This Wednesday, May 18th, so many of us experienced a tremendous loss. Our beautiful friend, Jody Schoger, gained her wings. There is so much to say about Jody, about her warmth, compassion, wisdom, eloquence, determination, and strength. She was a tremendously talented writer and patient advocate who blazed a unique trail through social media, co-founding “Breast Cancer Social Media.” Also known as #BCSM, it quickly became a global online community, providing powerful support, connecting thousands of people from around the world affected by breast cancer, and sharing critical information that was always grounded in and supported by medical evidence.
Jody was fiercely committed to #BCSM and those who formed this tremendously important community. In fact, shortly after she learned that she had metastatic breast cancer, she wrote to me:
“This was a huge shock, but we are absorbing it, and I need to do some rearranging of activities, so I can treat this and still advocate. It is as important as ever.”
And as her #BCSM co-founder, Alicia Staley, shared in a beautiful tribute to Jody, “When it came time to leave, she insisted on walking me to the door and down the driveway. I knew this would be a long walk for her, but stubborn as she was, there was no stopping her. She walked with me, one arm around mine, another hand on her cane … She squeezed my arm and pulled me in close. ‘Now listen, you know what needs to be done for #BCSM. It’s up to you to take care of them now.’” This powerfully shows so much about Jody: her resolve and inner strength, her poignant honesty, her innate ability to gently guide and teach us the most important life lessons–and the simple, but profound fact that she was always an advocate for others in her heart, throughout her soul, and with every breath.
Yet as I have tried to write this tribute today, I’ve found that it is nearly impossible to adequately describe Jody with any words I might share. Rather, it is her own words–such as her blog’s tag line, “Working for a better world, one word at a time”–through which we can remember the beauty, joy, knowledge, and compassion she brought to so many. The following is from Jody’s blog, “Women with Cancer,” a place where I’ll be returning often, to again spend time with her in one of the few ways I still can:
Tuesday, March 24, 2015: “Stable Disease”: “It’s one of those days. I can’t stop smiling. Spring has arrived after a long, grey winter here in south Texas. It was dank, it was long, it was wet and cold … On my part, I’ve learned a lot about the seasons of metastatic disease in these past four short months … I’ll always have cancer, yet I have a team at MD Anderson that will go the distance with me. Friends have stepped forward and clearly demonstrated their love, compassion, and courage. Yes, some things could be better as far as my health news. But being here and writing and chatting with you today is simply marvelous. It just is.”
Friday, April 26, 2013: “Cancer: Round Two”: “It has been difficult, and still is, to relate to this new information. Yet my life is different. How I prioritize will be different. One thing is steadfast: my commitment to #BCSM and advocacy. This is as strong if not stronger than ever. So is my knowledge that I am not alone in living with metastatic breast cancer. When there are times of complete stillness, I know all of you will be with me. That is how I feel about you. And that we are all in this together, in this moment and those to come.”
On the same day that Jody posted the blog excerpted from above, she sent an email to several of us that began in her always honest, open, and eloquent manner: “I wanted you to hear this difficult news from me first instead of Twitter where the link below will be published sometime today. When I went to MD Anderson two weeks ago for my annual survivorship clinic, metastatic breast cancer was discovered in lymph nodes in my neck and axilla. I was so shocked, the only thing I could say to the radiologist who’d performed the FNA was, ‘really? are you kidding me?’ Of course she wasn’t kidding … We are adjusting. I am adjusting, reorganizing, and sticking close to home. Thank you for your friendship and the concern I know that will come my way. You all help make my world go round.”
Jody, you have helped make the world go round for so many, and your words on your blog and #BCSM will continue to be a source of comfort for us. We are heartbroken, but as you showed us, we are adjusting. And we know that we must still advocate, now more than even before: as a wonderful and wise woman once said, “It is as important as ever.”
Rest in peace, dear Jody.
Over the last few years, months, and weeks, we have seen an increasing number of headlines pronouncing immunotherapy as the most exciting development in cancer treatment in recent memory. Yet what is striking to many is that these discussions are not solely taking place throughout the popular media. Rather, immunotherapy is more and more frequently becoming a major topic among oncologists, investigators, government agencies, academia, patient advocates, industry, and other stakeholders–where some express genuine excitement and others weigh in with cautious optimism concerning its potential promise.
