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.

 

“Facts are Facts and Will Not Disappear on Account of Your Likes”*

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
~John Adams, from The Portable John Adams
~~~~
I’ve always loved this quote, and it seemed the perfect way to begin my newest blog postings on the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC)’s Contributor’s Page.  Those who regularly read my blog here know that in my roles as a cancer research advocate, patient, and cancer survivor, I’m always deeply concerned about anything that interferes with evidence-based, patient-centered clinician and patient decision-making.  This includes governmental mandates that are not rooted in the science, but rather, stem from political ideologies, agendas, or biases–as well as misleading, inaccurate, or overly simplistic dialogues about complex medical topics in the popular media that may lead folks to make potentially dangerous decisions about their health due to such misinformation.  I’m similarly concerned when the facts surrounding such complex information become inadvertently buried due to passionately held opinions or, far too often, purposefully due to inconvenient facts that are contrary to one’s mission or agenda.  That’s why I found it so important to express my concern as a patient advocate about the newly proposed Medicare Part B Drug Payment Model regarding its level of transparency and the evidence.  This is a critical issue, where it’s important for all Americans to get past the noise, emerge from the avalanche of misinformation, and learn the facts about this proposal, one where the first part of this Medicare experiment is deeply flawed (and, IMHO, should be completed eliminated), yet the second portion proposes value-based pricing when appropriately supported by high-quality evidence, including published randomized controlled trials, reviews, or evidence-based clinical practice guidelines.  Thus, I hope that you’ll click below to read my three-part series at the American Journal of Managed Care, entitled:
(*The quote that forms the title of this posting is from Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of India’s nationalist movement, India’s first prime minister after its independence, and Indira Gandhi’s father.)

 

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.

 

 

This is the Hard Part: the Other Side of Advocacy

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.

peaceful

“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.”

~Patti Smith

A Postscript

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.

Ellen Stovall

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.

“Financial Toxicity” of Cancer Treatment: Have You Been Affected?

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.

DMadden, EBO2

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.

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.

SharkComic3

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.

SharkComic2

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

15 Random Facts

I’m an avid reader of “Nancy’s Point,” and she just posted a wonderful idea, challenging all of us who are also bloggers to post 15 random facts about ourselves.  I truly enjoyed learning more about Nancy through the facts that she posted, and as she said so well, “We are all about so much more than cancer.”  So I’m happily taking Nancy up on the challenge, and I hope that you, my wonderful readers, will also share a few things about yourselves here by leaving a comment on my blog.  So here it goes (with apologies if you know some of the below from previous blogs):

  1. I have one younger sister, who is brilliant, hilarious, extremely talented artistically, beautiful, opinionated, loving, and unique in all the right ways. I’m blessed that she is my sister, and she is the best friend that anyone could ever have.  My mother and father were married very young and had my sister and I when they were in their early 20s (I can’t even imagine!).  They both still look so young for their ages (they’re now in their early 70s).  They’ll say that I can’t be objective, but my mother is gorgeous, and, as the kids today would say, my father is still a “hottie”!  I’m incredibly close to both of my parents, and I thank God that I’m their daughter every day.
  2. I’m impatient: I know that “patience is a virtue,” but damn, this is a tough one for me to achieve. I hate waiting in lines, despise going through airport security, drive much too fast (though I’ve improved a bit there), and resent having to go through endless “phone trees” when you have to keep shouting “YES” or “NO” to the automated voice’s endless questions, never get a real person, and are then disconnected!!! (Yes, this did happen to me just recently. 😉
  3. My husband and I just celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary yesterday on July 10th!  And my parents just celebrated their 52nd (holy cow!)
  4. I absolutely adore all dogs and puppies, but am particularly in love with springer spaniels (sorry, I know that most of you are well aware of this). I believe completely that puppies are the cutest beings on the planet, and I’m much quicker to open my arms to a puppy than a baby. (I know some of you think that’s just terrible, but it’s true!)  I also definitely would not consider myself a cat person, although I do love cats that are particularly affectionate—in other words, more like dogs!
Deb and Little Miss Molly

Deb and Little Miss Molly

5. Each of the men (boys?) I seriously dated in late high school and college were of Irish descent,as is Marty, my husband (obviously, based on my last name, right?). I’m of Russian, Romanian, and Austrian descent.  Maybe I was Irish in a past life?

