6 October 2019

The headline was promising: “Breast Cancer Awareness Month: 3 Ways to Prevent and Detect the Disease” – but the word “prevent” always gets my attention. Can we really prevent breast cancer?

As always, the context is important. When we look at populations, large groups of individuals, there is no question that a healthy diet, regular exercise, and limitations in alcohol intake will result in reduced rates of breast cancer (and other disease) development. So for populations, yes, we can prevent disease. Unfortunately it’s not that simple when it comes down to the individual level. Cancer, even breast cancer, is not one disease. People are complex and there are multiple factors influencing the likelihood of disease development in any one individual. For example, breast feeding lowers risk, but a woman who breast-fed her children is not immune from developing breast cancer. On an individual level, the best we have is risk reduction.

What’s the harm in using the term prevention when discussing risk factors at an individual level? It is not uncommon for a patient newly diagnosed with breast cancer to start second-guessing all of her life choices, and feeling guilty that she caused her disease:

The reality is that one can do everything “right” and still develop breast cancer and one can have a high alcohol intake and junk-food diet and never develop the disease. In the majority of individuals, we cannot determine exactly why breast cancer develops. We are all looking for answers and for control. Adopting a healthier lifestyle with known risk factors in mind will help contribute to a longer and healthier life. But there are no guarantees. Life is for living, and it’s too short to be burdened with guilt if disease does develop.

9 January 2019

The American Cancer Society has just published their updated “Cancer Facts and Figures”, documenting cancer incidence and mortality rates. When combined by disease site, cancer death rates have decreased by 27% from 1991-2016, resulting in approximately 2.6 million cancer deaths avoided. From 2007 – 2016, cancer death rates have declined approximately 1.8% per year for men, and 1.4% per year for women. From 2006 – 2015, rates of cancer development increased approximately 2% per year for men and were stable for women.  It is anticipated that there will still be more than 1.7 million new cancers diagnosed and 600,000 cancer-related deaths in 2019.

The most common cancers in men are lung, prostate and colorectal, and the most common cancers in women are breast, lung and colorectal. Breast cancer accounts for 30% of all new cancer diagnoses in women.

Lung cancer is the most frequent cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women. Much of the decline in incidence and mortality is attributed to a decline in smoking rates, but it important to note that many cases of lung cancer occur in non-smokers. Rates of new lung cancer cases have decreased by 3% per year in men and 1.5% per year in women, and these differences are not fully explained by smoking rates – especially in cases of lung cancer in younger women. In addition, while lung cancer related deaths in men decreased by 48%, women only experienced a 23% reduction in death rates. 

Improvements in screening and treatment have resulted in a decreased number of deaths due to lung, breast colorectal and prostate cancer, and breast cancer death rates decreased approximately 40% from 1989 – 2016. However, there has been a modest increase in breast cancer incidence, in part due to the association of breast cancer development with post-menopausal obesity as well as alcohol intake. 

While the prostate cancer death rate has decreased, there has been some flattening of the curve from 2013-2016. This may be related to more recent guidelines that do not recommend routine testing of the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in patients without symptoms.

Colorectal cancer death rates declined 53% from 1970 – 2016, but in patients younger than age 55, new cases of colorectal cancer have increased almost 2% per year since the mid 1990s

Death rates in cancers related to obesity, including pancreatic and uterine cancer, have been increasing. Deaths due to liver cancer have also risen, with an increasing number of cases related to obesity rather than alcohol and chronic hepatitis.

There has been a decline in the racial gaps in mortality rates, but blacks are still 14% more likely to die of cancer compared to whites (33% 25 years ago). While this is encouraging, the economic gap is growing, especially related to cancers that have seen improvements due to early screening and treatment, improved nutrition and smoking cessation.

It was noted that cancer risk increases with age, and those over 85 account for approximately 8% of all new cancer diagnoses. Cancer is also noted to be the 2ndleading cause of death, after heart disease in this population. There may be many challenges to diagnosis and treatment in older adults due to the presence of co-existing medical conditions as well as other factors. 

It is important to note some limitations of the report. Information is gathered from several sources and data may be incomplete. The current report notes incidence rates through 2014 and survival data through 2015. 

The general downward trend in cancer incidence and improvement in survival is encouraging, but there is much work to be done.

