Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

The American Cancer Society

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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...

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...

Who Will Lead Us As We Embrace Personalized Medicine And Cancer Care And Turn The Tide Against Cancer?

by Dr. Len June 14, 2012

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend and participate in a conference "Turning the Tide Against Cancer Through Sustained Medical Innovation" in Washington DC. . The conference organizers brought together a stellar list of experts (present company excepted) to discuss the coming revolution in cancer care through personalized medicine, as well as the barriers and risks we face as science moves us forward towards what I consider a brave new world of cancer research and treatment.


With all of the intellect that was present at that meeting-and there was a lot-there was a theme that crystallized for me and others as the day progressed: we have developed incredible science and incredible opportunities to understand and treat cancer. But with all of the issues that have to be dealt with, the reality is that there is no singular leader-organization or individual-who has the clout and the heft to accelerate all the changes that need to happen if the vision of personalized medicine is going to be a success. More...

Through The Fog Of New Cancer Research Information, The Enthusiasm Of Youth Meets The Wisdom Of Elders

by Dr. Len June 05, 2012

I had trouble sleeping this morning, so I got up and took a look at the tweets on my smartphone that focused on yesterday's sessions at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.


There were literally hundreds of bits of information that covered the span of sessions, from science to quality of life to other topics of interests. I wondered how much of the information we have heard over the past several days will actually make a difference in the lives of cancer patients in the days and months ahead. And while sitting in a less well-attended session hearing an update on another once promising approach, the sad reality struck me squarely: not much.


This is the premier clinical cancer meeting in the country, if not the world. Thousands of doctors and researchers come to this meeting to learn the latest information about clinical cancer research and cancer treatment. There are thousands of abstracts presented and discussed, and constant chatter about the newest drug or the newest test or the newest way to diagnose cancer. The drug companies, the lab test companies, the computer companies are all here to advance their drugs and their tests and their wares. There are receptions, dinners, private meetings all over the place. There are sessions where literally thousands of doctors sit and listen to the top ranked research presentations, which represent the best of our science. There is certainly no lack of buzz, or excitement, or opportunity to learn. This is truly a festival of information about what is new in cancer treatment.


And then I go to a session late on Monday afternoon tucked in a back corner of this vast complex known as McCormick Place and hear a group of presentations reflecting on ten years experience with drugs that we thought blocked blood vessel growth to tumors. There are a couple of hundred people in the room, and the presenters acknowledge that the initial promise of those drugs hasn't been realized. In fact, they note, there are even still controversies over how the drugs actually work. But no one is there to give the story prominence, since it is "yesterday's news."


I can't help but think about the excitement that surrounded these drugs ten years ago when they were to "great new thing." I recall sitting in one of those megasessions where thousands hung on the words that one of these drugs significantly prolonged survival in colorectal cancer. Then, the news was greeted with sustained applause. Today, there is barely a whisper among those listening to the latest information. More...

A Blast From The Past Meets A Drug From The Present To Create A Vision Of The Future: A New Treatment For Breast Cancer That Makes A Difference

by Dr. Len June 03, 2012


This is the stuff of science fiction, a dream, something you could envision but were skeptical it could be done. But now it has been done, and raises the question of whether we are headed "back to the future" in the treatment of cancer.


The drug in question here is called T-DM1. It is an "antibody drug conjugate" between trastuzumab--which is a monoclonal antibody drug commonly used today to treat selected women with aggressive breast cancer--bound to a derivative of another more traditional cancer chemotherapy drug called maytansine.


Maytansine was a cancer chemotherapy drug evaluated in the 1970's and found to be effective in treating breast cancer, but its side effects were so severe that it could not be used clinically. As a result, it became a laboratory curiosity, banned from patient care.


Trastuzumab is one of the really positive stories of the modern targeted therapy era. It is an antibody drug that has effectively treated women with advanced breast cancer that is positive for HER2, which results in a protein "key" being formed on the surface of certain breast cancer cells. Trastuzumab attaches to that key and aborts the internal processes of the HER2 positive breast cancer cells. About 30% of women with breast cancer are HER2 positive, and those women tend to be younger and have more aggressive forms of the disease. Not only does trastuzumab help treat advanced breast cancer in these women, it has had a remarkable impact on reducing recurrences after primary treatment when  used as part of adjuvant therapy in HER2 positive breast cancer.


But there are serious side effects from the drug combinations that are used with trastuzumab in these circumstances. And then there are the limited treatment options availalable once the HER2 breast cancer recurs, which happens all too frequently.


Fast forward, and the chemistry wizards found a way to bind the trastuzumab to the maytansine derivative. The theory was that the trastuzumab could hone in on the breast cancer cells with the HER 2 receptor, and that the attached chemotherapy drug could find its way into the cancer cell where it could do its damage. And because the delivery of this antibody-drug conjugate was so specific to the breast cancer cells that have this HER2 receptor on their surfaces, a lot of the adverse effects previously seen in using both drugs might be reduced. Think of a cargo rocket making a delivery to the space station, then docking with the space station, and moving the cargo into the space station.


Sounds simple, but it's not. More...