6. I’m a voracious reader and always have at least one book going. I primarily read fiction, but lately, I’ve also been enjoying non-fiction on some fascinating topics.  I love the latter, because I always feel like I’m learning something—but tend to have a novel going at the same time to make sure that I’m relaxing and not using “too much” of my brain. 😉  I also love almost nothing more than writing and the feeling I often get of slipping into the “zone,” where I’m so deeply absorbed in what I’m writing that I lose track of time, space, and everything around me.

7. If I could have pasta or lasagna for dinner every night, I would be a happy girl.  Maybe I was Italian in a past life?

8. My favorite bands have been and will always be Pink Floyd, Steeley Dan, the Grateful Dead, and Fleetwood Mac (boy, am I dating myself or what?). But I also enjoy Norah Jones, Adele, Cracker, Old Crow Medicine Show, ‘Keb ‘Mo, classical music–I guess I could go on and on.

9. I’m Jewish, and my husband is Catholic. Although he is much more devout than I am, being Jewish is an enormously important part of who I am.

10. When my husband and I were married, we agreed that we did not want to have children. We felt that way for years … but right around the time I turned 40, we started talking about perhaps changing our minds. I was almost there, thinking ‘Yes, I think that I really do want to have a child,’ and I began literally seeing our little girl in my dreams at night.  And it was then that I learned I could not have children.  It turned out that the chemotherapy I’d had in my early 20s took this choice away from us.  I was on the pill during my treatment and did not go off of it until my late 30s due to my heart issues.  Apparently, being on the pill for all those years had masked signs of perimenopause, which became clear months after my coming off the pill.  I know that it may seem strange, since for so long, we had decided not to have children, but I’m angry about this: after all, this was our choice to make, and when we finally got to the point where we were ready to change our decision, this option was taken away from us.  I have not seen our daughter in my dreams recently, and I miss her.  No doubt, that also may seem strange.  But I’m hoping that because I finally wrote about this, I’ll see her again in a dream very soon.

11. I absolutely love being a cancer research advocate. I hate the reasons responsible for my becoming one. But I have learned so much, engaged in such important work as a result, and have met and worked with so many remarkably special, talented, loving people, where our paths would never have joined had I not been personally affected by cancer.

12. I have zero tolerance for folks who seem to relish bringing problems to your attention, but never want to hear about working together to find solutions.

13. I was painfully shy throughout my childhood and didn’t really break out of this until I was in my early 40s when I became an advocate.

14. I get very upset with people who seem to be oblivious to those around them and have no sense of common courtesy. Have you ever gotten behind that person at the grocery store who is taking up the entire aisle and then seems peeved when you say, “Excuse me” as you’re trying to get by? How about the so many folks who absolutely refuse to switch to the left lane when you’re coming down the entry ramp and trying to merge into the right lane of the highway?  Or what about when there is a traffic jam, everyone needs to merge from two lanes into one, and that one A-H drives down the breakdown line until the very last second and then jumps into the lane, holding up everyone—and inevitably encourages other losers to immediately follow his example?  Hmm: I see that many of these are traffic related; I wonder what that says about me? 😉

15. Though I’ve had to deal with serious health issues beginning in my early 20s, and though every adult decision I’ve ever made has had to take health insurance and my medical history into account, I love my life and feel blessed for every moment that I’m here.

Wow: writing this was quite a cathartic experience!  Nancy, thank you so much for your inspirational challenge!  And my wonderful readers, please join in!  I’d love if you would share some random facts about yourselves here, so that I can also get to know you better–and learn more about your likes, dislikes, what you find hilarious, your pet peeves, what matters most to you, and what brings you the most joy.

A Woman’s Right to Choose: Not What You Think

No, this is not a blog posting about pro-life versus abortion rights.  The title above is an intentional double entendre about another very serious topic: the rights of women (and men) with breast cancer to make their own choices about their treatments.

Most of us who have been diagnosed with breast cancer will tell you that friends, loved ones, and acquaintances have made well-meaning statements that we found uncomfortable, upsetting, or sometimes plain infuriating, such as:

“I know how you feel.”  (This one makes me particularly crazy: “No, you don’t, and I’m happy for you that you don’t.”)

“You’re going to be fine.” (My superstitious thoughts: “Please, God, let me be, but don’t say that out loud because that might jinx my chances.”)

“I had a second cousin twice removed who had the same type of cancer.”  (My response: “I’m so sorry!  How is she doing following her treatment?” The answer: “Oh … Um, she had a recurrence, and she passed away several years ago.”)