Additional Information:
KPCC Air Talk interview with Dr. Attai
American Cancer Society Press Release
American Cancer Society “Facts and Figures”

10 December 2018

Being overweight after menopause is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. But a new study suggests that our traditional measure of overweight, the body mass index (BMI) may not tell the whole story.

A recent study, published in JAMA Oncology, performed detailed body composition analysis on 3000 women who were of normal BMI. They found that among these women, those with increased levels of body fat (especially in the truncal area – “belly fat”) had higher risks of estrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer compared to women with lower body fat levels. In addition, the women with higher body fat levels also had higher levels of inflammatory markers as well as other metabolic abnormalities. 

This suggests that maintaining a healthy weight may not be enough. Muscle mass declines with age, so even if weight is stable, there is a slow but steady increase in body fat. Regular exercise can certainly help to maintain muscle mass and it also helps decrease the level of inflammatory markers. 

The authors note that more study is needed to better understand the links between body fat and breast cancer, but it is very clear that there is no way around it – exercise is essential for good health.

Additional Information:
NBC News: Belly fat increases risk of breast cancer despite normal BMI
CNN – Body fat levels linked to breast cancer risk in post-menopausal women

10 May 2018

The American Society of Breast Surgeons held their Annual Meeting in Orlando, FL from May 2nd – 6th. As usual, it was well attended – the meeting is known for being very practical and full of information that breast surgeons can bring back to their practices to help improve patient care.

I’ve picked a few topics to highlight in this post: Genetics, Imaging, Local Therapy, Systemic Therapy, Immunotherapy, Liquid Biopsy, Diet and Hormone Therapy, and Changing Paradigms. The following are comments expressed by the meeting speakers. My own comments will be noted in bold italics.

Genetics:

  • BRCA 1 mutation carriers are more likely to have triple negative breast cancer.
  • BRCA 2 mutation carriers are more likely to have ER positive, Her2/neu negative breast cancers.
  • The risk of a 2nd breast cancer in BRCA mutation carriers on average is about 2% per year depending on the specific mutation and the age of affected relatives. It can approach 60-80% in some patients. This increased risk of a new breast cancer is why bilateral mastectomy is often recommended. Removal of the opposite breast may result in improved overall survival but results from studies are mixed.
  • For BRCA mutation carriers, it is recommended that clinical breast exam (breast exam by the physician) be performed every 6-12 months. From age 25-29 annual MRI is recommended, and from age 30-75 annual mammogram (3D mammogram or tomosynthesis was recommended) along with MRI was recommended. It was stated that this screening regimen has not been shown to improve survival, but the screen-detected cancers were less likely to have lymph node involvement. No specific recommendation was made for imaging or exam after bilateral mastectomy.
  • MRI every 6 months has been suggested by some, but there are concerns about gadolinium (a heavy metal material which is the contrast agent used for breast MRI) buildup.
  • Removal of the ovaries is recommended around age 40.
  • In patients with BRCA mutations who undergo salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes), estrogen replacement therapy has not been shown to increase subsequent breast cancer risk. However, combined estrogen / progesterone therapy may increase subsequent breast cancer risk. It was suggested to consider removing the uterus at the time of ovary removal, so that estrogen alone could be used (if the uterus is not removed, estrogen alone could increase the risk of uterine cancer).
  • There are many other genetic mutations that have been identified that have a variable association with increased breast cancer risk. It was stressed that family history and other factors need to be considered when these less common mutations (such as CHEK2, ATM, PALB2 and many more) are present, before recommending mastectomy.
  • It was stressed that the presence of a variant of unknown significance (VUS) should NOT prompt aggressive surgery.
  • A study was presented that demonstrated that current breast cancer genetic testing guidelines exclude almost half of high-risk patients, and a recommendation was made for testing of all breast cancer patients regardless of age, family history or other factors.

Breast Imaging:

  • Dense breast (as determined by mammogram) reduces the sensitivity of mammograms, and also is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
  • It was stressed that determination of breast density is subjective and studies have shown significant variability in grading of breast density. Automated methods of assessing density are being evaluated.
  • 34 states have dense breast notification legislation. Some have supplemental screening (such as ultrasound) legislation (California does not).
  • An advantage of tomosynthesis (also known as 3D mammogram) in patients with dense breasts is that it decreases the likelihood of callbacks and improves the cancer detection rate
  • Abbreviated (3 minute scan) MRI shows promise for screening.
  • There is an ECOG/ACRIN study planned which will evaluate abbreviated MRI versus tomosynthesis in women with dense breasts.
  • Contrast-enhanced mammography is superior to digital mammography but it requires an IV contrast dye, and there is currently no ability to biopsy lesions seen only with this technique.
  • It was stressed that automated whole breast ultrasound (ABUS) should not replace mammography.
  • Molecular breast imaging has a much higher radiation dose due to the need to inject a radioactive material and cost is higher than other imaging modalities. There are only about 100 units in the US.
  • In addition to BRCA mutation carriers, patients who have a history of chest wall radiation at a young age (most commonly for treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma) or those who have a lifetime risk of breast cancer over 20% (assessed by various computer modes) should have annual MRI in addition to mammograms for surveillance.

Loco-Regional (breast and underarm lymph nodes) Therapy:

  • Recurrence of cancer in the breast (known as a local recurrence) was previously thought to be related to “disease burden” – the amount of tumor and size of clear margins. According to Dr. Monica Morrow, this has led to an “obsession” with margins, wider surgical resection than necessary, and the overuse of MRI.
  • Due to improvements in systemic therapy (chemotherapy and endocrine therapy), local recurrences have decreased over time.
  • Local recurrences are largely a function of tumor biology – more aggressive tumor types are more likely to recur. Bigger surgery does not overcome bad biology.
  • The rates of contralateral (opposite side) new breast cancer have been decreasing in the US; currently <1% at 5 years for patients who do not have a genetic mutation.
  • Updated 2018 ASTRO guidelines endorse hypofractionation (a shorter course of radiation therapy) in a larger group of patients.
  • There are 3 trials that will evaluate whether or not radiation therapy can be avoided in selected patients – LUMINA, IDEA and PRECISION.
  • ~30% of patients undergoing “direct to implant” reconstruction (no temporary tissue expander) need a second surgery. One of the plastic surgeons that I work with notes that “reconstruction is a process not a procedure!”
  • Managing expectations of the reconstruction process is important so patients don’t get frustrated and feel like their reconstruction has “failed.”
  • Post mastectomy radiation worsens outcome from implant reconstruction; severe capsular contracture occurs in about 30% of patients.
  • If radiation is performed on the permanent implant instead of the tissue expander, the rate of reconstruction failure goes down by 50%.
  • Many plastic surgeons prefer that autologous (patient’s own body) reconstruction be performed after radiation to avoid shrinkage of the flap. A tissue expander could be placed at the time of mastectomy which will be removed after radiation when the flap procedure is performed.
  • Lymphedema risk is about 25% with axillary node dissection versus 6-8% with sentinel node biopsy. In certain patients over age 70 with ER+ breast cancer, sentinel node biopsy can be avoided – this was also covered in the Society of Surgical Oncology’s Choosing Wisely statements. However, it is also important to take into account whether or not the patient will be treated with radiation and/or endocrine therapy. Sentinel node biopsy is also not recommended for most patients undergoing lumpectomy for DCIS. The SOUND trial is evaluating the use of axillary ultrasound to try to determine if this can help select patients who do not need sentinel node biopsy.

 Systemic Therapy:

  • The use of genomic tumor testing could avoid the use of ineffective (for the specific patient depending on tumor profile) chemotherapy in up to 50,000 patients per year.
  • Neoadjuvant (before surgery) chemotherapy is most commonly used to decrease tumor size so that patients have a higher likelihood of being able to undergo lumpectomy instead of mastectomy.
  • About 50% of patients who have positive lymph nodes before chemotherapy are converted to node-negative due to chemotherapy prior to surgery, and they may be able to avoid full axillary node dissection.
  • Response to neoadjuvant chemotherapy varies by tumor subtype. Her2/neu and triple negative breast cancers are more likely to respond compared to ER+ and Her2/neu negative tumors.
  • Technical considerations to improve the accuracy of sentinel node biopsy after neoadjuvant chemotherapy including the use of 2 dye agents to map the nodes and removal of at least 3 lymph nodes.
  • A multidisciplinary approach for management of patients who are being considered for neoadjuvant chemotherapy was stressed.
  • Recurrence patterns are different for ER+ versus ER- disease. Patients with ER+ breast cancer are at risk for late recurrence, even 20 years after treatment – the highest risk is in patients with multiple involved lymph nodes. Patients with ER- disease tend to recur earlier (within the first 2-5 years), and then the likelihood of recurrence decreases.
  • Recurrence in the breast is a marker of increased risk for development of metastatic disease.
  • Premenopausal patients who have “low risk” disease could consider stopping tamoxifen after 5 years. It is recommended that patients with “high risk” disease consider 10 years of tamoxifen therapy.
  • Postmenopausal patients who are considered “high risk” could consider 10 years of an aromatase inhibitor, although there is not currently data that shows this approach improves survival. Prolonged therapy in these patients does reduce the likelihood of developing a new breast cancer and reduces the likelihood of breast cancer recurrence.