Yet despite the optimism, the field is still very much in its infancy, and the evidence is still emerging. As a cancer research advocate, a key part of my role is focusing on the state of the evidence and the implications for patients, ensuring that scientific information is presented clearly and realistically, and raising the need for caution in increasing the hopes of patients when such data is still “in early days.” In other words, because the encouraging results for some patients with previously resistant disease have been widely heralded in the popular media and since immunotherapy is in fact an increasingly active area of research, it is critical that cancer patients and their loved ones truly know what to expect from immunotherapy.
So when I was recently asked to contribute a new article for the American Journal of Managed Care and Evidence-Based Oncology from the perspective of a patient and cancer research advocate, it was immediately clear that the following would be my next topic: “The Promise of Cancer Immunotherapy: Why Patient Education is Critical.” So please click here to read this most recent contribution, and consider sharing it with other patients, advocates, caregivers, and healthcare providers concerning the current realities of cancer immunotherapy, the remaining questions, and why long-term follow-up and continued research is so critical with a much larger number of patients to obtain the mature data needed regarding safety, efficacy, potential adverse effects, durability of beneficial response, and impact on patients’ overall survival.
I’m not sorry to say good-bye to 2015. It was a cruel year during which we lost several beloved patient advocates, who were wrenched away from their families, their friends, and so many loved ones by the monstrous, hydra-headed beast, cancer. It was the year during which I learned that my first cousin had been diagnosed with brain metastases due to her stage IV HER2+ breast cancer. It was the year when I began to fear going onto Facebook, since I’ve now learned heartbreaking news about dear friends there far too many times. And it was the year when I began to dread receiving any emails whose subject lines simply contained the name of a fellow advocate with cancer—because it almost always meant the same thing, more tragic news, the loss of yet another dear friend and remarkable advocate.
In years not so long ago, when I was asked to explain what it meant to be a cancer research advocate, I welcomed the question. After all, I was being asked about my passion, what in many ways had become my raison d’etre. I could pinpoint with precision the very week when I stepped out of my role as a cancer patient and into that of a research advocate. After much difficult, fascinating, intellectually inspiring work, I was now sitting at the table as a partner with researchers, clinicians, and fellow advocates to drive the critical research questions that truly mattered to cancer patients themselves. I was an engaged, vocal participant at national cancer conferences, sometimes watching history being made as new treatment breakthroughs were being presented—and sharing deep disappointment with the oncologists, scientists, and advocates in the audience when novel agents that were followed with excitement ultimately failed to live up to their promise. And I was meeting highly passionate, intelligent, driven people from all parts of the country and, often, other nations, who were fellow cancer survivors and committed advocates, forming immediate deep friendships. It’s very difficult to describe how meaningful such friendships are. They involve an instant recognition of a kindred soul–one who knows first-hand just what you’ve been through from all aspects, including physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, spiritually, when cancer so rudely knocks at your door. These are folks who truly “get it,” to whom you immediately and without hesitation find yourself opening your heart and confiding the most private thoughts and concerns in a way you never could, nor wished to do so with your loved ones, in your reflex to protect them from your darkest thoughts and fears. Such friendships are life-changing, they are life-long, and they are one of the indescribable gifts that can give even the most difficult lives meaning. And yet. When your lifelong friend’s life ends far too soon—and due to the very reason that brought your life paths together when they otherwise never would have crossed—what then?