“My friend lost all her hair days after her first chemo treatment, and she was always so sick for days afterwards.  I would never want to go through chemotherapy.” (My response: “How long ago was she treated?” Her answer: “Oh, probably 25 years ago or so.” [Really?  The point: There are now remarkable antinausea medications available that prevent nausea and vomiting for many cancer patients.  Twenty-five years ago, there were very few medications (called antiemetics) that were used for this purpose, and the one I received during my chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma back in the ’80s, called Compazine, was NOT very effective.])

“Oh, you should … try  that new macrobiotic diet … use that new treatment I saw on the Internet …  make sure that your acidic/alkaline balance is correct … try that new supplement…”

My point is this: Of all the quotes above, as offensive as many of them are, there is one word that shouts out at me, since it is often the most hurtful, confusing, and potentially dangerous one that a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient may hear.  The word is “should.”  I was fortunate in that my husband, parents, sister, close friends, and work colleagues never questioned the many complex treatment decisions I made following my breast cancer diagnosis.  But I know first-hand that many newly diagnosed breast cancer patients hear this word over and over again.

We all know what the term means, but looking at its formal definition is helpful in explaining why I and many fellow cancer patients despise it so (as do many patients with other serious conditions): “Should” is “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.”

Should

Imagine how it feels when a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient hears any of the following from a loved one or a friend:

“You really should have started getting regular mammograms sooner than you did.”

“I don’t understand why you’re just having a unilateral mastectomy.  You should go with the bilateral procedure.  After all, aren’t you afraid that you might get it in the other breast and have to go through this all over again?”

“Why aren’t you having reconstruction? You should do so now, since you’ll probably regret it later if you don’t.”

“You really should change your diet and exercise more.  Your cancer is surely a symptom that your body is out of balance.”

church-lady

What do all of these statements have in common? First, of course, they are all vomit-inducing.  But they all are also showing disapproval of the breast cancer patient’s priorities, needs, life choices, and the decisions she (or he) has made on these very complex issues.  They not just imply but boldly, insensitively state that the patient is misguided, has made a mistaken choice, and really should listen to the guidance of others rather than her or his own mind and heart.

As I noted above, I was surrounded by love and support, and I was never questioned about my treatment choices.  When talking through my various options with my husband, and I directly asked him for his opinion about which surgical approach we should take, his response was, “This is 100% your decision.  Whatever you and your doctors together think is the right choice IS the right choice.”  But when I became a peer mentor for newly diagnosed patients shortly after I’d completed my active treatment, I was horrified to discover that many women were strongly questioned about their treatment choices by their loved ones.  I remember one young woman in particular.  She was diagnosed in her early 30s with stage 3 HER2+ breast cancer.  She was painfully shy, was absolutely terrified about her diagnosis, and had an extremely difficult relationship with her family.  She explained that her parents and her sisters were pushing her to change her treatment plans and were not at all supportive of her decisions.  She was so upset by this that she said she was considering “taking the easy way out” and simply following their wishes.   But thankfully, after speaking again with her doctors and connecting with several fellow breast cancer survivors through our regional cancer support organization, she was able to step back and realize that this was completely her own decision and one that must not be swayed by others’ wishes, concerns, possible biases, and potential lack of information.   She had made her decision in concert with her physicians, and based on the evidence, her treatment choices were what was best for her.

Those who love us the most may have very strong opinions about what they feel is best for us.  But it’s possible that they do not have all of the necessary information to make a truly informed decision.  Or they may have misinformation or misunderstanding of the facts.  And even if they are extremely knowledgeable of the different types of breast cancer and understand the current treatment guidelines, the fact remains that it is the patients themselves and their medical teams who must make these extremely difficult decisions based on what is best for the patients.

This is why I wish that the word “should” would remain unspoken by loved ones and friends of breast cancer patients.  And now I’m going to break my own rule this one time by ending with a quote with the “S-word,” but that beautifully captures the intent of this blog.

“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

~Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism

Lonely hearts

Has anyone ever used the word “should” with you, questioning your decisions concerning treatment of your cancer or other serious medical condition? If so, how did you handle the situation?

 

On NOT Looking to Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, and the AARP for Life’s Guidance

I wasn’t going to write about this until I calmed down a bit and had a more rationale, less irate perspective.  But it’s been a few weeks now, I’m still angry … and I found an absolutely perfect quote from masterful songwriter and poet Bob Dylan that I couldn’t let go to waste.  So here it goes …

“It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers.”

