26 December 2016

Approximately 75% of breast cancers express the estrogen receptor – we term these breast cancers ER positive (ER+) or hormone-sensitive. Endocrine therapy refers to using medications to exploit this cancer cell property. Tamoxifen is used in premenopausal women and it blocks the estrogen receptor. In post-menopausal women, aromatase inhibitors (AI) are used which prevent estrogen from being produced (primarily in the fat cells after menopause).

In June, a study was presented which suggested that 10 years of endocrine therapy in post-menopausal women might be superior to 5 years of treatment, which had been the standard. The study noted that disease free survival was improved and development of new breast cancers were reduced in the extended therapy patients, but there were more side effects. A conclusion was that extended therapy might be appropriate for higher risk patients – those who based on certain tumor factors we suspect might have a higher risk of recurrence. A challenge has been that we do not have good tests to tell us with certainty which patients will truly benefit from a longer course of therapy.

At the 2016 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, 3 studies were presented which addressed the issue of extended endocrine therapy in post-menopausal women. In all 3 studies, extended endocrine therapy with an AI did not improve disease free survival, in contrast to the study presented in June.  A lack of survival benefit does not mean that extended therapy is not worthwhile, as noted in this ASCO Post article, and one of the studies did show improvements in distant metastases and contralateral (other side) breast cancers. Dr. Michael Gnant, who discussed the studies at the meeting, noted that “The trials did not reach the necessary statistical levels to demonstrate a clear benefit for aromatase inhibition extension. Extending aromatase inhibitor therapy may be a good idea for many patients after 2 to 5 years of tamoxifen, but after initial treatment with an aromatase inhibitor, the benefits and risks must be carefully balanced on an individual basis. We are going to need the ‘art of medicine’ here.”

While ER+ breast cancers tend to be “better behaved”, we know that these patients are at risk for relapse many years after initial treatment. This knowledge has to be balanced with the real side effects women experience from taking the medications. Common side effects of the AIs include joint and bone pains, vaginal dryness, hot flashes, and bone loss. Deciding whether or not to continue on the medications in the setting of significant side effects is also difficult for patients, who then have concerns about “not doing enough” to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. More research is needed to develop both tests to help predict which patients will actually benefit from extended therapy, and treatments with fewer side effects,

 

25 August 2016

A study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine reports on the 5 year results of the MINDACT (Microarray In Node-negative and 1 to 3 positive lymph node Disease may Avoid ChemoTherapy) trial. This study was designed to evaluate the use of a tumor gene signature test (MammaPrint) compared with standard factors to assess the need for chemotherapy.

This study enrolled 6693 women in 112 countries who had undergone surgery for Stage I and II breast cancer. Once patients were registered, they were stratified based on risk. Risk was assessed both by the MammaPrint (MP) score as well as standard clinical – pathological markers (CP) such as tumor size, grade, ER/PR status, and Her2/neu expression calculated using the Adjuvant! Online tool.

2745 patients who had low risk MP and CP scores did not receive chemotherapy; 5 year metastasis-free survival in this group was approximately 97.6%. These findings were consistent with those reported using a different genomic test, the Oncotype Dx test, which also demonstrated good results without chemotherapy in low risk patients. 1806 patients who were high risk by both assessments received chemotherapy and 5 year metastasis-free survival in this group was approximately 90.6%.

The other 2 groups were those with discordant results, and these patients were randomized to either chemotherapy / endocrine therapy or endocrine therapy. The results for the 592 patients with high risk MP scores but low risk CP assessment are pending. The recently published study focuses on the 1550 patients with low risk MP scores but were high risk based on CP assessment.

The study demonstrated that in these patients, chemotherapy provided a slight benefit: 1.5% improvement in survival without metastatic disease, 1.4% improvement in overall survival, and 2.8% improvement in disease free survival. The study was not powered or designed to determine if these differences were statistically significant.

On the surface, the study seems to indicate that chemotherapy is of little to no benefit for those patients with low risk MP scores and high risk CP features. There is no question that genomic tests such as the MammaPrint have revolutionized our treatment recommendations. We now have the ability to obtain more detailed information about an individual patient’s tumor biology, which can help us guide treatment decisions. It is clear that our traditional methods of assigning risk such as tumor size, grade, and node status, do not always tell the whole story, and it is no longer acceptable to recommend chemotherapy “just to be sure”. The use of genomic tests in appropriate patients is very important to avoid the real dangers of over treatment. But as this study was not designed to assess statistical significance (rather, “non inferiority“), can we say that the benefits demonstrated from chemotherapy may not be important for an individual patient?

