Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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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...

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...

Doctors And Their Eating Habits: Maybe It Is Time For A Change

by Dr. Len September 12, 2012

Every once in a while a medical journal takes a bit of a leap by publishing an article or opinion piece that may just be a bit out of their usual norm or comfort zone. Today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) may have done just that with a discussion of physician eating habits, and exhorting doctors to get to the heart-or should I say "meat"-of the matter and set an example for their patients.

 

Although I may sound like I am being a bit "tongue in cheek" about the article, it is actually a topic that I have thought about frequently in the past.

 

Go to a medical meeting, or for that matter to any meeting which is medically oriented or there are medical implications-and take a look at the food service and you will understand what I mean. Or perhaps your local hospital cafeteria would be a good start. Our local hospital is well-known for their fried chicken, and when it is served I understand the line goes out the door. And then look at the puny salad bar, stuck in the corner... Well, I suspect you get the picture. We medical folks just don't do a great job of setting a good example when it comes to what and how much we eat. More...

Filed Under:

Diet | Environment | Prevention

Genomics Leads To An "Aha!" Moment And Closes The Loop On Tanning Beds And Melanoma Risk

by Dr. Len June 04, 2012

Yesterday I wrote a blog discussing how meetings like the current annual gathering of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) gives me a chance to think about big picture questions.

 

Well, there is another side to the experience that is also interesting and important, such as getting information that helps put together pieces of a larger puzzle, and perhaps even gives closure to a nagging question. When you have one of those "Aha!!!" moments, it can truly solidify your thoughts and maybe even save a few lives in the process. In this case, the same presentation that led to yesterday's comments about the emerging complexities of the diagnosis of cancer also produced another enlightening moment.

 

Dr. Levi Garraway is a highly regarded genomics researcher from Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston who presented a lecture on the topic of how genome sequencing is bringing new insights to the biology and treatment of cancer. As part of his presentation, Dr. Garraway offered information on areas where genomics has already offered us definitive information that has direct implications in understanding cancer.

 

The #1 item on Dr. Garraway's list was a topic of intense interest to me and several of my skin cancer colleagues.

 

According to Dr. Garraway, genetic analysis of cancers from patients with melanoma show an overwhelming number (my words) have a signature genetic marker proving their melanomas were caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. He elaborated that there have been questions in the scientific literature as to whether or not this was the case, and acknowledged that we have had to rely on relatively indirect research to prove the case that melanoma is caused by UV light. However, he continued, because of genomics it is now essentially "case closed" and essentially proven: melanoma is caused by exposure to UV light. More...

The Sad News About Tanning Beds And Sun Safe Behaviors: The Price We May Pay For Ignoring The Message

by Dr. Len May 11, 2012

Incredulous. Astounding. Unanticipated.

 

Those were my initial thoughts when I had a moment to read the two reports released yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the use of tanning beds and sunburn/sun protective behaviors.

 

I was completely unprepared for the results of the studies. And I am supposed to know this stuff.

 

As I mentioned in one of the interviews published on the topic, the information contained in those studies raised my concern and passion about the topic to a new level. And if you are aware of this issue, it should raise your concerns as well. If the trends on tanning bed use and failure to engage in sun safe behaviors continue, we could be in for a serious problem regarding skin cancer and melanoma in years to come.

 

Now we have information from the CDC that the situation is worse than many of us thought.More...

Filed Under:

Environment | Media | Prevention

Want To Reduce Your Risk Of Cancer? Go Take A Walk

by Dr. Len March 29, 2012

I have a confession to make:

 

As soon as I finished reading the Annual Report to the Nation yesterday as I was preparing to write my blog, I got up from my desk and took a walk for 20 minutes.

 

What, might you ask, compelled me to do this?

 

The answer is what made me take a walk is the same reason I am writing this follow-up commentary to yesterday's blog: Sitting at my desk all day may kill me. It may be doing the same for you. More...

Weight And Inactivity Are Threatening To Overtake Tobacco As Risk Factors For Cancer According To Annual Report To The Nation

by Dr. Len March 28, 2012

The "Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer" was released this afternoon as has been the case every year since the first report was issued in 1998. And, like many of the reports previously, we are fortunate to continue to see declines in the rates of deaths for many cancers along with a decrease in the frequency of some cancers.

 

However, the news is not all good.

 

Unfortunately, the incidence of some cancers continues to increase. And, as explained very clearly in this excellent report, this nation continues to suffer from an epidemic of overweight, obesity and physical activity that the authors suggest-but don't actually say-has the potential to overcome the favorable impact of declining smoking and tobacco use on cancer incidence and deaths. The implication is clear that if we don't do something-and do something quickly-to reverse the trend we will see incidence and deaths from certain cancers continue to increase in the future.

 

And I would stress the point that it is no longer just being oversized that increases your risk of cancer, but also sitting all day on the job (like I am doing right now) as another factor that plays into your cancer risk, independent of how large or small you may be. More...

Surgeon General's Report On Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults: So If We Know What To Do, Why Aren't We Doing It?

by Dr. Len March 09, 2012

I had the opportunity yesterday to attend the event marking the release of the 31st Surgeon General's report on tobacco and smoking.

 

What struck me about this report-which focuses on tobacco use in youth and young adults--is that although we have made progress in the tobacco wars, we presently seem to be in a holding action. We are not making advances in reducing the incidence of smoking and use of smokeless tobacco products, although we are all well aware of their risks and harms.

 

The fundamental question remains: Although we have a pretty good idea of what works, when are we going to start reinvigorating our efforts to reduce the use of these killer products among our children?

 

As I have said many times before, tobacco is the one product readily and legally available in the United States that when used as intended will kill half the people who use it. 443,000 deaths a year, 1200 a day, $96 billion each year in direct medical costs and $97 billion in lost productivity. Those, my friends, are big numbers. And they are not just numbers: they are people. They are the people we love, the people we know, the people we work with. More...

It's Groundhog Day; So How Large Is Your Shadow ?

by Dr. Len February 02, 2012

It's Groundhog Day, and that means millions of people will focus their attention on a furry little creature in Punxsutawney PA to see whether or not the animal sees its shadow. Breaking news bulletins say that he did, so we have six more weeks of winter to look forward to.

 

I--on the other hand--think there is a greater significance to Groundhog Day. It is the day when I check on my own shadow, and determine whether or not I have kept my commitment to keeping my weight steady during the past year, which has proven to be a difficult accomplishment. The answer this year is mostly yes, partly no.

 

A brief history:

 

A couple of years ago I took a look at my weight charts for the past decade (yes, Virginia, there are some of us who do that). What I saw disturbed me: for the three previous years, my weight would go down in January and February when I would rigorously diet, only to rise over the remaining months of the year. And, on top of that, when I looked back I saw that both the peaks and valleys were becoming higher and higher, so that each year my weight at the bottom of the trough was higher, and so was the peak in December. And that, my friends, would not suggest a healthy outcome.

 

So I dubbed this observation my "Groundhog Day Diet," based on the Bill Murray film of the same name. You may remember the picture: Murray relives Groundhog Day every day until he gets it right. Much like Mr. Murray, I decided that I would get it right by not going through the same cycle year after year.

 

Finally, this year I met with some success: I did gain some weight, but the peak was lower. And the numbers on the scale were steadier over the course of the year. I partly accomplished my goal. Where I missed was that I still weigh too much, just like lots of you. And, as any good doctor would tell you, over time weight takes its toll on things like our joints, our blood pressure, our cholesterol, you name it. More...

Filed Under:

Diet | Environment | Exercise | Prevention

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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