Immunotherapy / Liquid Biopsy:

  • A brief session was held covering immunotherapy and liquid biopsy.
  • Immunotherapy for breast cancer has not had the success seen in melanoma, lung cancer, colon cancer and bladder cancer.
  • The combination of chemotherapy and a modified herpes virus has shown some promise in patients with triple negative breast cancer.
  • It is likely that immunotherapy treatments will vary depending on tumor subtype.
  • Circulating tumor DNA may predict metastatic disease 8-12 months before evidence of tumor spread – but we are not yet able to improve patient outcomes based on this information. Therefore, circulating tumor cell and circulating cancer cell DNA assessments are not recommended for routine clinical use.
  • It was predicted that “liquid biopsy” will eventually be used routinely to help manage breast cancer patients.

 

Diet and Hormone Replacement Therapy:

  • A low fat diet improved the likelihood of death from breast cancer only in obese women.
  • Currently there is more information regarding the impact of dietary fat versus dietary sugar on breast cancer risk. Dr. Rowan Chlebowski, who has been a lead author on the Women’s Health Initiative studies, stated that due to an increasing number of reports suggesting that sugar may impact breast cancer development, they plan to look more closely at this.
  • Insulin resistance is associated with cancer specific and all-cause mortality in postmenopausal women.
  • One of Dr. Chlebowski’s conclusions was to “avoid body fatness.” Unfortunately, specific guidance on how to best accomplish this was not discussed!
  • The risk of breast cancer associated with hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is greater if it is started around the time of menopause versus 3-5 years later.
  • Breast cancer risk in women taking HRT is higher in women with extremely dense breast versus fatty replaced breasts. The biggest risk from HRT is in lean women with extremely dense breasts. The lowest risk from HRT is in women with a body mass index (BMI) > 35 with fatty replaced breasts.
  • Combination estrogen / progesterone HRT should be avoided in lean (BMI <25) women especially if they have dense breast tissue.
  • The Black Women’s Health Study found no increased breast cancer risk if HRT use was <10 years, but cancer risk was increased if use was >10 years. Other studies showed either no risk or no association of risk from HRT with race.

 

Changing Paradigms – Avoiding Surgery for DCIS and Neoadjuvant Patients

  • Active surveillance is being evaluated for ductal carcinoma in-situ (DCIS). Over 60,000 cases of DCIS are diagnosed per year in the US. Not all cases of DCIS will progress to invasive cancer, and the likelihood of progression is lowest in low grade DCIS. In these patients, less than 10% develop invasive cancer in the same breast after 10 years and over 20% die from other causes within 10 years of diagnosis.
  • There are 3 ongoing clinical trials are evaluating active surveillance for low risk DCIS (LORIS, LORD, and COMET). The COMET trial is the only study open in the US. DCISOptions.org has additional information about DCIS and the COMET trial.
  • Some patients who undergo chemotherapy prior to surgery are found to have no residual tumor after the area has been removed, termed pathologic complete response (pCR).
  • Prompted by patients asking “why do I need surgery?” if it appears that all cancer has resolved after chemotherapy, researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center are evaluating whether surgery can be omitted in patients who appear to have a pCR after chemotherapy. Patients who have no apparent tumor based on post-chemotherapy imaging (including MRI) undergo core needle biopsies. If these biopsies show no tumor, patients taking part in the study will undergo radiation without surgery.
  • Similar studies are taking place in the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK.
  • Henry Kuerer from MD Anderson stated that “surgeons have an obligation to study possibility of no surgery – and we must ensure safety and efficacy with well-designed trials.
  • Several types of ablative therapy (destroying the tumor without surgery) are being evaluated including cryoablation (freezing), laser, and transcutaneous (no needle puncture or scar) high frequency ultrasound.