Median follow up in this study was was 5 years. 48% of patients were lymph node positive, 93% had grade 2 or 3 disease, and 34% were age 50 or younger. These factors are more often associated with an earlier risk of recurrence, so 5 years may be sufficient to note a difference in survival rates. It was also stated by the authors that “adjuvant chemotherapy exerts most of its beneficial effects early in the course of the disease”. However, they also noted that many of the tumors were ER+, which may recur well past 5 years. 10 year follow up is planned.

In an accompanying editorial, Drs. Hudis and Dickler point out that “although we may all agree that a 1% risk of distant metastasis at 5 years on the basis of genomic testing eliminates any potential benefit of chemotherapy, at what point would we begin to have differing opinions and perhaps mixed results from clinical trials? Answering this question is even more challenging, given that all chemotherapy is not the same in terms of efficacy or toxicity and that patients and health care providers bring subjectivity and personal values to their treatment decisions.”

As was pointed out during a recent online exchange (by a woman who had a low recurrence score and now has metastatic disease), these tests are not guarantees. While the numbers are low, some women in the low risk group developed metastatic disease. It is not known if chemotherapy would have been of benefit, but it does demonstrate how percentages are applicable to populations, not necessarily to individuals. We do not yet have a test that will predict the outcome with 100% certainty. The test results should be presented as part of a discussion which includes the patient’s preferences, values and concerns – concerns regarding cancer recurrence as well as potential side effects of therapy.

09 June 2016

A study presented at the recent American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting evaluated the use of extended endocrine therapy in post-menopausal women. I’ve covered some of the basics of endocrine therapy for breast cancer in a previous post. In 2012, results of the ATLAS Trial were published, and found that when tamoxifen was given for 10 years instead of the standard 5, improvements were noted in overall and disease free survival.

Up until this point, no study has demonstrated similar findings for post-menopausal women taking aromatase inhibitors. Results of the MA.17R study were reported at the 2016 ASCO meeting, Patients in the study had already completed at least 5 years of endocrine therapy with the aromatase inhibitor letrozole. They were then randomized to receive either an additional 5 years of letrozole or a placebo. Median follow up was 6.3 years.

The key study findings were as follows:
  Disease free survival was 95% in the treatment group and 91% in the placebo group, a 34% reduction. This was statistically significant.
–  Contralateral breast cancer (a new cancer developing in the opposite breast) occurred in 1.4% of the treatment group, and 3.2% of the placebo group a 58% reduction. This was also statistically significant.
–  Overall survival was the same in both groups.
–  More bone fractures (14% vs. 9%) and new-onset osteoporosis (11% vs. 6%) were seen in the patients undergoing extended endocrine therapy – it is well known that these medications accelerate bone loss. These findings were statistically significant.
– Rate of discontinuing therapy was 5.4% in the letrozole group, and 3.7% in the placebo group.

Several points were brought up in the discussion immediately following the presentation as well as in post-plenary “town hall” style session held later in the day, including:

–  It is not clear what the long-term effects of medications used to treat bone loss will be – if patients are on endocrine therapy for longer periods of time, they likely will need to be on the bone protective medications for longer as well.
–  Reported quality of life was similar in both groups, as reported by Dr. Julie Lemieux. However, as Dr. Don Dizon noted: “without compromising quality of life” isn’t the same as “everything’s peachy.”

– It was noted that the patients enrolled in the study were self-selected which may bias the results. As they had already completed at least 5 years of letrozole therapy, these patients likely had few existing side effects from treatment. Concern was raised in the post-plenary discussion that we may see more of an impact on quality of life if a broader population of women is treated with extended endocrine therapy.
Dr. Lisa Carey noted that adherence to endocrine therapy remains a significant issue in part due to medication side effects. While the rate of discontinuation of therapy in this study was low, this does not reflect real-world experience.

The disease free survival improvement and contralateral breast cancer reduction were widely reported in the press as percentages (34% disease free survival benefit, 58% reduction in contralateral breast cancer). It is important to realize that the absolute benefits are very small – only a few percentage points. While the results achieved statistical significance, they may or may not be significant to an individual patient. It is important that patients understand the concept of absolute risk vs. relative risk.

Professor Ian Smith, who discussed the abstract during the plenary session, concluded by saying that the MA.17R findings do not justify extended endocrine therapy in all patients. Rather, patients with more aggressive features such as larger tumors, positive lymph nodes, and higher cell grade may benefit. He called for physicians to carefully discuss the study results with their patients, and allow them to participate in the decision for or against extended endocrine therapy.

This conclusion prompted the following Twitter exchange with an oncology colleague:

While it should go without saying that we need to discuss study results as well as advantages and disadvantages of treatment with our patients, this point is not emphasized enough during national presentations. The lead author, Dr. Goss, commented during the post-plenary discussion that he is not specifically recommending extended hormonal therapy. Rather, he acknowledged that this is a decision that needs to be made by an individual patient, in consultation with her physician, after carefully reviewing all of the information. The study received a significant amount of media attention, and the discussion at the conference session was very spirited. At the end of the day, it’s important that patients to realize that we don’t have a definitive answer for the individual.