~Bob Dylan                                                                                                                                               

Bob Dylan

I truly wish the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) had listened to this very sage advice.  When I came across the recent article in AARP The Magazine that began with the title, “Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge Beat Cancer and Heartbreak,” the warning bells went off immediately in my head.  And then I read the next line: “The music legends teach us a thing or two about living with joy.”  My vision went red.

In just 2 lines, 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 wonderful that both of the 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 their original treatment, including after decades, 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 her type of 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.

And this brings me to the second line and the accompanying image, partially titled “Lessons for All of Us.”  Seriously? From two people who happen to have the stage because they’re famous singers?  As you’ll see below  (and I apologize, since I suspect many of you are just as weary of seeing this as I am), the image is accompanied by “words of wisdom” from both of the singers.  I have to say that Crow’s comments were comme ci, comme ça.  I do wish that she’d used the passive rather than the active voice when discussing screening mammograms.  In other words, rather than saying “I recommend …” it would have been much more appropriate to say something along the lines of this: “It’s recommended that women at average risk for breast cancer receive regular screening mammograms beginning at either 40 or 50 years of age based on their health team’s guidance and their personal preference.  And women at high risk may be advised to begin receiving regular mammograms at age 40 years or younger.”  I recognize that this is not nearly as “pithy” as what Crow did say–and as a writer, I’m typically not a fan of the passive voice, but this is one of those examples where it’s truly appropriate.  This may have been an opportunity to emphasize what the evidence has found and to contribute to the ongoing conversation by noting the current disagreement in screening mammography recommendations between the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force and the American Cancer Society–IMHO, an opportunity that was lost.  But for the most part, Crow’s comments were relatively thoughtful, whereas those of her friend, Etheridge, were, quite frankly, appalling, condescending, and downright dangerous.

Let’s start with the very first quote in the image from Etheridge: “Take Charge: This was of my own doing, and I take responsibility. When I got my body back into balance, the cancer disappeared.”  But here’s the thing: Breast cancer is nobody’s fault.  And her cancer didn’t “disappear” because she made healthy changes for her body:  rather, there is no longer any evidence of disease because she received treatment for her cancer.

its_all_my_fault3

And you don’t have to look far to find similar statements she’s made in the past.  In an interview with More Magazine, entitled “Melissa Etheridge’s battle with breast cancer,” (why always with the war metaphor?), she was asked what she is doing differently now in terms of her emotional and physical health.  Her response: “I have a very strong belief that this cure that we’re looking for is inside us.  The cancer is just a symptom of our bodies being out of balance and the cure is to understand health. It’s to understand our bodies and our spirits—our souls—better.”

Okay, let me see whether I’ve gotten this straight.  Cancer as “just a symptom”? because we’ve allowed our bodies to become “out of balance”?  Has Etheridge ever heard of “blaming the victim?”  I repeat: breast cancer is nobody’s fault.  The main risk factor for developing breast cancer is this: simply being a woman.  And the fact is that our risk for breast cancer increases as we become older.  I’ve known several wonderful women now who were remarkably fit, were extremely careful of what they ate, who ran or swam or went to the gym regularly, who developed breast cancer– stage I, II, and III and some who later developed stage IV disease–though their bodies “were in balance.”  Was “understanding health” the “cure” for their metastatic breast cancer?  I think not.

Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge

From “AARP The Magazine”

And here’s another “quotable quote” from Etheridge:  “To Test or Not to Test:  I have the BRCA2 gene but don’t encourage women to get tested.  Genes can be turned on and off.  I turned my gene on with my very poor diet.”  Did she really just say that?  This statement is misleading, offensive, and completely irresponsible.  Unfortunately, the sad truth is that some folks listen to celebrities and take what they say seriously—no matter how inaccurate or ignorant.  This means that Etheridge has a responsibility when she’s speaking to the public.  She has every right to tell her story and to express her opinions—but while making it clear that they are just that, her opinions.  She is not a doctor, yet what she has done is akin to giving “medical advice” that is woefully inaccurate.  She has no right to discourage women from getting testing: the decision of whether to test or not is a very personal and complicated decision that must be based on the evidence, their medical team’s and a genetic counselor’s guidance, and their specific situation.  Etheridge also shows a complete lack of understanding concerning the role that BRCA2 gene mutations play in breast cancer.  The BRCA2 gene mutation does not get “turned on or off” due to choice of diet.  Rather, we have 2 copies of the BRCA2 gene and the BRCA1 gene, which belong to a class known as “tumor suppressor genes.”  The genes encode instructions for making proteins that are involved in repairing damaged DNA.  It’s believed that the mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes’ mutated or missing BRCA protein is not able to help repair damaged DNA or mutations in other genes, causing accumulation of such defects, in turn enabling cells to divide and grow uncontrollably, forming a tumor.  Hundreds of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations have been identified, with many associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.  Those who are born with such mutations of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have an increased risk of breast, ovarian, and other cancers due to lack of a working copy of one of the genes.   So Etheridge’s extremely misleading statement is dangerous for several reasons, since it may:

  • Cause those at high risk to blame themselves for developing cancer that was due to a genetic predisposition.