Lifetime Achievement Award

Dr. Ernie Bodai, the breast surgeon who spearheaded the Breast Cancer Research Stamp, was honored with a lifetime achievement award. It was fascinating to hear his story and how one man (with a little help) got congress to change a law.

This post has not been endorsed by the American Society of Breast Surgeons

1 February 2018

February is heart health month!

It is well known that some breast cancer treatments including certain chemotherapy agents, trastuzumab (brand name herceptin – used for Her2/neu over-expressed cancers), and radiation therapy have the potential to cause damage to the heart. Echocardiograms and other monitoring tests are often performed during and after treatment for patients receiving certain chemotherapy medications and trastuzumab. We also try to tailor our treatment as much as possible to the individual patient’s tumor when treatment recommendations are made. Genomic tests such as the Oncotype Dx or MammaPrint help identify “low risk” patients that do not need chemotherapy.

In addition to regular monitoring, it is important that women who have been treated for breast cancer focus on the lifestyle factors that can improve heart health, such as regular exercise and a healthy diet. Women over 65 who have been treated for breast cancer are more likely to die of heart disease than the breast cancer, and all of the factors that improve heart health also decrease the risk of breast cancer recurrence.

Washington Post – Breast Cancer Treatments Can Raise Risk of Heart Disease
Forbes Online – Reasons Not to Freak Out About Risk of Heart Disease After Breast Cancer

7 December 2017

An abstract presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium found that acupuncture can be very helpful in patients who develop joint pains related to aromatase inhibitor (AI) treatment.

The study evaluated the use of acupuncture in post-menopausal women who had been treated for early stage breast cancer. 226 patients were enrolled. 110 underwent true acupuncture, 59 underwent sham acupuncture (needles inserted very superficially into non-treatment points) and 57 patients were placed on a waitlist (did not receive any treatment). Patients treated with true or sham acupuncture were treated twice a week for 6 weeks, followed by weekly sessions for 6 weeks. After 6 weeks, patients in the true acupuncture group had significantly lower pain scores compared to the other 2 groups. Even though the intervention was for 12 weeks, the significant improvement in pain scores for the patients treated with true acupuncture held up for 24 weeks. The primary adverse effect reported in the true and sham acupuncture groups was bruising.

AIs are a form of endocrine therapy, important in the treatment of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer. While they can significantly reduce the risk of recurrence, they are associated with a variable incidence of side effects including joint / muscle pains and hot flashes. Some women find the pains decrease after a few months of treatment. Weight loss (if overweight) and regular moderate exercise can help with symptoms. However, anywhere from 10-30% of patients stop their medications early due to negative impacts on quality of life.

A caution regarding these results is that they were presented in abstract, or preliminary form – a full paper with complete results has not yet been published. However, as acupuncture has very few side effects and is well tolerated by many patients, there seems to be little downside to trying a course of therapy if joint pains develop on endocrine therapy.

10 November 2017

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has just released a statement on alcohol and cancer. They note that the importance of alcohol consumption as a contributor to cancer development is under appreciated, and that in the US, approximately 3.5% of all cancer deaths are related to alcohol intake. While the association between alcohol intake (especially heavy consumption) has been known for some time, this is the first formal statement from ASCO on the subject. Alcohol intake is most strongly linked to head and neck, esophageal, liver, colon and breast cancers.

Moderate drinking is defined as one alcoholic drink per day for women and two per day for men. The greatest risk appears to be in those who drink heavily, although there does not appear to be a “safe” level of intake. In a New York Times article, Dr. Clifford Hudis, the chief executive of ASCO, noted that “The more you drink, the higher the risk. It’s a pretty linear dose-response”. ASCO did not recommend that people stop drinking altogether, but they did suggest that more education for both oncology providers and the public is needed about the relationships between alcohol consumption and cancer.

Of course, people who never drink alcohol can still develop cancer, and some who are heavy drinkers will not. Alcohol intake is just one of many lifestyle factors that can contribute to increased risk. And as Aaron Carroll writes, also in the New York Times, “maybe any increase in risk is too much for you”. If you do drink, I recommend that women limit their alcohol intake to 3-6 drinks per week – and don’t save up your weekly allowance for Friday or Saturday night! I think Dr. Carroll’s conclusion stated it best: “The absolute risks of light and moderate drinking are small, while many people derive pleasure from the occasional cocktail or glass of wine. It’s perfectly reasonable even if a risk exists — and the overall risk is debatable — to decide that the quality of life gained from that drink is greater than the potential harms it entails.”