It’s now been more than 8 years since I’ve stepped into the role of an advocate. And with each year comes an increasing wave of devastating news. The terrible truth is that this should not have been unexpected for we who are cancer survivors and research advocates. For those of us affected by breast cancer, for example, we know that HER2+ and triple negative/basal-like breast cancer subtypes are associated with early relapse risk. And we know that ER+ tumors are associated with persistent late relapse risk beyond 5 years, with up to one-third of patients recurring potentially decades after active treatment. Yet every single time I learn that one of my advocate sisters or brothers has developed metastatic disease, I’m blindsided. And worse, when I receive the terrible news that a friend with stage IV cancer has passed, I still somehow allow myself to be blindsided yet again. After all, for my friends with metastatic breast cancer, I knew that they did not have curable disease. Each time, we prayed that their treatments would lead to “no evidence of disease” (NED) and that this would last indefinitely–or until additional, much more effective treatments became available. And for some friends with stage IV disease, they have remained with NED for several years. Others have sought new clinical trials after their cancer became resistant to their current treatment and were able to maintain stable disease for quite some time, sometimes for years—and if they became resistant to that agent, some were able to enroll on another clinical trial. And yet. There have been more of those times when, after seeing my friends year after year at the same conferences or grant review sessions, they suddenly were not there. Or they were, yet it was impossible to deny how frail they appeared, how very sick they were, that their cancer had become more adept at resisting treatment. And perhaps the most soul-shattering times were those when, after speaking with a friend who seemed to be doing extraordinarily well with her new treatment, we learned very shortly thereafter that she was no longer with us. Each and every time, I’ve been blindsided by their deaths; I’ve been lost, angry, completely unaccepting of their loss from this world.
When undergoing my active cancer treatment for Hodgkin’s and, later, for breast cancer, I often worried about my oncologists and the oncology nurses who spent so much time with us, who supported us at the scariest times of our lives, who provided comfort and strength not just to we as patients but to our families as well. Both of my oncologists and their oncology nurses essentially became honorary family members, as they did for so many others whom they treated day in and day out, year after year. How were they able to form such powerful, caring relationships, yet learn how to cope with their patients’ deaths, the deaths of far far too many patients? Fortunately, in more recent years, there has been increasing discussion and recognition about the impact of such repeated losses and the need for improved resources and support for oncology professionals. As noted in Cancer Therapy Advisor, “Everyone who enters the field of oncology knows that many of their patients will die, but foreknowledge is not protection against the cumulative effects of loss.” I would argue that the same is true for cancer research patient advocates, particularly for those of us who have been actively engaged for several years and are experiencing what has been described as “cumulative grief”–the compounding emotional, physical, and spiritual responses to repeated exposures to profound loss. Just weeks ago, upon learning of another friend’s death, I shared with a fellow breast cancer survivor that I was still reeling from the terrible news (and the awful news before that, and the devastating news before that)—and her response was direct, simple, and wise: “Deb, this is the hard part.”
That it is—and during this past year, the sheer weight of it was sometimes more than I thought I could bear. Yet it’s during those times that I try to remind myself: in addition to being advocates for cancer research, we’re here to advocate for one another, and the support we provide to our fellow advocates during these devastating times is crucial. Oncologists and oncology nurses have appropriately stressed the need for greater institutional and professional support to help them cope with their grief due to their patients’ deaths. It could be extraordinarily helpful if we, too, as dedicated cancer patient advocates, similarly received such supportive and educational resources through cancer organizations and professional societies on topics such as cumulative grief, end-of-life care, pain management, and palliative care. After all, as we know so well, knowledge is power and often provides the tools and the strength to transform even the most difficult, painful problems and emotions, including grief, into truly positive outcomes.
In addition, every time we experience these terrible losses, it serves as a stark, powerful reminder of why we became advocates in the first place. As cancer patients and advocates, we are the ones who bring a critical sense of urgency to identifying the cancer research questions that truly matter, that will have the most impact, that will ultimately lead to more cures. By working to support one another and to transform our grief into remembrance and renewed commitment to our advocacy efforts, perhaps that is the most appropriate, necessary, and powerful way to honor all of those we have lost.
“Grief starts to become indulgent, and it doesn’t serve anyone, and it’s painful. But if you transform it into remembrance, then you’re magnifying the person you lost and also giving something of that person to other people, so they can experience something of that person.”
It pains me to say that just 5 days after the new year, our cancer patient advocacy community has experienced yet another devastating loss.
