January 07, 2014
I have made a resolution for 2014: I will never, never, never again call basal and squamous skin cancers "benign" cancers.
Why would I make such a strange commitment? The explanation is simple: I spent 4 hours on New Year's Eve sitting in the surgeon's chair getting a skin cancer taken off my nose. Nothing about the experience fits the "benign" label so many professionals, including yours truly, have used: routine; easy to treat; nothing to worry about. Friends, after this experience, which left me looking like a tall, white-haired Rudolph the Reindeer, I am here to tell you these cancers are not to be trifled with, and are worth every effort you can make at preventing them by reducing exposure to UV radiation. More...
October 18, 2013
I attended a meeting in Washington this past Wednesday that got me to thinking about the fact that as we revolutionize cancer research and treatment, we are also going to have to revolutionize cancer care. And that
may prove to be an even more daunting task than finding new treatments for the disease itself.
The meeting was sponsored by a collaboration called "Turning The Tide Against Cancer". The organizers brought together experts from a variety of disciplines ranging from insurance companies and economists to advocacy groups and highly regarded cancer specialists to discuss policy solutions to support innovation in cancer research and care. Walking in, I anticipated this was going to be another one of those sessions where we talked about funding for research, bringing research into clinical trials, and having patients get access to new drugs. But I was wrong. The discussions quickly steered into a different direction: what do we need to do to make the cancer care system work for patients?
Of course there were the continuing themes of "big data" and the impact of genomics on drug development and patient care, but a surprising amount of the discussion centered around new payment models, quality of care, and fundamental redesign of medical care to become more patient centric. And although we talked a lot about data gathering and analysis, what stuck with me was the redesign piece. I thought the discussion around redesign would focus on personalized medicine, but we spent a lot of time on changing the fundamental structure of cancer care and payment.
How are those two linked? Did we miss our focus?
The answer? If we don't change the way the system is working, we won't realize the promise of personalized medicine. Seems pretty simple and straight forward until you start thinking about the implications. More...
August 21, 2013
A discussion on Twitter caught the eyes of my colleagues yesterday, and raised a very interesting question: should insurance companies be allowed to do PSA testing to detect prostate cancer on men as a condition of getting insurance?
What started the discussion was a blog post by a well-known and respected medical blogger who goes by the name "Skeptical Scalpel." In his blog he detailed the saga of a 56 year old man who had a pre-employment physical in order to be covered by his new company's health insurance plan. He was not informed that he was going to have a PSA test. It was just done as part of the process. No informed consent, no nothing, just stick out your arm, have blood drawn, and register your surprise that the test was done once the results come back.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends against any man having the test to detect prostate cancer. Even among those who say the test is an option, -including the American Cancer Society-recommend that a man have a full, informed understanding of the pros and cons of PSA testing before getting the test, given the uncertainties of whether it really saves lives and the known frequency of side effects associated with treatment for prostate cancer. None of those recommendations were part of the consideration for this man when he was examined for his insurance plan.
You can imagine what happened: his PSA was slightly elevated at 5.9. He was "rated" by the insurer, charged an extra $200 a month for his health insurance, and may well have to have a number of additional studies. Not to mention that he may have prostate cancer, and may undergo more treatments-as a result of a test that is of uncertain value for most men. And, by the way, the odds are overwhelming that the gentleman in question does not have prostate cancer, but will have to go to considerable lengths (and some risk) to find out. Because he had not discussed the test, he did not have the opportunity to prepare for it correctly, so his reading may have been falsely high; we'll never know. And, if he does have prostate cancer, as reflected in the USPSTF recommendations, he has a significant chance of having long term side effects from the treatment, but little proven benefit in terms of saving his life. More...
August 14, 2013
We've all heard the phrase, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Well, that saying may hold particular relevance while reviewing a new research report published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The report is an important one. It is an 18 year follow-up of a study designed to show whether the use of the drug finasteride could reduce the incidence and deaths from prostate cancer. The study was called the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial and when it was initially reported in 2003 it showed that the drug could reduce the incidence of prostate cancer by almost 25%. However, there was a catch: there was actually an increase of almost 27% in the number of high grade-or more serious-prostate cancers in the group treated with finasteride compared to those men who did not get the drug. The men in this trial were followed very closely. Since this trial was done in an era when PSA testing to find prostate cancer "early" was part of routine care, these men were screened regularly with the PSA test.