24 October 2017

A national survey performed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology showed that many Americans are unaware of key cancer risk factors, including obesity, alcohol, lack of exercise, tobacco use and sun exposure. While doing “everything right” certainly is no guarantee of a healthy life (for example, many patients who develop lung cancer do not smoke) being aware of the lifestyle factors associated with cancer may lead to better health choices. In addition, all of these lifestyle factors are also associated with a lower likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, and other illness.

An additional finding of the survey was that 27% of respondents noted that either they or an immediate family member (who has / had cancer) took specific actions to decrease treatment costs including skipping appointments, postponed or didn’t fill prescriptions, skipped cancer medication doses, or cut cancer medications in half. We cannot hope to improve cancer outcomes without addressing the issues of cost of care and disparities in access to care.

1 August 2017

A meta-analysis recently published in JAMA Oncology evaluated studies that reported on therapies for cancer-related fatigue (CRF). CRF is very common, can persist for years after treatment, and is exacerbated by depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance and pain – which can also be long-term effects of cancer therapy. The authors focused on papers that reported the effects of pharmaceutical treatment, psychological therapy, and exercise.

In evaluating 113 randomized trials in adults with cancer, they found that exercise and psychological interventions as well as the combination of both reduce cancer-related fatigue during and after cancer treatment, and that these therapies were significantly better than pharmaceutical therapy. Age, cancer type (breast vs other cancers) or exercise mode (aerobic, resistance, or combined) were not associated with effectiveness of the intervention – patients of all ages, with all types of cancer equally experienced improvement in cancer-related fatigue.

As this was a meta-analysis, a review of multiple previously published studies, limitations include lack of detailed information on race, education level, socioeconomic status and other demographic factors in all studies – this can limit how the results may be applied to specific populations. The majority of studies evaluated were among breast cancer patients or survivors. Studies set different levels of fatigue as entry criteria, and in some studies it was not well defined. In addition, they found some studies had not been registered on ClinicalTrials.gov.

Despite the limitations, this study was important as it clearly demonstrated the benefit of exercise and psychological interventions to improve CRF. The authors recommend that these should be considered first-line therapy recommendations rather than pharmaceutical approaches.

8 May 2017

As a past-president of the American Society of Breast Surgeons I am probably more than a little biased. However, as always, the annual meeting held April 26-30th in Las Vegas was terrific. Topics including the full spectrum of breast disease, including benign and high risk lesions, genetic testing, breast cancer diagnosis and treatment including medical and radiation oncology updates, and metastatic disease.

The press briefing highlighted 3 abstracts which showed that:

  • Modern therapy for inflammatory breast cancer is associated with better outcomes than historically seen
  • Post-treatment lymphedema is related to a combination of treatments including surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy – not just from surgery
  • Patients with DCIS have a 5 year risk of developing a cancer in the other breast of 2.8% and a 10 year risk of 5.6%, and patients should be discouraged from undergoing bilateral mastectomy for this condition. Developing a new cancer in the previously treated breast was twice as likely as developing a new cancer in the opposite breast, and the use of tamoxifen reduced the likelihood of any recurrence.

Dr. Nathalie Johnson moderated a pre-meeting course on Building a Breast Cancer Survivorship Program. I was invited to speak on Traditional Versus Virtual – Options for Patient Support and Education. Just as it can be challenging to choose between cake and ice cream (2 really good things), patients note advantages to both in person and online support and education. It doesn’t have to be one or the other – do what works for YOU! My slides are posted on SlideShare.

During the general sessions, a few topics stood out to me:

Dr. Shelley Hwang from Duke University spoke on DCIS subtyping and overtreatment. She noted that DCIS now comprises over 20% of all mammographically detected breast cancer. It is considered a “non-obligate precursor” of invasive cancer – the rate and likelihood of progression to invasive cancer are not clearly known. However, it is clear that some patients will never exhibit progression to invasive disease, and she discussed this in the context of thyroid and prostate cancer – two situations where we know that treatment in some patients will not provide the patient any benefit. The challenge is to sort out which patients will benefit from treatment and which ones will not. The COMET study is currently enrolling patients with low grade DCIS to in an attempt to help answer these questions.