Ellen Stovall was the Senior Health Policy Advisor at the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS) and a founding member of the Institute of Medicine (IOM)’s National Cancer Policy Board. As I posted on Ellen’s wall on Facebook, she was a shining light to so many of us, and it is impossible to articulate the profound difference she has made for cancer survivors in this country. She spoke profoundly and powerfully on the need for further knowledge about the very serious late effects that can result from cancer treatment. Though I never had the honor of meeting Ellen face to face, I was and will always be inspired by her remarkable accomplishments in cancer survivorship advocacy. As I’ve written about here in my blog, like Ellen, I was originally diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and I also went on to develop potentially life-threatening late effects of my treatment, including breast cancer and cardiac disease. It is absolutely devastating that Ellen passed away 2 days ago due to sudden cardiac complications secondary to her cancer treatments. Her passion and commitment touched so many lives, and her legacy will continue–a legacy of ensuring that cancer survivors are able to become true partners in their medical care and that shared decision-making with their medical team will help to prevent or mitigate such life-threatening late effects for many cancer patients. My first major focus as an advocate was the need for improved cancer treatments that minimized the development of serious acute and late effects while continuing to ensure optimal efficacy and positive patient outcomes. Going forward, my efforts in this critical area will be in tribute to Ellen, one of the true pioneers of the art and science of cancer survivorship.
Back in 2002, Ellen shared the following thoughts when speaking during a National Cancer Institute (NCI)/American Cancer Society Survivorship Symposium in Washington, DC, called “Cancer Survivorship: Resilience Across the Lifespan.” Fourteen years later, her words resonate just as deeply:
“So, my closing thoughts to you are, as you leave this room today to go back to the very, very important work of writing grants, reviewing grants, and helping people in your communities day to day deal with their personal journeys of survivorship, please know that the cancer advocacy community, represented by scores of organizations that were founded by and for cancer survivors, stands ready and eager to tell you our stories of survivorship with the belief that while grateful for the blessings of survivorship, for the increasing length of days, months, and years added because of new and improved therapies for cancer, that this diagnosis is filled with many punishing and adverse consequences as well as joy for living each day.
“The physician Victor Sidel once said that statistics are people with their tears wiped away. That is the way NCCS views cancer survivors, and on behalf of all of us at NCCS, thank you for your attention and for all you do for cancer survivorship.”
Thank you, Ellen, for all you have done for so many. Rest in peace.
During that indescribable moment when you first learn that you have cancer, many of us experienced a virtual avalanche of thoughts, worries, and raw emotions–or, for some of us, everything came to a standstill, and a thick fog seemed to drop from the sky, blocking all sounds and sights. Or somehow, due to the mystery that is the human brain, both may simultaneously occur, as it did in my case with both of my cancer diagnoses. When I received my first cancer diagnosis, my initial thoughts were stark terror, confusion, denial, the wish to turn back the clock, intense fear that I wasn’t strong enough to handle the pain and terrible side effects that may come with my treatment, a sense that I’d ultimately get through this, deep panic that maybe I was wrong–and then came the self-protective haze to help cocoon me from these far too troubling worries. But one thought that didn’t come to mind was concern that I wouldn’t be able to pay for the costs of my treatment. After all, I was fortunate in that I’d just started working full-time shortly after graduating from college, and I was confident that my insurance would immediately provide coverage for these costs. Silly girl: oh, how wrong I was.
For this month’s special edition of Evidence-Based Oncology’s “Cost and Value Edition,” I was asked to contribute a piece from my patient perspective concerning the financial toll that cancer treatment takes on so many patients. As I began to compose the article, I found myself describing a soul-shattering confrontation I had with my insurance company as a stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma patient at the age of 22–an experience I’ve never written about before since it was so upsetting, yet one that almost certainly will resonate with many of you who have been diagnosed with cancer. But as I note in this piece, as terrible as that experience was, so many cancer survivors have gone through–and more and more are currently experiencing–far worse. Because the fact is that due to the ever increasing costs of cancer treatments, particularly in this genomic era when the cost of one targeted agent may be upwards of $10,000 per month, such rising costs together with increasingly restrictive health insurance coverage, expensive deductibles, and increasing specialty visit and drug co-pays have created “financial toxicity,” an adverse effect with serious implications that may lead to changes in treatment-related decision-making, higher rates of nonadherence with oral chemotherapy drugs, and decreased overall quality and, potentially, length of life.