It is also important not to forget the impact of lifestyle factors in terms of reducing risk of recurrence. Regular exercise, weight maintenance, healthy food choices, and moderation in alcohol intake all will help reduce the risk not only of breast cancer recurrence, but also of cardiovascular disease, which remains the number one killer of women in the United States.

Additional Reading:
ASCO Post Overview of MA.17R
Changing Adjuvant Breast Cancer
Dr. Elaine Schattner in Forbes

 

 

9 November 2015

The American Society of Breast Surgeons Foundation has just launched a patient information website – Breast360.org. The site was developed by breast surgeons, and patient advocates have had input and oversight during the entire process. Please take a look, and feel free to provide feedback if you have a suggestion for additional content.

 

15 October 2015

A recent study has noted that African American and Hispanic women are more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive forms of breast cancer. Drs. Lu Chen and Christopher Lee published their findings, Racial Disparities in Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment by Hormone Receptor and Her2 Status, in a recent issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

Using information from SEER Registries, they identified 120,000 women, age 20 and over, diagnosed with invasive breast cancer between 2010-2011, with documented information about tumor stage, hormone receptor, and Her2 status. They evaluated the associations between patient race / ethnicity and stage at diagnosis as well as receipt of guideline-appropriate care. Findings included:

  • African American and Hispanic women were 30-60% more likely to be diagnosed with stage II-IV breast cancer compared with non-Hispanic white women
  • African American women had 40-70% risks of being diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer depending on tumor subtype
  • American Indian and Alaska Native women had a 3.9 times higher risk of stage IV triple-negative breast cancer
  • African American and Hispanic women were 30-40% more likely to receive non-guideline concordant care for their breast cancer

The findings reflect those reported earlier this year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. It is not news that African American and Hispanic women have worse breast cancer outcomes compared to other populations. They are more likely to be diagnosed at advanced stages, are less likely to receive guideline-appropriate treatment, and have worse overall survival. It is becoming clear that breast cancer is a different disease in women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds – they are more likely to have higher-risk subtypes. This study confirms these points, with the exception of survival, which was not assessed due to the short time period of data analysis (2010-2011). This emphasizes the need for continued research regarding the racial and ethnic variations in tumor subtypes.

Presentation at more advanced stage and lack of guideline-concordant care for African American and Hispanic women should be of concern to us all. This points to racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in education, access to screening, and access to quality care. The authors concluded by stating:  “As contributors to racial / ethnic disparities in breast cancer are complex and multifactorial, continued efforts, especially targeted, culturally appropriate interventions, to address these disparities across different subtypes of breast cancer have the potential to reduce these long-standing disparities and hopefully close the existing survival gaps.”

29 September 2015

One of the most common questions asked by a newly diagnosed cancer patient is “Will I need chemotherapy?”. Almost everyone is aware of the toxicity related to chemotherapy, and the fact that it is a common component of cancer treatment. A recent study sheds some light on which patients can safely avoid chemotherapy.

We have known for many years that not all patients who receive chemotherapy will benefit from it – in some cases, less than 3% of patients benefit. We traditionally used measures such as tumor stage, tumor grade, and receptor status such as ER/ PR and Her2/neu. Since 2004, many of us have relied on the OncotypeDx test. This assay, which is performed on the tumor, analyzes 21 genes (of the cancer – different from genetic testing of the patient) that have to do with cell growth and proliferation. The score, which is reported as low, intermediate, or high, is used to help determine whether or not a patient will benefit from chemotherapy.

The initial studies leading to widespread use of the OncotypeDx test were retrospective. Many of the large national breast cancer trials had tissue saved from the original procedures. The OncotypeDx test was run on these tissue samples, and then was analyzed with respect to patient outcomes. Based on these studies, patients with low risk scores were advised not to undergo chemotherapy; chemotherapy targets rapidly dividing cells, and low-risk tumors simply will not respond. Conversely, patients with high risk scores were advised to undergo chemotherapy treatment. Based on these studies, we discovered that our traditional methods of determining who should receive chemotherapy were not very accurate.

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine is the report of the first prospective trial involving OncotypeDx testing. Dr. Joseph Sparano and colleagues reported on the Prospective Validation of a 21-Gene Expression Assay in Breast Cancer. In this study, patients with hormone-receptor positive, Her2/neu negative breast cancers, 1.5 – 5.0 cm in size, had OncotypeDx testing on their tumors. Patients with low-risk tumors received endocrine therapy (tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors). Patients with high-risk tumors received chemotherapy. Patients with intermediate-risk tumors were randomized to either hormonal therapy or chemotherapy, as prior studies did not demonstrate a clear benefit from either class of treatment.

