A Husband’s Thoughts on Cancer

Those of you who have read my blog know that my first cousin, Laura, was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer in 2012—and that just a year and a half later, she felt a lump in her neck, which led to the devastating news that she had metastatic recurrence to her lungs, liver, and multiple lymph nodes.  She immediately began treatment again, this time for metastatic breast cancer (MBC).

Fortunately, she responded incredibly well to her combined targeted HER2 treatment with Herceptin and a newly approved HER2 targeted agent, Perjeta, and was found to have no evidence of disease (“NED”) since October 2014.  But as she explained in her blog, in the spring of 2015: “I started feeling a tiny bit off when doing flip turns at the pool.  That’s all.  And my eyes felt bleary from what I assumed was my two day per week job in front of a computer where, with my reading glasses on, I had to be very close to the screen.  In my former life, I would have chalked it up to [being] tired or hungry.  In my occupation as cancer patient, I knew to request a brain MRI.”  And it was then that she learned her cancer had metastasized to her brain, with 18 lesions that were too poorly differentiated for localized gamma knife.   She therefore underwent whole brain radiation and, later, following the development of more brain lesions, gamma knife procedures.   In March of this year, Laura wrote the following about her most recent scans:  “’My body has no visible cancer right now.  Yea!  My brain has five tiny lesions that aren’t a big enough deal right now to treat.  Yea…..? This is a ‘great report’ from both of my brilliant docs.  Grace is my interior screaming, ‘What Kind of Fuckery is This?*’ while trying to be content with walking around with five cancerous lesions, however small and asymptomatic.”  (*As Laura explained, “It’s what Amy Winehouse sang so gorgeously in ‘Me and Mr. Jones.’  ‘WHAT KIND OF FUCKERY IS THIS?’  I love curses I’ve never heard before, especially when they fit a situation so well.”)

Also in March, Laura’s husband, Jon, wrote a deeply moving post on his Facebook page that brought me to tears.  In the days that followed, my thoughts kept returning to his words, and it struck me that far too many people have never heard such thoughts from the loved ones of women or men living with MBC.  I therefore contacted Jon to ask whether he would be willing for me to share his post on my blog, explaining that I had two reasons for my request.  First, there was no doubt that his words would deeply resonate with so many.  And second—and so importantly—his post could go far in educating others who have far too many misconceptions about MBC.  Jon graciously gave me his permission, and so, without further ado, I’m honored to share the following with you today.

Jon and Laura

Jon Graves and Laura Snyder

“My Thoughts on Cancer” 

“Every now and then, I try to write something about what it’s like with my wife having metastatic breast cancer (MBC).  Laura has been living with metastatic cancer for just over 33 months, which happens to be the median life expectancy for someone with MBC.  This statistic could be a little skewed, since there are a couple of new [targeted] drugs (Herceptin and Perjeta) that have become available over the past two to four years that should increase life expectancy for those with HER2 positive breast cancer.  She is [also] on chemotherapy and will continue on chemo of one type or another for the rest of her life.

“Right now, Laura has five brain mets (tumors) she is just walking around with.  They are very small, so her radiation oncologist just wants to wait before doing a procedure.  But this is me telling facts and not feelings.

“Ever looming is death.  Metastatic cancer is the cancer that kills.  So death is the first thing that is always lurking.  Every three months, she has scans, and we see if there is cancer in the body or in the brain.  Her cancer likes to invade her brain.

“But beside the big thing (death) is the human trait of planning ahead.  Thinking of the future.  Our future is lived in three month scan cycles.  But at the same time, I think about what is happening in ten years when I’m in my early 60s.

“My birthday is next week.  I will turn 53.  My Dad died when he was 52.  I have been afraid of 52 for a long time.  Laura made it past 52, and it looks like I will,  too.  But it brings up lots of emotions–especially the long-lasting void left for my wife and kids, who never met my real Dad.

“What is it like living with metastatic cancer (from a caregiver/observer view)?  Day to day can be good, generally is good.  Dog walks and amazing dinners.  Laura is cooking more than ever before in our marriage, and the food is amazing.  But there is a knot in my stomach, a catch in my throat, when someone talks of retirement or the future.  I wonder if I should be paying attention when people talk about swiping left or right on Tinder or Teaser (?) or whatever the dating app of choice is.  Will I be looking for someone to retire with in 15 years, or will Laura be there by my side?  Like everything in life, I just don’t know, but my mind wanders to the uncertain future late at night or early in the morning.

“I also feel guilty about wondering about my future when Laura is doing well while having cancer in her brain.  There are interesting and potentially life-saving drugs out there in trials that could make all the difference in the near future.

“Am I a bad person for making jokes that she can’t remember something?  She does not have nearly the cognitive abilities that she had five years ago.  Brain radiation will do that, as well as years of chemotherapy.  Her eyesight changes every few months, and she needs new glasses lenses, but I taunt her for not being able to see …  I know, I suck and should be better, but I can’t help making jokes about what is hard.