As I noted in the article, during this year’s American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting, I was struck by the fact that the phrase “financial toxicity” suddenly appeared to be on everyone’s lips. I remember appreciating that this very real adverse effect of cancer treatment finally had a name—yet also thinking that though the term may be new, the condition itself was not. Importantly, however, the crucial difference now is that an increasing number of oncologists, patients, advocates, and other stakeholders are speaking about this openly, honestly, and effectively and actively working on measures to prevent or better manage this serious toxicity of cancer. Please click here to read my patient perspective in this month’s edition of Evidence-Based Oncology: “Financial Toxicity: a New Term, but Not a New Reality for Many Cancer Patients.” And please consider sharing your thoughts here on this serious issue.
October used to be one of my favorite months: the brilliant blue sky, the sharp crispness of the air, the beautiful turning of the leaves, and the fact that my birthday was just a few days before Halloween. But 8 years ago, that all changed.
Back in October 2007, I had finally completed my chemotherapy. I’d finished the uncomfortable tissue expansion sessions that were part of my reconstruction. And the tissue expanders had finally been replaced with my silicone implants. But on that day, the fact was that I was still healing, completely exhausted, in the throes of so-called “chemo brain,” and once again hiding my bald head beneath a scarf to protect my scalp from the newly cold temperatures. I’d just stepped into the grocery store and was dragging myself from aisle to aisle, trying to find something–anything–that might appeal to me, since everything I ate still tasted like it was thickly coated with metal. And although I’d been wearing scarves or a wig while at work or out in public for many months, I was feeling more subconscious than usual–because everywhere I looked (and I do mean everywhere), all I could see was light pink, dark pink, muted pink, bold pink. The yogurt, the soup cans, the magazines, the cash registers themselves, balloons (really, balloons?)—they were all covered with pink ribbons announcing “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” Of course, I’d noticed the ribbons during Octobers past, and I’d been donating to the American Cancer Society and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for many years. But on this day, I was seeing the ribbons with a completely different, somewhat embarrassed, and resentful perspective. Perhaps selfishly, thanks to those Pink PINK Ribbons RIBBONS everywhere, I felt like there was an immense, gaudy, Coney Island-like flashing pink arrow in the air pointing directly at me. And just minutes later, a stranger apparently did notice that strange ribbon-shaped arrow hovering over my head. She walked right up to me in the produce aisle, leaned over, and whispered, “I like your scarf. And I wanted to tell you that just about a year ago, I was exactly where you are today. I’d just completed my treatment for breast cancer, my hair was just starting to grow back, and I felt like I’d been through hell and back. Was your diagnosis breast cancer, too? I wanted you to know that you’ll get through this and that you’re going to be just fine.”
She was a sweet person, and I did truly appreciate her kindness. But I was also mortified. I hated being so conspicuous–and quite honestly, I felt like a woman who was pregnant when complete strangers felt they had the right to touch her stomach. It was hard enough for me to go out in public every day exhausted, pale as a ghost, and without hair, hiding that fact beneath my scarves or my wig, so I essentially felt “outed,” albeit by a woman who had been through what I was experiencing and showing her support and kindness. By the time I finally got out of the store, just the thought of a pink ribbon worsened the metal taste in my mouth.
Since that time, the pink ribbons in October have become more ubiquitous than the falling autumn leaves. They are at the heart of cause-related marketing, where it’s nearly impossible to get through a day in October without seeing a pink breast cancer awareness tee shirt, a pink fuel truck, pink blenders, pink guns (yes, really: guns!), pink beribboned bottled water containing BPA (a known cancer carcinogen), NFL players running onto the field in their pink gloves and socks, and on and on and on it goes. But what many people still do not realize is that some of those companies that slap pink ribbons onto their products every October actually do not contribute to breast cancer research–or, in other cases, make contributions that are not tied to the purchase of the pink products in question.