The current study reports on the low-risk group, which included 1626 women. At 5 years, fewer than 2% of patients experienced a local-regional (breast or lymph nodes) or distant / metastatic (spread to other areas of the body) recurrence.

The authors concluded that endocrine therapy is perfectly appropriate for patients with low-risk tumors, and chemotherapy would not add any significant benefit in terms of recurrence or overall survival. A criticism of the study was that follow up was only 5 years, but the authors note that the primary benefit of chemotherapy is in reducing recurrences within the first 5 years of treatment. Endocrine therapy is recommended for longer-term reduction in recurrence in these patients.

Dr. Clifford Hudis, of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, wrote an accompanying editorial: Biology Before Anatomy in Early Breast Cancer – Precisely the Point. He noted that “this assay is the most rigorously tested option and provides proof of the principle that we can develop reproducible predictive results to select patients who should not receive chemotherapy. In that regard, it is one more step towards precision. There are more steps ahead.”

9 June 2015

Surgery doesn’t help women with early-stage breast cancer – that’s certainly a headline that will get attention. The recent NPR article referred to a study published in JAMA Surgery: Survival Benefit of Breast Surgery for Low Risk Ductal Carcinoma In Situ – A Population-Based Cohort Study(1). The study raises some very interesting points, but the NPR headline is misleading. Early stage breast cancer can refer to Stages 0, I, and 2, and the study cited only refers to low grade ductal carcinoma in situ.

In this study, researchers used the SEER database to identify fifty seven thousand cases of DCIS treated in the United States from 1988-2011. 2% of that group did not undergo surgery. The researchers evaluated breast cancer specific survival in the patients treated with and without surgery in relation to tumor grade. They concluded that there was no survival advantage to undergoing surgery in cases of low grade DCIS. For patients with intermediate grade DCIS, 10 year breast cancer specific survival rates were 98.6% in the group who underwent surgery vs 94.6% in the non-surgical group. For patients with high-grade DCIS, 10 year breast cancer specific survival was 98.4% in the surgical patients vs. 90.5% in the non-surgical group.

Ductal carcinoma in-situ is also referred to as noninvasive, or Stage 0 breast cancer. It is primarily diagnosed by screening mammogram, as it often does not form a palpable lump. DCIS accounts for approximately 20% of all breast cancers detected by mammography. As screening mammography has become more prevalent, the rate of DCIS detection has increased. Since DCIS does not always progress to invasive cancer, it is a very reasonable for a newly diagnosed woman to ask “Do I need surgery?”.

A hallmark of cancer is the ability to invade surrounding organs and metastasize, and whether or not DCIS should even be considered “cancer” has been the subject of much debate. Dr. Laura Esserman and others have suggested that DCIS be re-classified as an Indolent Lesion of Epithelial Origin(2). The traditional therapy for DCIS is surgical excision (lumpectomy or mastectomy depending on the extent of disease), radiation therapy, and hormonal therapy such as tamoxifen if the DCIS is estrogen receptor positive. The concern of Dr. Esserman and many others is that we are overdiagnosing and overtreating many women. It is estimated that approximately 25-50% of cases of DCIS will likely progress to invasive disease – 60% over 10 years for high grade vs 16% for low grade (1). Preventing invasive disease, which carries a possibility for metastasis, is the primary goal when treating DCIS.

Unfortunately, we are not yet in a position to accurately predict which cases of DCIS will progress and which will not. The study by Sagara et al categorized the DCIS by tumor grade, and this is an important factor in predicting biologic behavior. However, as was pointed out by Margenthaler and Vaughan in their commentary No Surgery for Low Grade Ductal Carcinoma In Situ? (3), a detailed tumor genomic analysis such as the 12-gene assay provides more comprehensive information about tumor behavior and prognosis. Currently this assay is being used in selected cases to classify DCIS as low, intermediate and high risk and to guide treatment. Another limitation of the Sagara study is the retrospective nature, so that information regarding surgical margins and other factors known to be important in recurrence rates is not known. In addition, only 2% of the patients with DCIS underwent non-operative therapy, so the sample size is very small. It is also not known why some women did not undergo surgery.

An additional concern regarding nonoperative therapy is that if surgery is not performed, the diagnosis depends on the accuracy of the core biopsy. In approximately 15-20% of cases when DCIS is found on core biopsy, the surgical pathology actually demonstrates invasive cancer (4). As the entire lesion cannot be sampled with needle biopsy, we don’t know if we are actually observing an invasive cancer.

