November 06, 2014
What if you were sitting in the room with some of the best financial and scientific minds in the country and someone asked how many of you would be willing to contribute a modest sum of money to create a company with the potential of speeding up the evaluation of drugs that could revolutionize cancer treatment?
That was the opening question of a fascinating meeting I attended recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one where I didn't want to leave my seat for a moment for fear I would miss another thought-provoking comment or idea.
The meeting was called CanceRX 2014, and for two solid days about 300 participants listened, debated, and engaged in discussion on how to make that scenario happen. No small task, to be certain. But in this era of ever increasing research discoveries of new treatment targets, it is clear that we need some innovative thinking to take what we learn in the laboratory to the bedsides of the patients we care for. And to make that happen we need as much "out of the box" thinking as we can muster. More...
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...
May 16, 2014
This was the dream: we would use technology to create a seamless healthcare system, one where people, computers and machines would work together to improve patient care in many different ways. Health care would be more efficient, it would be safer, it would be less expensive, we would be able to transfer health-related information quickly and accurately.
After spending three days at a meeting this past week with some of the top experts in the field, I am not so certain that the dream is going to come true anytime soon. Perhaps more concerning, the problems--including patient safety issues--that are cropping up in so many areas are very troubling. 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 19, 2014
An article published this week in the American Cancer Society journal CA: A Journal for Clinicians received a lot of media attention. The report showed dramatic declines in the rate of people being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, as well as decreases in the rates of colorectal cancer deaths over the past number of years.
But the press didn't say much about the fact that not everyone has benefitted from the progress we have made in the prevention, early detection, and improved treatment for colorectal cancer. It is a sad but very real commentary on how we approach health care in this country that African Americans have not benefitted equally from this progress in treating a cancer that for many people can be prevented or effectively treated when found before it spreads to other parts of the body.
As a nation, I believe it is incumbent that we address this glaring health disparity. To do less is unacceptable. 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...
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...
June 03, 2012
One of the things I enjoy about coming to meetings like the current annual session of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is that it gives me a chance to give thought to some larger questions that face cancer care. A presentation I attended Friday afternoon on the impact of genomics on cancer diagnosis and treatment in the future has offered just such an opportunity.
Most of you I suspect give little thought to the actual processes that we use to diagnose cancer. One has a tumor somewhere in the body, the doctors take a specimen, send it to the pathologist and the pathologist makes the diagnosis. Simple and straightforward. Get it done and get on with treatment.
But in fact it isn't so simple and straightforward. And in the world we live in, it is getting more and more complex.
Looking at cancer tissue under the microscope is something that has been done for over a century. More recently, we have seen the advent of special additional tests that tell us for example whether or not a cancer such as breast cancer is hormone sensitive or whether it has other markers such as HER2. We can send specimens of the cancer to a lab to find out whether or not it is more or less aggressive and we can even do tests to find out whether or not--for example--a woman with a breast cancer really needs to take traditional cancer chemotherapy. There are even special stains that can be applied to tumor tissue through a variety of techniques that can further refine the characteristics of a particular tumor and help us determine what kind of cancer it may be, or what subgroup of a family of cancers, such as lymphoma, a particular cancer fits in to.
All of that is well and good, but unfortunately that simple explanation does neither justice to how doctors diagnose cancer, nor does it say much about the problems that can occur in making cancer diagnoses, especially with all of the new tests that are available. I suspect that many physicians will agree that simply looking at the tissue under the microscope just doesn't tell us anymore all the things we should know about a particular individual's cancer. More...