That’s bad enough. But in my humble opinion, there’s something much much worse–and that’s the steady stream of inaccurate, misleading, and downright false “facts” about breast cancer that appear everywhere you turn, “feel-good” story after feel-good story in every newspaper, magazine, and grocery store circular, and interviews touting how this or that celebrity “beat” breast cancer. So this October, I’ve decided to do my best to debunk some of the myths that have become nearly as ubiquitous as those pink ribbons.
The first that immediately comes to mind is one of the most frustrating, because there are some in the medical community and a number of breast cancer organizations that continue to perpetuate this myth. You guessed it: “Mammography saves lives.” Or said another way, “mammography can only help women and couldn’t do any harm.” Believing these statements leads to a dark slippery slope paved with additional myths, falsehoods, and misunderstandings:
“She must not have gone for her annual mammograms: otherwise, she wouldn’t have been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.”
“After all, no one dies of breast cancer anymore.”
Remember the 2011 ad above from Susan G. Komen–which has been described as the “most widely known, largest, and best-funded breast cancer organization in the United States”? (The red circle cross-out is mine.)
The good news is that when this ad was released, Komen came under fire from scientific experts and knowledgeable patients and advocates due to its misleading statistics and its “blame the victim” message. In fact, two professors from the Center for Medicine and the Media at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin, published an essay in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) (2012;345:e5132) stating that Komen’s 2011 Breast Cancer Awareness Month campaign “overstates the benefit of mammography and ignores the harms altogether. A growing and increasingly accepted body of evidence shows that although screening may reduce a woman’s chance of dying from breast cancer by a small amount, it also causes major harms, say the authors. Yet Komen’s public advertising campaign gives women no sense that screening is a close call. Instead it states that the key to surviving breast cancer is for women to get screened because ‘early detection saves lives. The 5-year survival rate for breast cancer when caught early is 98%. When it’s not? 23%.’ This benefit of mammography looks so big that it is hard to imagine why any woman would forgo screening. But the authors explain that comparing survival between screened and unscreened women is ‘hopelessly biased.’ For example, imagine a group of 100 women who received diagnoses of breast cancer because they felt a breast lump at age 67, all of whom die at age 70. Five year survival for this group is 0%. Now imagine the women were screened, given their diagnosis three years earlier, at age 64, but still die at age 70. Five year survival is now 100%, even though no one lived a second longer. Overdiagnosis (the detection of cancers that will not kill or even cause symptoms during a patient’s lifetime) also distorts survival statistics because the numbers now include people who have a diagnosis of cancer but who, by definition, survive the cancer, the authors added. If there were an Oscar for misleading statistics, using survival statistics to judge the benefit of screening would win a lifetime achievement award hands down, they wrote.”
Even more alarmingly, these authors conducted a survey where they “found that most US primary care doctors also mistakenly interpret improved survival as evidence that screening saves lives. Mammography certainly sounds better when stated in terms of improving five year survival – from 23% to 98%, a difference of 75 percentage points. But in terms of its actual benefit, mammography can reduce the chance that a woman in her 50s will die from breast cancer over the next 10 years from 0.53% to 0.46%, a difference of 0.07 percentage points. The Komen advertisement also ignores the harms of screening. The authors noted that for every cancer detected by mammography, ‘around two to 10 women are overdiagnosed.’ These women cannot benefit from unnecessary chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. All they do experience is harm.”
The emphasis on the term “overdiagnosed” is mine: because overselling of screening mammography has resulted in an enormous increase in the number of women who are treated for breast cancer–but most of whom would never have developed breast cancer if left untreated. The fact is that for women of average risk, screening mammography has led to a dramatic increase in the diagnosis of Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS). DCIS, which is an overgrowth of cells in the milk ducts, lacks the ability to spread, and more are beginning to argue that its description as “breast cancer stage 0” is a misnomer—because DCIS is not in fact cancer. Rather, as breast surgeon and breast cancer oncology specialist, Dr. Laura Esserman, has described it, DCIS “is a risk factor for cancer. Many of these lesions have only a 5 percent chance of becoming cancer over 10 years.” However, because there is not yet a way to accurately predict which patients are at most risk of progression to invasive disease, most cases of DCIS are treated aggressively, e.g., with breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy), radiation, mastectomy, and/or in some cases, hormonal therapy. It’s been estimated that DCIS comprises up to 30 percent of “breast cancer” diagnoses. Yet for the majority with DCIS, the precancerous lesions will stay in place (i.e., “in situ”), will not become invasive, and therefore will never pose a life-threatening risk. The result: overtreatment, where hundreds of thousands of women are undergoing aggressive cancer treatment and at risk for such treatment’s adverse and potentially late effects when they may not have needed such treatment. (Fortunately, ongoing research is taking place, including validation studies of an OncotypeDx for DCIS, with the goal of helping to identify patients who may need less aggressive therapy or no treatment other than “watchful waiting.”)