“We are thinking and dreaming of building out on our Knappa land above Big Creek.  It is great to think about moving out there when I retire, but what does that really mean–am I with Lu or alone?

“If you have read this far, please do not worry about me.  I am the same ebullient, happy-go-lucky fellow you know.  At times, I think too much, just like my lovely wife.”

Thank you, Laura and Jon, for allowing me to share this post.  I recalled that in an interview for the blog “Voices of Metastatic Breast Cancer,” when Laura was asked to share her favorite poem or song, she responded by saying that The Beatles ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ really resonated with her in this phase of her life, as did Lucille Clifton’s poem, ‘Blessing the Boats.’”  I’m therefore sharing the below as a way of expressing my gratitude to you both.

blessing the boats

BY LUCILLE CLIFTON

                                    (at St. Mary’s)

may the tide

that is entering even now

the lip of our understanding

carry you out

beyond the face of fear

may you kiss

the wind then turn from it

certain that it will

love your back     may you

open your eyes to water

water waving forever

and may you in your innocence

sail through this to that

Lucille Clifton, “blessing the boats” from Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000. Copyright © 2000 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted by permission of BOA Editions, Ltd., http://www.boaeditions.org.

Source: Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 (BOA Editions Ltd., 2000)

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

 

A Fascinating Discussion: Bringing Expert Clinical Interpretation to Complex Tumor Cell Genomics

As a cancer survivor and an active advocate, I typically attend several cancer research symposia, conferences, and workshops every year.  But one of my favorite meetings is always the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)’s Annual Meeting, since it brings together tens of thousands of oncology clinicians, researchers, advocates, and other oncology professionals from around the world, where attendees learn from leading-edge scientific and educational sessions, clinical science symposia, oral abstracts, poster discussions, and plenary sessions.

During this year’s Annual ASCO Meeting in  Chicago, I decided to attend a half-day “pre-meeting session” on a topic that is particularly timely for every cancer patient, researcher, oncology clinician, advocate, and all other stakeholders involved in and impacted by our current genomic revolution in cancer.  Called Genetics and Genomics for the Practicing Clinician, the session included several expert panelists whom discussed cancer genetics and tumor genomics specifically for clinicians who work directly with cancer patients.  While discussing tumor (somatic) and inherited (germline) mutations and the tools and tests available to oncology clinicians, the panelists used case-based presentations and a multidisciplinary tumor board format to highlight crucial clinical considerations and to connect the panels’ content to real-world scenarios to help ensure that participants may apply what they learned to their daily clinical practice for the benefit of their cancer patients and family members.

genomics

This pre-meeting session was absolutely worth the price of my entire trip to ASCO this year.  Yet what I remember most is actually a question that was posed by a gentleman in the audience toward the end of the session.  As he directed his question to all the panelists, he made the following provocative statement: “I would argue that evidence-based medicine is incompatible with precision medicine and, as currently practiced, is not effective for cancer care.”  If you have read my blog in the past, you know that its tag line is “It’s all about the evidence,” so it may be of no surprise to you that I was intrigued by the gentleman’s statement.  At the session’s close, I introduced myself to him, explained my role as a cancer research advocate and blogger, and asked whether he would be willing to be interviewed concerning his perspective on precision medicine versus evidence-based medicine and, as it quickly emerged, his role as a classically trained human geneticist and molecular pathologist.  To my pleasure, he readily agreed.  For those of you who are cancer survivors, advocates, oncology clinicians, and any other stakeholder type affected by cancer (essentially everyone), I have no doubt that you’ll find this discussion fascinating, as it essentially serves as a primer for those interested in the genomic interpretation of tumor and inherited mutations in cancer and the many considerations and implications regarding such interpretation.

Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to Gabriel Bien-Willner, MD, PhD, FCAP.

dr-gabriel-bien-willner

 

Board certified in Anatomic Pathology and Molecular Genetic Pathology, Gabe has deep expertise in next-generation sequencing (NGS) and a long history of providing critical insight into the molecular basis of disease in cancer patients.  You can click here to read our interview, published by the American Journal of Managed Care on my AJMC contributor’s page.  Or you can also read our complete interview here as a PDF by simply clicking on the link below:

Interview-with-Dr-Gabriel-Bien-Willner

I’d also like to take this opportunity to again thank Gabe for our truly fascinating and informative discussion and for his crucial ongoing efforts on behalf of all of us who have been, are, or will some day be affected by cancer personally.

 

Ode to Jody

 

Jody1

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.”

Jody2

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.”