So can surgery be avoided in women with early stage breast cancer? My answer is in selected cases possibly, but more information is needed. Several ongoing trials will hopefully provide some answers. In the United States, the ALLIANCE trial involves treating patients with letrozole for 3-6 months prior to surgery with tumor assessment by biopsy and MRI. A similar study is being performed at the University of California San Francisco using either tamoxifen or letrozole prior to surgery. Both studies are evaluating tumor biomarkers to help determine if response can be predicted based on specific tumor factors.

In Europe, 2 non-operative trials are opening – LORD and LORIS. Both will include patients with low-grade DCIS and randomize them to either active surveillance or treatment.

We are anxiously awaiting the results of these studies. Identifying women who do not benefit from treatment is an important question that needs to be answered. However at this time, we do not have enough information to make the general recommendation of active surveillance for all women with low grade DCIS.

References:
1. Sagara Y, et al. Survival Benefit of Breast Surgery for Low Grade Ductal Carcinoma In Situ: A Population-Based Cohort Study. JAMA Surg Published online June 03, 2015.;():. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2015.0895.
2. Esserman LJ, et al. Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment in Cancer: An Opportunity for Improvement. JAMA 2013:310(8)797-798
3. Margenthaler JA, Vaughan A. No Surgery For Low-Grade Ductal Carcinoma In Situ? JAMA Surg Published online June 03, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2015.0895
4. Kumiawan ED et al. Risk Factors for Invasive Breast Cancer when Core Needle Biopsy Shows Ductal Carcinoma In Situ.
Arch Surg 2010;145(11)1098-1104

28 January 2015

A study published in the journal Cancer found that many women lack basic knowledge about their breast cancer. Researchers at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston surveyed 500 women treated between 2010-2011 for Stage 0 – III breast cancer in Northern California. Women were asked about 4 tumor characteristics – estrogen receptor (ER) status, Her2/neu status, tumor grade and disease stage.

They found that overall, 55% reported knowing their ER status, 33% reported knowing their Her2/neu status, 82% reported knowing their disease stage, and 32% reported knowing their tumor grade. 14% reported knowing all characteristics, and 14% reported knowing none.

However, patient perception of knowledge did not reflect actual knowledge. Only 8% answered all questions correctly. They also found that African American and Hispanic women had a lower rate of stated knowledge and correct answers. Differences in education and health literacy were associated with less knowledge about one’s own condition, but controlling for these factors did not eliminate the observed differences for minority participants.

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The findings are important for several reasons. As the authors noted in their manuscript, “having knowledge about one’s health conditions or the risk of developing health conditions can promote healthy behaviors and treatment adherence. Better general knowledge about cancer is associated with cancer screening, earlier stage at presentation and survival, and enhanced satisfaction with care.” “Improving a patient’s understanding about why a particular treatment is important to her individual situation may lead to more informed decisions and better adherence to treatment plans.”

While it is generally felt that breast cancer patients are highly educated about their disease, this study shows that as physicians, we have a long way to go. We need to do a better job assessing a patient’s understanding of their disease and treatment options, and we need to design and participate in research studies that evaluate new and innovative ways to explain complicated information to a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient taking into account education level as well as racial, ethnic and cultural differences. Our discussions need to be tailored to the individual patient. And patients should feel empowered to ask questions and obtain clarification in order to fully understand the treatment recommendations and the rational behind those recommendations.

Reuters News Coverage

19 January 2015

This past weekend, I gave a talk at the Southern California Chapter of the American College of Surgeons Annual Meeting – the title of the talk was Increasing Mastectomy Rates – Science vs. Personal Choice.

There is a tremendous amount of literature documenting the increasing mastectomy rates. The talk focused on women with early stage breast cancer at average risk for developing a recurrence or new cancer – women without a BRCA gene mutation. As has been my practice for several years when giving a talk which includes the patient experience, I asked you for input, and received a lot of information. The following is a summary of the talk, including your perspective.

The use of mastectomy for breast cancer has been documented as early as the 1500s, despite the fact that general anesthesia did not come into use until the 1840s. Sir William Halsted described the radical mastectomy, which involved removal of the breast, all of the overlying skin, the pectoral (chest) muscle, and a significant number of lymph nodes. It was a very aggressive surgery but at the time, many women at the time presented with advanced disease – cancers that grew through the skin or chest muscle. The Halsted theory was that if the breast and lymph nodes could be removed with an extensive “en bloc” surgery, the cancer had a lower likelihood of spreading. However, despite this aggressive approach, the dismal survival rates from breast cancer did not improve.