So the story of screening mammography for DCIS is not a success story. Nor has it been a success story in detecting late-stage disease. As Dr. Esserman has stressed, if life-threatening breast cancers began as DCIS, the incidence of invasive breast cancers should have steeply declined with increasing detection rates. However, that has not occurred.
However, cause marketing is not the only source of misleading or inaccurate breast cancer “facts.” Breast cancer misinformation is often compounded or reinforced by celebrities who are breast cancer survivors. Remember Melissa Etheridge’s outrageous comments in AARP Magazine, when she and her buddy, Sheryl Crow, discussed how “They Beat Cancer” and provided “Lessons for All of Us”? (Yes, I’m still furious.) With just the headline, before the article even began, AARP’s magazine managed to perpetuate dangerous myths and to condescend to every one of their readers: women, men, those who have had or are currently receiving treatment for breast cancer, those who have lost loved ones to this terrible group of cancers, and those who will be impacted by breast cancer in the future. Let’s start with the statement “beat cancer.” It’s fortunate that both singers are doing so well and that their treatment has been effective for them to this point. But tragically, approximately 25% of women with breast cancer have a recurrence, where the cancer has returned—and for women with estrogen-receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer, nearly 33 percent experience a recurrence. Furthermore, over half of recurrences for ER+ breast cancer are detected more than 5 years following original treatment, in some cases decades later, as opposed to other breast cancer types that tend to recur within 5 years of the original diagnosis. Research suggests that late relapse is most likely due to “tumor dormancy,” where there is a prolonged phase between cancer treatment and detected evidence of disease progression. It’s thought that cancer cells that were able to escape the patient’s initial treatment are able to survive by hiding in a latent state for years or decades, ultimately coming out of dormancy and leading to incurable breast cancer metastases. So the important truth here is that we currently have no way of knowing who has “beat” breast cancer. As Dr. Susan Love has explained, “Breast cancer can be cured. In fact, we cure three-quarters of breast cancer; the problem is when somebody is diagnosed with breast cancer, we can’t tell that woman that she is cured—until she dies at 95 of something else. So, we know we cure breast cancer, but we never know if any one particular person is cured at any one time.” Crow was reportedly diagnosed with stage I ER+ breast cancer. Although Etheridge has disclosed that her cancer was stage II and that she has a mutated BRCA2 gene, I was not able to locate the hormone receptor or HER2 status of her breast cancer. Though I sincerely hope that neither ever develops a recurrence, we simply cannot know whether either woman is “cured” of her breast cancer.
It was also infuriating to me when Etheridge, scientific expert that she is, said in the same interview: “This was my own doing, and I take responsibility. When I got my body back in balance, my cancer disappeared.” Excuse me? Breast cancer is NOBODY’S FAULT. And no, her cancer didn’t “disappear” because she made healthy changes for her body. Sure, eating well and having a healthy lifestyle certainly is a smart choice for everyone. But Etheridge no longer has any evidence of disease because she was treated for her cancer including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
And then there is Debbie Wasserman Schultz: since we know that if a politician is a breast cancer survivor, she’s an automatic expert on the science of breast cancer, right? Schultz–like so many politicians before her–apparently has no use for inconvenient evidence. When the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF)’s recently updated its guidelines for screening mammography based on scientific evidence, she loudly protested and politicized the issue. In an interview with Marie-Claire last year, she was asked the following:
MC: “What do you make of the fact that so many health care organizations no longer advise young women to do breast self-exams?”