Dr. Virginia Herrmann from Washington University in St. Louis spoke on non-genetic breast cancer risk factors. This is an important topic and I believe one that doesn’t get covered enough. She noted that hormone replacement therapy does increase risk – although the incremental risk is small and is seen only after about 5 years of use. However, longer term use does result in higher risk. Increased body mass index (BMI) is associated with risk – the risk of breast cancer is 30% higher in patients with a BMI greater than 31 kg/m2 compared to a BMI of 20 kg/m2. She noted that there is a linear relationship between alcohol intake and cancer risk, noting a 10% increase in risk for each 10 gm/day (for wine this is a little over 3 oz) increment in alcohol consumption. The risk is most associated with post-menopausal breast cancer, although in the study she quoted, only alcohol intake during age 50s was associated with an increased risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. She noted the association of ionizing radiation and breast cancer, and young women who received mantle (chest area) radiation for Hodgkin’s lymphoma have a markedly increased risk for developing breast cancer. She noted that breast cancer risk is increased in smokers, correlated with smoking intensity and duration. Finally, she noted the increased risk of breast cancer among soldiers stationed at Camp LeJune related to contaminated drinking water (tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene).

Dr. Tiffany Traina, a Memorial Sloan Kettering medical oncologist, gave a brief presentation about triple negative breast cancer: Searching For the Magic Bullet. There are several promising treatment strategies including targeting androgen receptors, the use of PARP-inhibitors in patients who have BRCA gene mutations, antibody-drug conjugates, immune modulating approaches, and targeted therapies based on tumor genomic profiles. Stay tuned – much more to come over the next few years related to this aggressive breast cancer subtype.

Dr. Lisa Newman, from the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, spoke on Breast Cancer Outcomes: Disparities versus Biology. I have heard her speak on this topic multiple times over the years and always enjoy her excellent presentations. She noted that the incidence of breast cancer in black women is increasing, now close to that in white women. However, mortality rates for black women are higher than those for white women. There is an increased frequency of triple negative breast cancer in black women. She is involved in a research initiative evaluating the association between African ancestry and high risk breast cancer in white American women, African American women, and women in Ghana, including studying novel aspects of tumor biology and breast cancer stem cells – she is asking the question “are there differences in the oncogenic potential of mammary tissue that are associated with ancestry”? She concluded with what I felt was a powerful slide – 60% – 43% – 20%. Those were the survival rates for passengers on the Titanic who were in 1st – 2nd – 3rd class. She noted that healthcare outcomes are often dependent on access to care, and ended with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Of all the forms of injustice, inequality in health care is the most shocking and inhumane”.

Dr. Stephen Edge, from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, gave an update on the new American Joint Commission on Cancer staging system (AJCC 8th edition). Currently we stage breast cancer based on tumor size and lymph node status. However, it is recognized that that tumor biology plays an important role in prognosis and in some patients it may be more important that tumor size. The new staging system will incorporate tumor grade, Her2/neu status, ER/PR status, and Oncotype Dx status (if available) and should more accurately reflect prognosis. There are 422 lines in the new staging system – it will be impossible to memorize! Thankfully, he noted that the AJCC is working on a staging app.

The last day of the meeting held some great sessions, and the meeting room remained packed up until the very last minute. Dr. Ann Partridge from Dana Farber discussed special considerations in the young breast cancer patient. She noted that the disease is different, the patients are different, and the treatments should be different. Younger women have a higher likelihood to have more aggressive subtypes such as Her2/neu over-expressed and triple negative, and have lower survival rates than older women – even in those with the ER positive breast cancer. However, she cautioned not to over-treat patients based only on age. She noted that young age is not a contraindication for breast conservation, and that there is no clear improvement in mortality in patients who undergo more extensive surgery. She noted the need for improvements in treatment and support, including focused research and guidelines, which should lead to better outcomes.

Dr. Irene Wapnir from Stanford spoke on fertility preservation issues. She noted the various fertility options including medications and procedures. She also reviewed the POSITIVE trial, which will be assessing the risk of breast cancer relapse in patients who temporarily stop endocrine therapy to permit pregnancy, as well as to evaluate factors associated with successful pregnancy after interruption of endocrine therapy. She also stressed that fertility preservation should be discussed with any woman of childbearing age, whether or not she has had a prior pregnancy or a child – physicians won’t know what is important to their patients unless we ask!