Halsted died in 1922, but the radical mastectomy remained the surgical procedure of choice until the 1960-70s. The landmark NSABP B04 trial, led by Dr. Bernard Fisher, demonstrated that regardless of surgical decision (radical mastectomy vs. total mastectomy – no removal of the muscle) the survival rates were equivalent, and these results have held up for 25 years(1). The Fisher theory was that cancer may be metastatic from the beginning, and that a more extensive surgical procedure would not be expected to improve survival rates. The NSABP B06 trial demonstrated equivalent survival rates whether women underwent mastectomy, lumpectomy / radiation, or lumpectomy alone. However, if radiation therapy was not performed, the risk of local recurrence (cancer returning in the breast) was 39.2%, compared to 14.3% with radiation(2). This is the basis for our current recommendation of lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy for early stage breast cancer. A 1990 NIH consensus panel stated that “breast conservation treatment is an appropriate method of primary therapy for the majority of women with early-stage breast cancer and is preferable because it provides survival rates equivalent to those of mastectomy while preserving the breast’’(3).

This was seen as a major scientific advance, and one that was embraced by patients – no longer did women need to have a breast removed for early stage disease, and from the early to mid 1990s, lumpectomy rates started increasing while mastectomy rates decreased.

The Women’s Health and Cancer Rights act of 1998 stated that if an insurance company covered the procedure of mastectomy, they were required to cover reconstructive surgery, including procedures performed on the other breast to produce a symmetrical appearance, as well as prosthetics for lymphedema. This set the stage for immediate reconstruction, which prior to this time was generally not performed (or recommended) on a regular basis.

We think of the “Celebrity Effect” when we hear Angelina Jolie, Amy Robach, and others discuss their decisions. But in 1987, Nancy Regan underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, and she received a significant amount of criticism for her decision, both from the medical community as well as from advocacy groups. Women who underwent breast cancer surgery from the end of 1987 to early 1988 were 25% less likely to undergo lumpectomy compared to earlier in 1987, prior to her diagnosis(4). Lumpectomy rates subsequently increased, but she later wrote “This is a very personal decision, one that each woman must make for herself. This was my choice, and I don’t believe I should have been criticized for it”(5).

Around 2004, it was noted that mastectomy rates started rising(6). This trend was seen nationally as well as in many individual institutions.

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In addition to an increase in mastectomies being performed for early stage breast cancer, an increase has been seen in contralateral prophylactic mastectomy – removal of the other, non-cancerous breast. Many studies have been published confirming this trend, and also evaluating factors associated with an increased mastectomy rate(7,8,9). They include:
– Young age, Caucasian race
– Higher economic status, better insurance, availability of reconstruction
– Family history of breast cancer or genetic testing – even if the genetic testing was negative
– Undergoing an MRI, even if the MRI was normal

Patient factors have also been evaluated. Many studies have cited that women make their decisions out of fear. Interestingly, there seems to be some intellectual disconnect – women report that they understand there is no improvement in survival, yet state that they made their decision “to live longer”. The physician has been identified as a very important source of information, yet only 1/3 of women stated that a desire to follow their physician’s recommendation was important in making their decision. Many women over-estimate their risk of developing a new breast cancer – some reporting they think their risk is as high as 50%. Other studies have reported that women make their decisions to gain a sense of control over cancer, but that many have an exaggerated sense of control, stating that they are making the decision “so I don’t have to go through this again”, while admitting that they are aware that mastectomy does not reduce the rate of metastatic disease. The impact of a family member / friend experience was also noted to be very important. All of us make decisions in our daily lives based on personal experience rather than hard facts – a woman facing a decision about breast cancer surgery is no different. Finally, many woman remain very satisfied with their decision even 20 years after the surgery. However, it is important to note that 10-30% report issues related to self-esteem, body image, sexuality, emotional stability, and overall quality of life (10, 11, 12).

Some facts(10, 13, 14, 15):
– For women at average risk of breast cancer (BRCA negative) the rate of developing a new breast cancer is approximately 0.5 – 0.75% per year. This can be reduced if the women undergoes chemotherapy and/or endocrine therapy
– Mastectomy for early stage breast cancer or contralateral prophylactic mastectomy does not reduce the likelihood that breast cancer will metastasize (spread to other areas of the body)
– The complication rate increases with more surgery – bilateral mastectomy is associated with 30-40% risk of complications including infection, fluid accumulation, and re-operation.