DWS: “To say that I don’t agree with recommendations that say women shouldn’t get mammograms at 40 or that self-exams aren’t necessary would be an understatement. It is entirely appropriate and recommended to have a mammogram between 40 and 50. If I didn’t do self-exams, I never would have found out about my BRCA2 mutation, which gave me a 40 to 85 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer by the time I was 50. I mean, I was a ticking time bomb and I didn’t know it! To me, those recommendations send a very strong message to younger women that they’re being written off—that they don’t matter.”
What Schultz didn’t say is that the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommendations stress the following: “The decision to start screening mammography in women prior to age 50 years should be an individual one. Women who place a higher value on the potential benefit than the potential harms may choose to begin biennial screening between the ages of 40 and 49 years.” Importantly, they also emphasize that “Women with a parent, sibling, or child with breast cancer may benefit more than average-risk women from beginning screening between the ages of 40 and 49 years.”
Schultz, joined by 61 other legislators, sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, where they asked that the department ignore the new draft guidance by the USPSTF—in other words, asking that the department ignore the evidence. Schultz used her own story to make her case: “As a young survivor of breast cancer who was diagnosed at age 41, I am a living testament to the importance of breast cancer awareness in young women. It is imperative that no one limits the insurance coverage of preventative options for young women, especially if they have an elevated risk. While mammograms are not the only important part of preventative coverage, they play a vital role in detecting cancer in young women, in whom it is most deadly, and in raising breast health awareness.”
But did mammography actually “play a vital role” in detecting her cancer? She has stated that she “had my first mammogram a few months before I found the lump” and that if the Task Force’s recommendation had been in place, she may not have had a mammogram and her own cancer would “not have been caught early.” What’s more, she said, “We know that there are women that [sic] will die if this recommendation goes through.” Yet here’s the thing: in a 2013 Glamour Magazine interview, she said that “My diagnosis was a couple of months after a clean mammogram. I had aggressive breast cancer, and it grew fast from the time I had my mammogram, or it was there and the mammogram missed it. Nothing is foolproof. You can’t make yourself crazy, but you have to be vigilant.” So apparently, screening mammography did NOT detect her breast cancer. Schultz’s own story does not support the case she has been trying to make so vociferously.
Perpetuating the Myths
But something that I saw recently is probably the most upsetting of all. On its Facebook page, BreastCancer.org shared responses from members of their Facebook community to the following question:
“It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Are there issues you feel are not getting enough attention?”
The responses concerning the topic of screening demonstrated the tremendous harm that results from the misinformation so freely distributed throughout October (and all year round). Here are just a few responses:
“Mammograms for 40 years upwards.”
I began mammograms at 30 BC of questionable cysts and got Dx at age 49! They should start mammos at age 30. Maybe have them every two years. Raising age to 50 is nuts. I’ve had many friends Dx well before age 50.”
Earlier screening mammograms? How early? How young is too young: 40, 30, 20, 15? How many more women will be overdiagnosed and overtreated before the insanity stops?
But I do want to end my October rant on a high note. The same BreastCancer.org blog also shared some responses concerning the critical topic of metastatic breast cancer–responses showing that there may be more and more folks who are seeing through all those pink ribbons to the truths about breast cancer:
“Stage IV Needs More!!!”
“More attention and funding to metastatic breast cancer, and less attention to ‘awareness.’ Even 3rd graders are aware!”
“Stage IV research. Not enough of it. Stage IV life expectancy. Not enough of it…”
Bravo: Less attention to “awareness” and more to Stage IV and the critical need for metastatic breast cancer research funding. So enough with the pink ribbon campaigns. Ignore the celebrities who abuse the public platform they’ve been given to further spread misinformation. And a big, firm wave good-bye to politicians who ignore inconvenient facts and use their power and influence to determine what’s best for us–since apparently we don’t know any better.
Incidentally, the nice woman who came up to me in the grocery store may or may not have been correct when she said, “I wanted you to know that you’ll get through this and that you’re going to be just fine.” My breast cancer was ER+, so I’ll never know whether my breast cancer was cured–unless it recurs or I peacefully pass away of old age in my sleep. The latter, please.