Dr. Katherina Zabicki Calvillo from Dana Farber discussed breast cancer in pregnancy. She noted that 0.2-4.0% of breast cancers are diagnosed in pregnant patients – about 1 in 3000 pregnancies. She also noted that given the overall delay in childbearing (and the association of increasing age with breast cancer), the incidence of pregnancy-associated breast cancer will increase. Delays in diagnosis are related to hormonal changes which affect breast tissue making the exam more challenging, and that many patients and physicians assume that masses are related to pregnancy. She stressed that pregnancy termination is usually NOT required, but a multidisciplinary team approach is required. Many of these patients present in more advanced stages, but stage-for-stage, the prognosis is similar to non-pregnant patients with breast cancer. Chemotherapy can be given after the first trimester, but hormonal and Her2/neu targeted therapy should be avoided. She noted that mastectomy should be performed in the first and early 2nd trimester, and discussed the challenges of immediate reconstruction. Breast conservation could be considered in the late 2nd or 3rd trimester with post-lumpectomy radiation planned for after delivery.

Dr. Kevin Hughes from the Massachusetts General Hospital reviewed research studies that have found that in women over the age of 70 with early stage breast cancer, radiation therapy after lumpectomy may not be necessary.  The CALGB 9343 study showed that survival rates were the same whether women received radiation therapy or not. Radiation therapy did reduce the likelihood of cancer returning in the breast (local recurrence) from about 4% in the untreated patients to about 1% in the treated patients (after 5 years of follow up). However it is important to realize that the majority of women in that study were treated with endocrine therapy, which can help reduce the risk of local recurrence. As with many decisions regarding breast cancer treatment, a careful discussion of the risks and benefits of each option is necessary.

Dr. Tina Hieken from the Mayo Clinic gave a very interesting talk on the microbiome and the impact on breast cancer. We normally co-exist with many bacteria – we have ten times the more microbial cells compared to human cells. These microbes carry out metabolic reactions that can be essential to human health. The genetic material (genome) of our microorganisms is called the microbiome. She and her colleagues studied breast tissue from women with and without breast cancer and found that the background breast microbiome is different in women with breast cancer compared to those with benign conditions. She concluded by noting that the future may involve using a microbial pattern to predict breast cancer risk, exploiting the microbiome to enhance treatment response, and that there may also be implications for a cancer prevention vaccine. The Washington Post recently covered her research – definitely worth a read for more information.

Dr. Anthony Lucci from MD Anderson discussed the “Ongoing Saga of Circulating Tumor Cells”. We would all like to see the day when a blood test can tell us with certainty if cancer has developed or returned – but we’re not there yet. After reviewing several studies evaluating both circulating tumor cells (CTC) and circulating “cell free” DNA, he concluded that this information does provide prognostic information in both metastatic and non-metastatic patients, but is not in the current ASCO or NCCN guidelines for guiding treatment. Combining the CTC status with response to preoperative chemotherapy may identify a low risk subset of patients, but noted that additional studies are needed before we can reach the ultimate goal which is improving outcomes by monitoring and responding to CTC and cell free DNA levels.

Dr. Manjeet Chadha from Mount Sinai spoke on repeat lumpectomy after prior lumpectomy and breast radiation. Traditionally, mastectomy has been recommended if cancer returns after lumpectomy and radiation therapy. On average, there is about a 10% risk of “in breast” recurrence after lumpectomy and radiation, but this will vary based on tumor and treatment type. She reviewed several studies evaluating the different types of focused or partial breast radiation that may be used in selected patients who experience recurrence of their breast cancer. She also called for additional studies in this area.

One of the last talks was by Dr. Mehra Golshan from Dana Farber. He spoke about the decision whether or not to operate on patients with breast cancer who present with Stage IV (metastatic) disease. Traditionally, we have not recommended surgery for patients with metastatic breast cancer as these patients were not expected to have long survival, and it was not felt that removal of the main tumor would impact survival. Evaluating existing studies has also been challenging because while some have shown a benefit to removal of the main tumor, the patients who underwent surgery in those studies tended to be younger and healthier. He concluded by noting that surgery in patients with Stage IV breast cancer is not standard of care, but some studies do support this practice. It is recommended that these patients be evaluated in a multidisciplinary forum and that treatment choices be individualized.

 I returned from the meeting exhausted but energized. In addition to the scientific content, the meeting is an opportunity to connect with friends and colleagues across the country. I’m already looking forward to ASBrS 2018!

This post has not been endorsed by the American Society of Breast Surgeons.