27 December 2015

Patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer frequently experience side effects. These are normally recorded by physicians and nurses using standardized scoring systems. In a study reported in JAMA Oncology, researchers compared these physician-reported adverse effects with patient-reported side effects and toxicity.

They found that physicians and nurses frequently under-estimated the frequency and severity of treatment-related side effects. In the article and an accompanying editorial, there is the call for more research on how to incorporate patient reported outcomes into existing electronic records, as well as more investigation regarding patient and physician reporting discrepancies. In the meantime, patients should report all apparent treatment related side effects to their oncology treatment team. While many chemotherapy related side effects such as nausea, diarrhea and weakness are common, do not suffer in silence. Managing side effects is an essential part of cancer therapy.

7 December 2015

The American Cancer Society and the American Society of Clinical Oncology have just released updated guidelines for breast cancer survivors. The purpose “is to provide recommendations to assist primary care and other clinicians in the care of female adult survivors of breast cancer”.

Patients and physicians are well aware that health concerns do not end when cancer treatment is over. The guidelines outline potential signs of recurrence, note appropriate tests to help detect recurrence, review general health recommendations, and discuss management of long-term side effects. It is important that patients who have been treated for any type of cancer remain vigilant regarding their health. Changes or new findings should be reported to your physician, and efforts should be made to maintain a healthy diet, weight and lifestyle.

I encourage every patient to review the guidelines. If you have questions or concerns, do not hesitate to inform your oncology or primary care physicians. Education and open communication are important in order to maximize quality of life after cancer treatment.

ACS / ASCO Breast Cancer Survivorship Care Guideline

27 November 2015

Good Morning America anchor Amy Robach has just published a book about her breast cancer experience. This is not something I would normally write about – two years ago, I discussed countering misconceptions and false statements brought up by celebrities who go public with their breast cancer stories. While celebrities are to be applauded for increasing awareness, their statements are often full of errors.

I have not read Ms. Robach’s book. However, I was pleasantly surprised to read this interview. Too often, a celebrity breast cancer disclosure is followed by red carpet photos and declarations of being cancer free. This is far from the reality that many patients experience. The interview with Ms. Robach gives some insights into the uncertainties and fears that every patient faces. I applaud Ms. Robach for using her very public voice to remind everyone just how challenging cancer treatment and recovery is, and voicing what many patients feel: “You no longer have the luxury of feeling that tomorrow is a given“. 

 

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.

 

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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 12.06.25 PM

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
9. King TA, et al Clinical management factors contribute to the decision for contralateral prophylactic mastectomy. J Clin Oncol 29:2158-2164 97-200
10. Rosenberg SM, et al Perceptions, knowledge and satisfaction with contralateral prophylactic mastectomy among young women with breast cancer Ann Intern Med 2013;159:373-381
11. Covelli AM, et al ‘Taking control of cancer’: Understanding women’s choice for mastectomy.  Ann Surg Oncol DOI 10.1245/s10434-014-4033-7
12. Frost MH, et al Contralateral prophylactic mastectomy: Long term consistency of satisfaction and adverse effects and the significance of informed decision making, quality of life, and personality traits. Ann Surg Oncol 2011 18:3110-3116
13. Fayanju O et al Contralateral prophylactic mastectomy after unilateral breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Surg 2014; 260:1000-1010  
14. Roberts A et al Cost effectiveness of contralateral prophylactic mastectomy for prevention of contralateral prophylactic mastectomy. Ann Surg Oncol 2014 21:2209-2217
15. Miller ME et al  Operative risks associated with contralateral prophylactic mastectomy: A single institution experience. Ann Surg Oncol 2013 204113-4120.

** 6 December 2018 – Editor’s Note:
The NSABP B-39 clinical trial results were recently presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. This study compared 3 forms of radiation therapy. After 10 year followup, approximately 4% of patients who underwent whole-breast irradiation after lumpectomy developed cancer recurrence in the same breast. This is lower than what was quoted below (10-15%, point #3) which was based on older data. This new study demonstrates that the recurrence rate after lumpectomy and radiation (4%) is nearly equivalent to that of mastectomy (1-3%).

