October 02, 2014
It's October and that means we are about to see a lot of pink for the next 31 days. And virtually all of the work comes down to one simple -some might say overly simple-message: get a mammogram.
But as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM), begins, I find myself one again asking some difficult questions: Are we really looking at the right side of the equation? Is it all about mammograms? Is there more to the story? The answer is absolutely unequivocal and without a moments hesitation: YES! More...
September 30, 2014
I had an interesting day this past week. Sadly, it left me wondering why the same "hope and hype" directed at cancer patients and their families decades ago when I started my oncology career was still alive and well today. But then, maybe I am the naïve one to think that anything should have really changed.
In the morning I found out that a story I had been interviewed for a story which appeared on the Kaiser Health News website. A discussion about proton beam therapy for cancer (PBT), it basically pointed out that insurers aren't necessarily paying for the treatment and that the information supporting its use is not as definitive as some would hope or claim.
Not long after, I was informed of an online discussion on Twitter (called a "tweet chat" at #protonbeam) being hosted by a major medical institution and a well-known weekly newsmagazine on the very topic of proton beam therapy, or PBT. What I watched unfold over the hour-long discussion was what I call a "scrum" of doctors and public relations people promoting proton beam therapy as the answer to many cancer treatment dilemmas with nary a word about the limitations of our knowledge or potential problems with the treatment. It was all about "we can do it, call us and we will tell you how good we are, and insurers won't pay us." Simply stated, the "conversation" seemed to be glancing by some of the inconvenient facts surrounding what has become another poster story for how we develop and promote new treatments in medicine, let alone cancer care. More...
July 24, 2014
I had the privilege this week to serve as the keynote speaker for the 4th Summit sponsored by Latinas Contra Cancer-an organization founded and led by Ysabel Duron, a formidable cancer survivor and news media presence in San Francisco.
Bringing together members of the Latino community, researchers, community health workers, promotores (more on that later) and advocates, the summit focused on the issues facing the Latino community in increasing awareness, access to care, improved treatment and research opportunities among other topics. But what was most impressive was the spirit, engagement and commitment that permeated the room for the two days of the meeting.
I would like to share with you some of what I learned during the preparation for that lecture, as well as some observations that tie together the impact and calls to action that are relevant to the Latino community and many other ethnic and socioeconomic groups in the United States. (You may wish to refer to the American Cancer Society's "Cancer Facts and Figures for Hispanics/Latinos 2012-2014" which contains a wealth of information relative to cancer for this community.) More...
June 02, 2014
The annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology here in Chicago is a place where many commercial interests jostle for attention to make their latest promising therapy the star of the show. But this weekend, a standard widely available generic drug stole the show by producing incredible results in improving survival for men with advanced prostate cancer. And that has some of us asking, "Why did it take so long to find out? More...
March 27, 2014
I had the opportunity earlier this week to participate in a Twitter chat on the topic of colorectal cancer awareness. The chat was intended to bring attention to a nationwide campaign called "80 by 2018" designed to increase colorectal cancer screening rates to 80% of the population over the next 4 years. If it is successful, we should see a decline in both incidence and deaths from this disease.
But I am haunted by two of the comments I tweeted during the session chat that won't leave my conscience:
"As a doc, you don't forget the patients you couldn't help. And you celebrate those you did. #CRCawareness is key #80by2018"
"Let's remember that screening doesn't help everyone, so don't forget the need for more research in understanding #CRC #80by2018"
While we celebrate the opportunity to save more lives with screening, we cannot ignore or forget those for whom screening for colorectal cancer (or other cancers, for that matter) couldn't or didn't make a difference. More...
March 06, 2014
News reports covering a prostate cancer study this week in the New England Journal of Medicine have all pretty much come out with the same message: men diagnosed with prostate cancer who had radical surgery did much better than men who were assigned to "watchful waiting" after they were diagnosed.
But guess what? There's a critical fact that seemed to be missing in much of the coverage I saw. And that fact is this: the men who were given the "watchful waiting" as described in the study never received any curative treatment. Let me repeat: No curative treatment. That is a much different approach to watchful waiting than we currently recommend in the United States, where watchful waiting after a diagnosis of prostate cancer usually means offering curative treatment when the prostate cancer changes its behavior. 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...
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...
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...