  • Mislead them about an ability to prevent cancer solely with changes in diet.
  • Prevent some from pursuing genetic testing, which in turn may have resulted in their receiving medical interventions that have been found to expand the lives of those with BRCA mutations.
From "AARP The Magazine"

From “AARP The Magazine”

I forced myself to finish reading the entire article, but the last line was another kick in the teeth–a yeah-rah-rah moment: “Cancer, [Crow and Etheridge] agree, has become something they never imagined. ‘A gift,’ they say, almost in unison.”  Perhaps they should have posed in cheerleading outfits with pom-poms rather than those leather jackets?

dancing-cheerleader_zJxctuBO

I do need to pull back on the sarcasm for a moment.  To her credit, Crow has lent her name to the Pink Lotus Imaging Center.  On their website, the Pink Lotus Imaging Center is described as “a comprehensive and integrative breast center exclusively dedicated to the prevention, screening, diagnosis, and treatment of breast cancer.  Headquartered in Los Angeles and founded in 2007, our first location in Beverly Hills was unveiled in 2009.  Since then, we have become a respected leader and innovator in the field of comprehensive breast care.”  And their mission statement is very impressive, warm, and reassuring:

“Our organization was founded with a strong dedication to one clear purpose: To provide the best breast care medically and technologically possible while providing our patients with an environment where they can feel at home; where prevention and wellness matters as much as life-saving treatment; where patients are treated like human beings, not numbers; where integrative medicine is not just a marketing slogan but rather the essence of what we practice; and where women are provided with security and confidence when they need it most. We pride ourselves on the simple fact that our organization’s DNA  was custom-tailored with one person in mind – you!”

But with that said, it’s crucial that both Etheridge and Crow understand and respect the responsibility they have to present their opinions as opinions, not facts or advice.  AARP The Magazine notes that “The two women now say that battling the disease and coming out on the other side deeply transformed them, shaping them into who they are today: survivors, role models, and advocates for social awareness and change.”  Let’s hope that in the future, they’ll both be responsible advocates who can genuinely and helpfully contribute to the conversation.  Otherwise, perhaps Etheridge in particular should stick to the singing.  And until AARP better understands its responsibility to its members and readers as well, perhaps it’s time for those of us who are 50 years of age and older to consider looking for another organization who shows more respect to its members and to the facts.

Update:

A “Non-Apology” Apology from Melissa Etheridge and AARP: Did We Expect Any Less?

Concerning the recent, highly deserved backlash unleashed in response to  AARP The Magazine’s  article with Melisa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow, some of my fellow advocates have eloquently raised a critical point.  They’ve stressed the importance of understanding and remembering the many ways in which those of us who have received this terrible diagnosis form beliefs and make choices to regain a semblance of control.   As an advocate, my first role was serving as a peer mentor for newly diagnosed women with breast cancer.  Like Melissa Etheridge, some focused much of their attention on diet and exercise to try to retain or regain some control after feeling that their world had rocked off its axis.  In many ways, I took steps to try to protect myself as well after my own diagnosis: eventually, my road toward getting back a sense of control took the form of becoming actively engaged as a breast cancer research advocate.  Of course, everyone’s road is different, and everyone’s choice is just that, a choice.