Jody and Katie

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.

wings

 

Immunotherapy Part II: Understanding the Unique Spectrum of Adverse Events

In last week’s blog, entitled “Cancer Immunotherapy: a Patient’s Perspective,” I discussed the increasing excitement concerning new immunotherapies for patients with advanced and difficult-to-treat cancers, the need for caution in interpreting results while the data is still young, and the necessity for more mature data with much longer follow-up on an increased number of patients.
Part II of this blog series, now posted on The American Journal of Managed Care’s Contributors Page, continues on this important topic, focusing on why it is so critical for patients and their caregivers to understand the unique spectrum of adverse events that may be associated with these agents.  Unfortunately–and unsurprisingly–when reporting on the potential benefits of immunotherapy, some in the popular media have stated that there are “few to no side effects” associated with such therapies.  Though immunotherapies are typically not associated with the same adverse effects seen with chemotherapy regimens, “The Promise of Cancer Immunotherapy: Why Patient Education is Critical, Part II” outlines why the statement “few to no side effects” does not tell the entire story and may be extremely misleading for patients–and emphasizes the information that must be shared with patients before beginning any immunotherapy treatment.
tcells

 

Cancer Immunotherapy: a Patient Advocate’s Perspective

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.

immune_system

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.

 

 

My October Blues

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.

AngryDog

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.”

FALSE!

“After all, no one dies of breast cancer anymore.”

FALSE!

KomenAd with circle

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.”

AngryCrab1

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.

More Myths

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.

The Politics

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.

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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.”

 “Earlier mammograms!!!”

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.

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A huge thank you to my sister, Ann-Dee, for these wonderful illustrations, which perfectly capture the sentiments I wanted to convey here.

Empty Inside

Like every other woman I know, I have always HATED going to the gynecologist.  It’s uncomfortable, and though I shouldn’t feel this way, I find the whole thing embarrassing.  But the first time I had my annual visit with my gynecologist after having undergone my bilateral mastectomy was … the … absolute … worst.

For weeks in advance, I dreaded the appointment.  And on the day of the appointment, I was in full-blown pity party mode.  But I had what I think are damn good reasons for feeling sorry for myself—reasons that I typically push away or fully repress, but that refused to be ignored that day.  This was going to be the first visit when the “breast exam” really wasn’t going to be a true breast exam—because I no longer had “real” breasts.  Rather, I had reconstructed breasts with implants: my plastic surgeon did a phenomenal job, and with all seriousness, my oncologist said the results are among the best he’s seen.  Dare I say, in the words of Sidra during the Seinfold episode called “The Implant,” they’re “spectacular.”  But they’re not “real.”

I also dreaded sitting in the waiting room, where there almost always was at least one pregnant woman waiting for a prenatal visit with the Ob/Gyn.  Thanks to the chemotherapy that I’d received for Hodgkin’s lymphoma in my early 20s, I’d learned many years later that I wasn’t able to conceive.

So I had reconstructed breasts, and I couldn’t have children, so the whole idea of having to go to the gynecologist felt ridiculous, and that made me angry.  Of course, I knew that I still had to have my annual visits for optimal health, but I felt odd about the whole thing, like I was an imposter.  So I was resentful, irritated, and worst of all, very very down, because all of this made me feel empty inside.

empty inside

But the visit itself was even worse than I expected.  It began as it always does: there was a pile of paperwork to fill out, something that always annoyed me, because I’d been a patient with the same gynecologist for over 20 years, but they still made me complete it all over again every year.  And then there was the never-ending wait.  I liked my gynecologist a great deal as a person: in fact, he was a family friend.  But not once was I taken into the exam room at the scheduled time of my appointment.  And when I finally did get into the room and changed into that terrible gown, I always had another lengthy wait—but this time wearing only the gown, which made this second wait that much worse than the first.

So I finally walked into the exam room, changed into the gown, sat down, and prepared to wait.  A nurse typically came in before the doctor to ask about prescriptions and to take the patient’s blood pressure.  When one of the nurses finally entered my exam room, I was relieved because I just wanted the whole thing to be over.  And then she said it.  She was holding my chart and some forms and, with barely a glance at me, she plopped my chart on the counter.  She then hurriedly tried to hand the forms to me, but I was too busy trying to keep my gown closed with both of my hands.  I reluctantly let go with one hand to take the papers, as she said in an obviously distracted, hassled tone, “So as you know, of course, the top form is for your annual mammogram …”  What?  Did she really just say that to me?  I looked down at the paper, which was indeed an order for a mammogram.  As I tried to hand it back to her, I said, “Excuse me, but I won’t be needing this, as you can see from my chart.”  She looked puzzled, but instead of opening my chart, she said, “Of course you do.  You’re in your 40s, so as you know, you need a mammogram every year.”  (Okay, if you’ve read my blog before, you know that I take serious issue with that statement, since there is no evidence of benefit for women in their 40s of average risk, yet there is evidence of potential harms associated with mammograms at that age.  But I digress…)  Considering the mood that I was in, I’m proud of myself that I didn’t immediately fly off the handle.  But I was furious.  I looked at her and waited until she finally looked me in the eyes.  “No, I do not.  If you had read my chart, you would have seen that I do not have breasts.  They took all of my breast tissue, so there is nothing to conduct a mammogram on–except perhaps my silicone implants, but that wouldn’t make much sense, would it?”  Unbelievably, it wasn’t clear whether she heard me, so I tried again.  “The most recent records in my chart should include a note from my oncologist about my recent breast cancer diagnosis.  And it should also include surgical records about my bilateral mastectomy and immediate reconstruction.  Without having any breast tissue, I really don’t think that this mammogram is necessary, so I ask that you take this back, please.”  She accepted the piece of paper, mumbling “sorry” under her breath, and then simply walked over to the wall to grab the blood pressure cuff.  She asked me absolutely nothing about my breast cancer diagnosis, not the type or stage, whether it was ER, PR, and/or HER2+, what type of surgeries I’d undergone, which specific chemotherapy drugs I’d received, nor whether I had received radiation.  Even when she then reviewed my current medications, she did not ask whether I was taking Tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor should my cancer have been ER+.

