It's about heart disease and stroke and cancer and the list goes on. This is about neighborhoods were residents don't have a place to walk or may even have fear of walking outside their homes. This is about people living in communities where they can't find affordable, fresh vegetables and healthier foods. This is about not having access to a regular source of medical care, or getting timely treatment for conditions such as breast cancer which many of us take for granted. It is about assuring equitable and quality treatment once diagnosed. This is about the lack of trained health professionals from these communities who have roots and understanding of their cities, towns and neighborhoods where they might be able to make a real difference in the lives of so many people. More...

Is Cancer Research and Treatment Moving From Evolution To Revolution?

by Dr. Len April 09, 2013

Is our evolution becoming a revolution? Am I in danger of becoming a victim of the same "hope and hype" that I derided as a young oncologist in the 1970's and 80's and is currently the focus of some vocal critics of recent glowing media reports on the successes of cancer research and treatment?

Those are the questions I am asking myself as I reflect on the experiences I have had over the past two weeks. And although I may be proven wrong, I am becoming even more convinced that we are truly at the tipping point, the place where the sweat and tears of failure and slow progress give way to truly significant change in how we view, diagnose and treat cancer. More...

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...

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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