3 June 2014

A study was recently published evaluating the reasons why women diagnosed with breast cancer might undergo a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy. First, some definitions:
–       Mastectomy – removal of the entire breast
–       Prophylactic mastectomy – removal of a breast that does not have cancer
–       Contralateral prophylactic mastectomy (CPM) – removal of the breast that does NOT have cancer, in a patient undergoing mastectomy for cancer on the other side

The study, which was published in JAMA Surgery, concluded that “Many women considered CPM and a substantial number received it, although few had a clinically significant risk of contralateral breast cancer. Receipt of magnetic resonance imaging at diagnosis contributed to receipt of CPM. Worry about recurrence appeared to drive decisions for CPM although the procedure has not been shown to reduce recurrence risk. More research is needed about the underlying factors driving the use of CPM.”

Some background information:
1.  Over 25 years’ worth of data exists showing that long-term survival is equivalent whether a woman undergoes a lumpectomy or a mastectomy:  In other words, you will not live any longer if your breast is removed.

2.  There is no difference in the likelihood of metastatic disease (spread outside the breast – most commonly bones, liver, lung and brain) whether you have a lumpectomy or mastectomy.

**see editor’s note, above. 
3.  Lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy (this is also called breast conservation therapy, or BCT) generally has low rates of “in breast recurrence” or “in breast new primary” – low rates of the original cancer coming back in the same breast, or a new cancer developing in the same breast.  These rates are historically about 10-15%, although these rates are likely reduced with modern adjuvant antihormonal, radiation, and chemo- therapies.

4.  Even though much more breast tissue is removed (~99% of breast tissue cells) mastectomy is still associated with a 1-3% risk of cancer recurrence at the site of breast removal.  This is usually in the skin or muscle.

5.  CPM is associated with a 20-40% complication rate, especially unplanned additional surgery

6.  The average woman’s risk of developing a new cancer in the opposite breast is approximately 0.5-1% per year. If a cancer develops in the contralateral (other) breast, it is considered a “new primary” – a whole new breast cancer. Even though it might be the same type as the original cancer, it is generally not considered a recurrence. If the original cancer is estrogen / progesterone receptor positive, taking tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors can reduce the risk of cancer returning after a lumpectomy, and can reduce the risk of a new cancer developing in the other breast. However, lumpectomy or mastectomy for the original cancer does not alter the rate of new breast cancer development.

7.  Women who carry a BRCA gene mutation have a 60-80+% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer in either breast, and a high risk of developing a new breast cancer, so bilateral mastectomy is often recommended. These patients are generally excluded from the discussions regarding whether or not CPM is a reasonable option due to their extremely high risk.

Over the past 20 years, research studies have supported a “less is more” approach to breast cancer surgery such as: BCT,  narrower margins of normal tissue removed around cancer, and less extensive lymph node removal. Before instituting these changes, studies were done to ensure that less aggressive surgery does not impact long-term survival rates. Despite these advances, there has recently been a steady increase in the rate of mastectomy, as well as CPM.  In article after article, physicians are scratching their heads.  The use of MRI, inadequate education, unrealistic expectations from reconstructive surgery, the “celebrity effect”, as well as fear and anxiety have been blamed.

The “new” study and our thoughts:
The recent study in JAMA Surgery focused on a small subset of women (8%) from a national database that elected CPM as part of treatment for unilateral breast cancer.  The authors reported that of 106 patients who received CPM, “80% indicated it was done to prevent breast cancer from developing in the other breast,” leaving only 21 patients (1.5%) from their sample of 1447 surveyed women that elect CPM for reasons other than the prevention of the development of a new contralateral breast cancer.  However, the author’s conclusions ignore this and direct the reader’s attention instead to patients’ concern for recurrence, stating, again, that “worry about recurrence appeared to drive decisions for CPM.”

The problem with this type of analysis is this:  when ‘patient fear’ is discussed, it frequently is implied by the reporting media that hysterical women are running to the operating room to be unnecessarily operated on by uneducated surgeons.

Judging the merits of a surgical procedure or treatment on the fact that few women “are likely to experience a survival benefit,” is not reflective of the complexity of the treatment decision-making process for women with a new diagnosis of breast cancer.  Faced with a multitude of decisions to make in a short time frame, it is not surprising that many such patients will report anxiety concerning recurrence.

The truth is simple:  surgical choice is a combination of factors. There is little doubt that some physicians do not spend the time needed to hear the concerns of their patients and respond to them appropriately. Conversely, some patients do not want to hear all of the facts, preferring simply to opt for what seems the “safest” approach, even though the science says otherwise.