Promising New Approach To Treating Cancer Means Hope For Many, But Remember This Is Just The Start Of The Journey

by Dr. Len June 02, 2012

Every year at this time cancer specialists and researchers from around the world descend on Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) to hear the latest breakthroughs in cancer research and treatment.


Through all the fog of all the information--which is impossible for any one individual to evaluate much less comprehend--there is always the search for the "buzz," or the next "big thing" that will make a huge impact on cancer treatment and the lives of the patients we care for and the people we love who are affected by cancer.


This year, it is apparent already that one of this year's "big things" are the reports of new success in an old and ongoing effort to harness the body's own defense mechanisms to fight cancer. And--being the skeptic that I can be at times--I will throw my hat in the ring that maybe this is going to be one of those events that truly will impact cancer care. But despite the enthusiasm, we must always temper our expectations with reality and lessons we have learned from the past that early success doesn't always tell us the whole story.


Without going into great detail here, the reality is that in early stage trials an antibody drug now called "BMS-936558" produced significant responses in a number of patients who had certain advanced cancers and had failed multiple prior treatments. In these studies, patients with melanoma, kidney cancer and non-small cell lung cancer showed responses to this new drug and some of those responses lasted for over a year.


When you see these kinds of results in cancers that are ordinarily difficult to treat, and in patients who have failed multiple other therapies, that becomes news. More...

"Data, Data, Data" Should Never Replace Care And Compassion

by Dr. Len April 30, 2012

Lessons in life rarely come at us with lights flashing and horns blaring. Such was the situation recently when I was attending a luncheon in Portland OR for some of our Strides Against Breast Cancer volunteers.


He was not a flashy gentleman. Most of the attendees were young women, and the conversation was very animated. He was more reserved. Older, gray hair with a worn baseball cap, jeans and a work shirt. A bit taciturn but  pleasant, and he had made a special effort to be there. Clearly he was in some personal discomfort and I realized that he needed to talk.


Without going into all of the details, his wife had died from breast cancer. Obviously, they had been partners for life and her loss was painful. In a sense, he appeared to have dealt with that as well as one can "deal" after the loss of someone sorely loved. As I have said for many years, the sad reality is that when we love we always know that sometime in that love there will be intense loss, and that the loss is never the end of the journey.


We talked a bit and the messages arrived. There were lessons he wanted me to hear, and they weren't entirely positive. More...

Genomics And Targets For The Treatment Of Cancer: Is Our New World Turning Into "Pharmageddon" Or Are We On The Threshold Of Great Discoveries?

by Dr. Len April 02, 2012


One of the things I enjoy about what I get to do every day--besides working for a wonderful organization, committed volunteers and very special colleagues--is that I am able to get a broad overview of the world of cancer research, diagnosis and treatment, among other topics. Over time, one gets to incorporate that input into a larger vision of where we have been, where we are and where we are headed.


Sometimes that "larger vision" is challenged with new information that makes you think a bit about whether you need to readjust your thinking about the state of cancer research and treatment. Recently I attended a meeting where just such a challenge occurred.


The meeting was convened by the Institute of Medicine, and brought together stakeholders to be informed and discuss the current status of genomics and drug discovery in cancer. To a more specific point, it provided insights from a variety of viewpoints on the current status of genomics as a science and how that science and knowledge will be translated to the care of patients, with the obvious goal of reducing the burden and suffering from cancer.


What I heard--while reinforcing some of my usually optimistic thoughts--actually was troubling. As we look to the future of that translation, it was clear (at least to some of the presenters) we are headed for some speed bumps. How we handle those speed bumps could define the progress we make in cancer treatment over the next decade or even longer. More...

FDA: The Quality Problems Causing The Drug Shortage Were Not News To Those Making The Medicines

by Dr. Len March 01, 2012

Sometimes you have the opportunity to be educated, or to learn a bit more about a topic of importance. Yesterday was one of those opportunities.


Attending a meeting (as an observer) of the National Cancer Institute Director's Consumer Liaison Group on the issue of cancer drug shortages, there were some messages delivered that provided a bit more clarity surrounding a very complex problem. And there were messages delivered that had even me sit up and take notice, and frame the seriousness and depth of the problems that confront patients, their families and those who treat them. The observations were--to say the least--very unsettling. More...

The Cancer Drug Shortage: Patients And Families Deserve Better

by Dr. Len February 13, 2012

Does it get much worse than this?


A story in the New York Times last week highlights the dwindling supply of the drug methotrexate, which is vital in the treatment of a form of childhood acute leukemia. The closure in November of a key manufacturing plant-without other readily available sources of the drug-means that children with a very treatable form of leukemia may go without a drug that can make a difference in their lives. And there are no immediately obvious solutions to the problem.


This is-unfortunately-only the latest chapter in a saga that has been unfolding over the past year. For a variety of reasons, the supplies of vital drugs necessary to treat cancer and other diseases have been in various periods of short supply, and we as a nation have been unable to find answers that make sense.


Maybe, just maybe, it's time to take the actions necessary to deal with the problem. Too many lives are at stake to expect otherwise. 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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