So what did you, the #BCSM Community have to say? Out of those who responded:
– “I knew survival rates were the same” – most patients well informed, had surgeons who presented all sides, supported their decision
– 40% said decisions influenced by family/friend experience
– 15% had lumpectomy initially, then opted for bilateral mastectomy after anxiety of repeat imaging and biopsies.
– 6 patients: lumpectomy and radiation: significant problems with wound healing, fibrosis and later underwent a mastectomy
– 5 patients subsequently developed metastatic disease; no regrets on their decision
– 3 patients required multiple surgeries due to revisions, infection, lost implant – no regrets
– 2 patients felt pushed into their decision, one by family members and another by their physician – both regretted their decision

There are a lot of comments on the original blog post; here are a few I received by email:
– “I wish doctors, researchers and the media understood (some do) – there are many valid reasons for choosing a mastectomy, even with the state-of-science today”
– “The focus is on ‘simple’ surgery – the potential toxicity of radiation therapy is grossly minimized. While serious and long-term side effects of radiation therapy may be rare, they do occur. It is ironic now that patients have a choice in treatment selection, there is so much hand-wringing by the medical establishment in the choices that many women make”
– “We are diligent. We are thoughtful. We have good reasons for choosing the “big surgery”. Our doctors explain the risk factors, we process the information, we understand the full ramifications of our choice, and are still confident that this is the right choice for our set of circumstances.
– It may not fit the medically necessary criteria, but it may fit with the emotionally necessary criteria. I hear your evidence based science and I’ll raise you five intangibles…”

So what is the answer? Clearly physicians have a responsibility to educate our patients not only on the lack of overall survival benefit, on the complication rates. Physicians also need to do a better job of assessing and explaining a patient’s risk of developing a recurrence or a new breast cancer. And patients should be encouraged to take their time, obtain opinions, and carefully consider all options prior to making a decision. But rather than irrational fear, what many of see in our practice is “Reasonable Fear”. Patient’s biases and personal experiences need to be acknowledged. Some bias, but not all, can be overcome with education. But until science advances to allow us to truly predict who will and will not develop a recurrence or a new breast cancer, personal choice should remain an option.

References:
1. Fisher B et al. 25 Year follow up of a randomized trial comparing radical mastectomy, total mastectomy, and total mastectomy followed by irradiation. NEJM 2002;347 (8)
2. Fisher B et al. 20 Year follow up of a randomized trial comparing total mastectomy, lumpectomy, and lumpectomy plus irradiation for the treatment of invasive breast cancer NEJM 2002;347 (16)
3. NIH Consensus Conference: Treatment of Early Stage Breast Cancer. JAMA 1991 265
4. Nattinger AB, et al Effect of Nancy Regan’s mastectomy on choice of surgery for breast cancer by US women. JAMA 1998 (279) 10 762-766
5. Olson, J: “Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer and History” The Johns Hopkins University Press 2002
6. McGuire KP, et al Are mastectomies on the rise? A 13 year trend analysis of the selection of mastectomy versus breast conservation therapy in 5865 patients. Ann Surg Oncol 2009 16:2682-2690
7. Mahmood U, et al Increasing national mastectomy rates for the treatment of early stage breast cancer. Ann Surg Oncol 2013 20:1436-1443
8. Yao K, et al Trends in contralateral prophylactic mastectomy for unilateral cancer: A report from the national cancer database 1998-2007. Ann Surg Oncol 2010(17) 2554-2562
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23 November 2014

Guest Post by Dr. Oliver Bogler

When thinking about a post on male breast cancer, one person came to mind –  Dr. Oliver Bogler. As a cancer researcher, Dr. Bogler has a very unique perspective on his diagnosis, treatment, and the larger problem of research disparities when it comes to male breast cancer. Here is his guest post: 

My personal encounter with breast cancer started with my diagnosis in September of 2012. My story is very typical. As I have written more extensively about it elsewhere let me be brief: I felt a lump, and after a few months of denial I had it checked out, and then very quickly was diagnosed and treated at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where I also work. More on that below, but let’s first look at some facts about the male disease.

About Male Breast Cancer
Approximately one in every hundred people diagnosed with breast cancer is a man. That’s about 2,200 new cases a year in the USA. Men have breasts, meaning that they have the same lobular glands and ducts that women have, though they have less tissue and it does not produce milk. Accordingly, male breast cancer is typically ductal carcinoma and hormone receptor positive and Her2 negative, which is also the most common type of breast cancer in women. Men are diagnosed later in life, typically, with a median age at diagnosis of 68, or about 7years older than women. For that reason men also present more often with more advanced forms of breast cancer – stages III and IV are more common, and stage I very rare. One possible explanation is that a lack of awareness results in delayed diagnosis, and so more advanced presentation at a later age.

Treatment regimens for men are essentially identical to those used for women, and outcomes are very similar, as far as we know. Because male breast cancers are typically hormone receptor positive, hormone therapy with the anti-estrogen tamoxifen is commonly an important part of the therapy. It suppresses male estrogen, and thereby other hormones also, which are co-regulated, including testosterone.

Many websites, including those of the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute provide fundamental information about male breast cancer. Interventional clinical trials on breast cancer that men are eligible for can be found here (ClinicalTrials.gov is a registry and results database of publicly and privately supported clinical studies of human participants conducted around the world).