Melissa Etheridge undoubtedly shared many of the same fears that so many of us do—and I understand that some folks tend to forget that in the aura of her celebrity.  Yet with that said, as I discussed in this blog post, I feel very strongly that with her celebrity comes Responsibility, with a capital “R.”  As of today, she has 64.8 thousand followers on Twitter and  462,204 likes on Facebook—and the AARP’s Facebook page has well over 1 million likes.  So when Etheridge shares what is framed as advice, for better or worse, she has an audience of millions.   As a woman who has had a terribly frightening diagnosis, she is absolutely entitled to believe whatever she needs to to get through.  But she also needs to understand that when she speaks, so many (in my humble opinion, far too many) people listen—so I sincerely hoped that she would learn from this and would be careful to frame her opinions as her own, rather than as Gospel.

Etheridge on Twitter

I also do feel that the AARP and “AARP The Magazine” holds the lion’s share of the responsibility here.  Their editorial team made a grave error when determining how to frame this article, dangerously misleading their millions of members and the general public.  Unfortunately and upsettingly, they still haven’t recognized this.  Since this backlash began, the only statement I see that has been issued by AARP is the following, as quoted in “USA Today”:

“Robert Love, editor in chief of ‘AARP Magazine,’ said in a statement that his magazine didn’t ‘take a position or prescribe medical recommendations for breast cancer testing or treatment’ and “did not intend for the views expressed in the article to be interpreted as medical advice.”  Interesting comment, since the image included with the article was entitled “How They Beat Cancer … LESSONS for All of Us.”  In addition, AARP The Magazine’s Facebook page still has a picture of Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow as their cover photo, and the FB Profile Picture also shows the two singers from the magazine’s cover.

And when Etheridge was asked about the backlash in this same “USA Today” article, her response was that “she’s been misunderstood’ and that “I was sad there was such a negative response to what I said.”  She also stated that “I knew all along there would be people who disagreed.  I never wanted that to stop me from saying anything.  I can’t control the way people understand something.”

Misunderstood

 

In another article, published in “Dame Magazine,” where she was again questioned about the backlash, Etheridge responded with the following: “People think it’s dangerous for me to say, ‘Hey, maybe there’s more than just this one way of looking at cancer,’ and they think that’s dangerous because they believe in science, and I understand that totally, and 11 years ago, I was with them. I understood that. In my discoveries, I think that maybe if someone is confronted with this, that maybe this other thought might be helpful for them. For some people, but not all always [Laughs.].”

She was also asked about why she engaged in a Twitter war of words with blogger, “Boing Boing” editor, and breast cancer survivor Xeni Jardin, whose recent blog has this wonderful title, “AARP runs vomit-inducing, quackery-filled breast cancer piece with Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge.”  Etheridge noted, “The reason I did that was it seemed like, all of a sudden, in that one day, I got just a barrage of really awful, awful stuff. Like people standing up on a wall going, ‘Na-na-na-na-na-na. You’re awful,’ and I was like, what? Why do they want to pick a fight with me? I don’t understand, and so I was reading everybody, and some  just want to be mean. Some people do, yet Xeni is a cancer survivor herself. I have always wanted to present myself as, ‘This is just my experience,’ and I felt I was being misunderstood, and I love real conversation, not just okay, I answered this person’s questions. This company put it in a magazine, and then they’re making their comments on it, but no, talk to me. What’s your question? What don’t you understand? This is how I feel, and you’re going to believe what you believe. Just why put so much bitterness and ugliness out toward me? I don’t understand that. Help me understand that, and we can have a conversation about it.”

Twitter wars

Heavy sigh.  So once again, it’s not about the evidence but about poor misunderstood Melissa Etheridge.  Yes, for those of us who are so concerned about the damage done by this article, who still and will always “believe in science,” our true goal here was simply to “pick a fight” with Etheridge, and yes, we really do “ just want to be mean.”  As Etheridge said, “What?!”  Really, is there no limit to this woman’s solipsism and narcissism?  This may be extremely surprising to Etheridge, but no, not everything is about her.  The point, again, is that she’s used her all-too-large platform to spread falsehoods wrapped in the guise of “advice” by AARP in their “special health issue,” to millions who take the words of celebrities seriously.  This is about those millions.

So when all is said and done, no apology.  Not a word about the facts.  Not from AARP.  Not from Etheridge.  Not from “AARP The Magazine.”  All we’re left with are Etheridge’s and AARP’s “Non-Apology Apologies.”   In Etheridge’s case, I wish her well, but the only “lesson” that she’s taught “all of us” is that clearly, from her perspective, this backlash wasn’t due to her and the AARP’s irresponsibility.  Nope, to her obvious regret, the problem is that she cannot control how we think, nor how we understand what she has to say.   So I’m going to ask again, ever so politely: Melissa, please, please  stick to the singing.