When she finally did speak, it was to ask when my last period was–more solid evidence that she had not even taken a glance at my chart.  After all, it was my gynecologist who had broken the news to me that my original chemotherapy had taken my fertility.  As I struggled to remember the last time I’d menstruated, she became impatient and said that I could “just estimate.”  My response: “I’m not trying to remember a specific day from last month, since it’s actually been a few years.  But I honestly cannot remember which year it was.”  No response from Nurse Ratched.

Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

And the icing on the cake …  Remember when she picked up the blood pressure cuff?  She immediately went to my left side and went to grab my left arm.  I stopped her and said, “Look, I’m not trying to be difficult.  But please take my blood pressure from the right side, not the left.”  She simply raised her eyebrows, waiting for an explanation.  “My breast cancer was in the left breast and in the sentinel node, so the surgeons had to remove several lymph nodes.”  Eyebrows remained raised, waiting for more information to try to make some sense out of what her patient was rambling on about now.  “I don’t know how strong the evidence is.  But my surgeons asked that I never have my blood pressure taken on the left side.  They explained that because some of my lymph nodes were removed, I was at risk for developing lymphedema.  Because blood pressure cuffs constrict tissue, some suggest that it may cause or worsen lymphedema.  So please take my B/P on the right side.” She finally lowered her eyebrows, moved to my right side, and took my blood pressure.  With no small relief, I’m sure, she then felt she was done with her “difficult” patient and headed to the door.  But before she fully escaped, I called after her and pleasantly asked, “Could you please make a notation on my chart that my blood pressure needs to be taken on the right side?”  She briskly nodded her head and left the room.

I immediately put my head in my hands and tried to keep the tears from coming.  This nurse was clearly in the wrong profession, and I knew that the encounter I’d just experienced really said nothing about me, but spoke volumes about her.  But I was absolutely livid,  embarrassed, upset–and even emptier inside than I had felt just a few minutes before.

Grumpy cat

When my gynecologist entered the exam room about 15 minutes later, I’d had enough time to compose myself, and he came in with his customary warm smile, friendly handshake, and good wishes to my family.  He also spent several minutes asking about how I was holding up after my diagnosis, discussing the treatments I’d received thus far, and talking about my options concerning Tamoxifen versus an aromatase inhibitor.  He obviously knew a great deal about my diagnosis before he stepped into the room, was genuinely concerned, and provided me with the same exceptional care that he always does.  So despite the terrible experience I’d just had with one of his staff members, I did continue with my gynecologist.  However, on the spot, I decided that I would never see him in this specific office location again.  Rather, I’d vastly prefer to make the substantially longer drive to another of his office locations, because I absolutely refused to have any dealings with that nurse again.  I truly hope that after she’d walked out of my exam room, she thought about our encounter and realized that she owes her patients so much more: just for starters, actually LOOKING at the chart, LOOKING at her patients in the eye, LISTENING to her patients, and treating us with the RESPECT and the concern that we deserve.  Sadly, however, I very much doubt that’s the case.  I’d say it’s far more likely that she started shaking her head and rolling her eyes immediately after closing my exam room door, mumbled under her breath about that “pain in the ass” she just had to deal with, and then briskly went on to ruin her next patient’s day.  In retrospect, though I’d been struggling with feelings of emptiness on that terrible day, it was actually the nurse who was truly, profoundly empty—empty of compassion, empty of empathy.  My only regret is that I didn’t tell my doctor about his nurse’s atrocious, insulting, unprofessional behavior.  However, I sincerely hope that if she didn’t learn anything from our encounter, her behavior eventually caught up with her and that she’s now in a different profession for which she is better suited—such as a clerk at the DMV.

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