What we see in our offices is a rational fear: Many women understand that the type of surgery does not determine their survival.  While of utmost importance, survival is not the only thing that is important to women being treated for breast cancer. Women worry about having to repeat the whole process in another year or so if something new shows up on a mammogram or if a lump is felt. Women question the value of annual mammography for surveillance when their initial tumor was not picked up by a mammogram. Women have seen their family members and friends develop complications from radiation therapy and from attempts to perform additional surgery after radiation therapy. While women understand that a mastectomy is no guarantee that they will remain cancer-free, to many it is such a significant decrease in the rate of recurrence or new primary cancer that they feel it is an acceptable trade off for the complication rates that have been reported in patients who undergo a CPM with reconstruction.  Physicians also agonize over the decision.  Properly educated patients are in the best position to make decisions regarding their own breast health care, but even the best education does not alleviate all anxieties, nor can it eliminate all risk.

Physicians and researchers talk about the increasing rate of CPM as a crisis. But the real crisis is that at this point, we simply do not have options for women that they are comfortable with. Unnecessary surgery is a concern for patients and physicians. However, until we can look a woman in the eye and give her more accurate information about her individual risk of recurrence or new primary disease, it is our opinion that the decision for CPM should be between a woman, her family, and her physicians.

Additional Reading:
JAMA Editorial: Contralateral Prophylactic Mastectomy – An Opportunity for Shared Decision Making
Medscape Article – Misconceptions and Fear Prompt Contralateral Mastectomy
The Patient Perspective: Blog Post by Catherine Guthrie

Deanna J. Attai, MD
Michael S. Cowher, MD

16 October 2013

This is one of my most comprehensive interviews to date. It aired on Santa Clarita Valley TV and I had the opportunity to discuss a wide range of topics, including breast self-exams, male breast cancer, genetic testing for breast cancer, “pink washing” and more! Many thanks to SCVTV as well as Tami Edwards and Dave Caldwell, for spending so much time on such important topics.

11 May 2013

In May 2013, I was invited to give a talk with my colleague Dr. Carol Connor at the annual meeting of the American Society of Breast Surgeons.  Our topic was “Endocrine Therapy for Breast Cancer”, and we discussed the literature supporting the use of tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer, as well as adverse effects and treatment of adverse effects. We were then invited to submit a manuscript which was published in the Annals of Surgical Oncology. The following is a summary of our talk and manuscript. I would like to express my appreciation to the #BCSM Community, who responded to my request for information about adverse effects  – it allowed me to discuss not only the literature, but also real patient experiences.

Read more

10 May 2013
Angelina Jolie’s decision to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy has prompted a lot of interest in the options available for immediate reconstruction. Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions regarding the extent of surgery, the recovery time needed, and the potential for complications. The following article appeared in the New York Times on 05/10/2013 and discusses the complicated issue of breast reconstructive surgery.
By RONI CARYN RABIN
A technician helps to create a silicone gel breast implant for Sebbin Laboratories in Paris.
Benoit Tessier/ReutersA technician helps to create a silicone gel breast implant for Sebbin Laboratories in Paris.

Read more

1 March 2013

A study published in JAMA found that there is an increase in the incidence of young women (age 25-39) diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer means that the cancer has already spread outside of the breast, most commonly to the lungs, liver, bone, and brain. Metastatic breast cancer is not curable, although newer treatments have improved the survival rates.

This study evaluated the SEER Database from 1973-2009. They found that while the incidence of breast cancer in young women is low, young women are more likely to have metastatic disease when first diagnosed. One criticism of the study is that we did not have the ability to detect metastatic disease in the 1970’s like we do today. So a woman diagnosed in the 1970’s might have been thought to have earlier stage disease, when in reality the cancer was already present in other areas of the body. Today, we are more likely to use a combination of blood tests and imaging scans to get better idea of the cancer stage – metastatic disease is considered Stage IV.

The following interview discussed some of the limitations of the study, as well as recommendations for young women. All women should be aware of their breasts and their bodies. While breast cancer is not common in young women, it certainly does occur. Any changes should be reported to your physician.

The Young Survival Coalition is an excellent resource and support organization for young men and women diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as their caregivers and support team.