The originally reported results of the trial meant two things to the researchers: first, finasteride was successful in reducing the frequency of prostate cancer, but most of that decrease was in the lower grade, less harmful forms of the disease, and second, it raised the question of whether the drug actually promoted more serious forms of prostate cancer. Some experts argued that in fact there weren't more numerous high grade tumors, only that finasteride made it easier to find them thanks to the fact that it shrinks the prostate.
The debate on the relative merits of using finasteride has continued since. Suffice to say, the use of the drug didn't get much traction. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration added information to the drug label that finasteride and similar drugs could increase the frequency of more lethal forms of prostate cancer and that the drugs were not approved for prostate cancer prevention.
Meanwhile, organizations such as the American Cancer Society have suggested that men should make an informed decision as to whether or not they really want to be screened for prostate cancer with PSA testing, and the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that men should not be screened at all for the disease. But the impact of finasteride on reducing the incidence and deaths from prostate cancer and "the rest of the story" remained unanswered. At least until now. More...
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...
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...
May 14, 2013
So May is skin cancer awareness month. No time like the present to come out with the news: I have been diagnosed with skin cancer.
There really isn't much special about that, since it is a distinction I share with over 2 million Americans who have a skin cancer removed every year. Fortunately, for most, it is a cancer that is not of particular concern since most can be removed. But even those "simple" surgeries--as I have learned from my own experience--can be a bit problematic.
Occasionally it helps to find some humor in difficult situations, and this is one of those times. And since I am generally pretty open about what goes on in my aging body--in an effort to help others understand that they are not alone on some of these issues--I have to hold myself out as an example of what NOT to do when it comes to taking care of yourself.
You see, I am supposed to know this stuff about skin cancer. I know the risks, I know how to prevent it, I know what it looks like, and I know what we are supposed to do when we see a suspicious lesion. Not only do I know these things, I talk and write about them frequently. I am supposed to have a certain level of expertise about skin cancer. In fact, this very month if you happen to be in a doctor's office and they have a closed circuit program from CNN's Accent Health, you will see my smiling face telling you what you need to know about skin cancer.
And if you look closely at my chin in that segment, you will see the little nodule on the left hand side that I chose to ignore--until some friends of mine would not let me ignore it any longer. More...
May 09, 2013
Coming to an office near you: a new test that can "confidently" predict whether or not you need to have aggressive therapy for your newly diagnosed prostate cancer.
That's what the press reports would lead you to believe. And it's really going to catch your attention if you're one of the tens of thousands of men who will have to decide what to do if you are diagnosed with prostate cancer that has what we call "favorable characteristics." And with the test coming to market, you would assume that your doctor would have a good understanding of whether or not it works based on the available studies and information. But guess what? The likelihood of that is pretty low, because your doctor has probably been reading the same press reports as the rest of us, since the scientific studies that doctors should rely on to make decisions about this test are simply not available. But the website promoting the test is there for all to see.
Do I sound a bit skeptical? Well, maybe I am. Because if the PSA experience has taught us anything about testing for prostate cancer, it is that we should learn the evidence before we leap. And in this current circumstance, we don't have much-if anything-to learn from outside of company press releases and promotional materials and media reports coming from the scientific meeting where an abstract (#2131) of the research supporting the test was presented this week. More...
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...
January 10, 2013
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in this country. In 2012, the American Cancer Society estimates that there were about 226,000 people newly diganosed with lung cancer, and 160,000 deaths. If there is good news here-and unfortunately there isn't much good news when it comes to lung cancer-it is that deaths from this dreaded disease have been declining in men and women, since fewer people are smoking. But there is much we have to do to improve this picture.
That's one of the reasons the American Cancer Society is releasing new guidelines on screening for lung cancer. After carefully reviewing the available research, the Society has concluded that there is good evidence that lung cancer screening saves lives by reducing deaths from lung cancer (20% in largest carefully controlled study) in people at high risk when the screening is done by experienced, high-volume lung cancer screening programs.
So who should be screened? Who is at high risk?
According to the guidelines, those for whom lung cancer screening with low-dose chest CT scans are appropriate are people who are between the ages of 55 and 74 and who have smoked 30 pack years (a pack year is one pack of cigarettes a day for one year) or more or who have smoked 30 pack years in the past and quit within the last 15 years and are now within that age range. Those individuals who meet those criteria-should they choose to be screened-should have a low dose chest CT scan every year until age 74.
However, this isn't a blanket recommendation. There are other cautions in the guidelines that you should know about. More...