My advice: if you feel a lump, any lump, go see a doctor right away.

My Journey – Our Journey
One of the reasons I hesitated to get my lump checked out was that my wife had been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer about 5 years before me. I couldn’t really grasp the improbability of it hitting our nuclear family twice. Being Irene’s care taker and then a patient allows me to say with confidence that the treatments for men and women are identical: we both had up-front chemotherapy in a two step regimen: 12 rounds of weekly Taxol and then 4 rounds of the combination FAC at three week intervals. MD Anderson physicians prefer to give the chemo first as it provides an opportunity to see how the tumor responds. Then we both had surgery – modified radical mastectomy with axillary lymph node dissection – followed by 6 weeks of radiation to the chest wall. Now we both take hormone therapy – aromatase inhibitors for Irene, good old tamoxifen for me. Evidently we feel that marriage is all about sharing experiences 🙂

What we know about male breast cancer and opportunities to learn more
What do we know? Probably not enough. I do accept that the treatment men receive is effective – there are some relatively small-scale, hospital registry based studies showing this. When adjusted for age and stage at diagnosis, it looks like men do as well as women with today’s approaches. On the other hand, the possibility that a sex-hormone driven cancer may have important differences between men and women cannot be excluded. Very encouraging is a current, larger registry trial in a network of European and US cancer centers with about 1,200 men that will provide a robust baseline outcomes data set and afford the opportunity to collect tissue and study the disease. It is the kind of research that was being done 20+ years ago in women.

An analysis I wrote about on my blog and in Breast Diseases Quarterly [Bogler, O. (2013) Male Breast Cancer: Opportunities for Research and Clinical Trials. Breast Diseases: A Year Book Quarterly 24(3), 216-218] suggests that there is very little primary research on the male disease. There are no laboratory models, cell lines or other tools. Few if any grants supporting this kind of fundamental biology are in evidence, and aside from the inclusion of male breast cancer in the epidemiology of rare cancers it is hard to find any support for research from the National Cancer Institute or foundations. Given that the NCI alone spends $600M on breast cancer research, there is in my mind ample opportunity to dedicate some to this question. Perhaps 1% would be a good start?

On a similar note, men are only eligible for about 30% of breast cancer clinical trials found on clinicaltrials.gov, suggesting that access is a real issue. Of course in some instances our inclusion may not make sense, but I believe that in many instances inertia rather than a biological rationale underlies the exclusion of men. Both of these areas provide significant opportunities to learn more about the male disease and how best to deal with it clinically.

The Awareness Gap
Being a man with what is widely understood to be a women’s cancer leads to some dissonant experiences. To me these are mostly mildly funny, and not an issue – being asked how I get a mammogram for instance (the same way you do…), or filling out a form that asks me whether I am pregnant or when my last period was. Its fine – I get it. Mostly women here, and mostly the men in the waiting room aren’t wearing the medical arm band. But having breast cancer as a man is still (local) news worthy, and has modest shock value – that is surprising. The issue here is that a lack of awareness is probably a contributing factor to the delayed diagnosis in men and that means in some cases in their earlier death. It is certainly contributing to the underfunding of research and exclusion of men from trials. We need to change that.

A key challenge for men with breast cancer is the phenomenal success of the breast cancer awareness community. While the excesses of “pink” are unfortunately common these days, I do acknowledge the amazing work the community has done, and am deeply grateful for it. Alone the fact that we can have frank, open discourse about breast cancer, any cancer, is a tribute to the brave women who came out with their disease in the past 50 years. Then, the mobilization of public and private resources for awareness, screening and research is a tremendous accomplishment. And the US is a clear leader in this – a significant cultural accomplishment. But if this huge silver lining has a tiny, tiny black cloud it is that pink leaves almost no room for awareness about men. Breast cancer actually is not a sex-specific cancer like ovarian, uterine, testicular or prostate – it just appears to be. A great illustration of this phenomenon for me is the NFL players who in October don pink in support of women with breast cancer (hurray!) and completely fail to take the opportunity to also mention that they themselves could be diagnosed with this disease one day (booo!).

I want to close by being clear: I am not advocating for male breast cancer at the expense of other forms of breast cancer. Not at all. I want it to have its place with, and alongside. And in proportion – 1% would be a good start. Perhaps my concerns are not dissimilar from those of the inflammatory, triple negative or metastatic breast cancer communities: being outside the pink mainstream presents awareness challenges, which in turn make it harder to gain the resources needed to change the fate of many women and men with breast cancer.

 Dr. Oliver Bogler is a cancer researcher, male breast cancer patient, and male breast cancer advocate. His blog can be found at Entering a World of Pink.