Dear Ms. Jolie,
Thank you for your bravery and leadership in the battle against breast cancer. In a small way, through my patients, I understand the challenge and pain it took not only to undergo prophylactic mastectomies, because you carry the BRCA1 cancer gene, but also to reveal this deeply personal part of your life to the world (NYT, 5/14/13; My Medical Choice). You had no obligation to open your soul; your selfless act leaves those of us that treat the dread disease, in awe.
Your action will save more lives than all the patients I could help, even if I were to practice oncology for hundreds of years. By opening up the conversation, by educating and by boldly stating that beauty, strength and health are possible, even when radical choices are made, you open up life saving opportunities for many. Mastectomies may not be the answer for all women, but the very idea that cancer can be prevented, instead of simply waiting in fear, is earth shattering.
Women and men will now better understand the genetic risks for cancer, be exposed to the different options which are available in the prevention of cancer and know that it is possible, whatever path is taken, to continue with full lives. You have made it easier for patients, their families and physicians to have vital discussions.
The announcement of your surgery coincides with a critical legal battle, the deliberations of the United States Supreme Court regarding BRCA genetic testing. You have put pressure on the Court to find against Myriad Genetics Corporation in the company’s attempt to protect their expensive monopoly of the breast cancer genetic assay. Thus, the Court will have the opportunity to reduce the cost of testing, which as you note, can run thousands of dollars per patient.
Your action changes the war against breast cancer. You have prevented the suffering of thousands and given them the opportunity to go on with life and be part of what is truly important, families and communities.
Thank you for your remarkable sacrifice.
James C. Salwitz, MD
James C. Salwitz, MD is a Medical Oncologist in private practice for 25 years, and a Clinical Professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He frequently lectures at the Medical School and in the community on topics related to cancer care, Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Dr. Salwitz blogs at Sunrise Rounds in order to help provide an understanding of cancer.
Filed Under: OP-ED
Tagged: Angelina Jolie, BRCA1, Breast cancer, Cancer, James Salwitz, Screening
May 14, 2013
A woman’s mother dies at age 56. A blood test is done. The woman finds out she has a genetic pre-disposition to cancer. She takes what action she thinks she needs to take. A familiar story repeated over and over again every day. I’ve met many women who have made this choice. While not “normal”, it is a familiar situation. These women’s difficult choices go unheralded. But not Angelina. She has a voice and she’s not afraid to use it.
I am of two minds about Ms. Jolie’s announcement. Unlike double mastectomies for ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which isn’t necessarily a cancer and can be treated with a lumpectomy, BRCA1 gene mutations can’t be treated any other way. Unless I hear differently from my breast surgeon friends, I’d say she probably did the right thing. Her decision to talk about it is probably encouraging to women who have or will have to make that choice. It raises awareness of the gene mutation. It puts breast cancer on the front page of the New York Times. Again.
Here’s my problem: double mastectomy is not a benign procedure. Ms. Jolie seems to have had a remarkably easy time of it. Yes, she says she was right back to her normal life soon after, but since Jolie’s life is not normal that’s hard to generalize. The truth is there is significant pain involved, a long period of waiting while the tissue expanders do their work, then there’s further procedures for the implants, which can develop capsules around them, or rupture, or get infected. If Angelina had chosen breast reconstructive surgery there would be the risk of the flap losing blood flow, multiple drains, overnight stays in recovery rooms or ICUs, and many many surgeries for revision, nipple creation, etc. And the results are not always beautiful. I understand that it is not Ms. Jolie’s role to scare people, but to encourage them. I would just warn against falsely rosy expectations.
I am not trying to discourage double mastectomy. Sometimes it is necessary. I do think that people who have extraordinary access to public attention must pay extraordinary attention to what they say. I wish Angelina all the best for a complete, and beautiful, recovery.
Shirie Leng, MD is a practicing anesthesiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She blogs regularly at medicine for real.
Filed Under: OP-ED
Tagged: Angelina Jolie, Breast cancer, Cancer, prevention, Screening, Shirie Leng
May 14, 2013
The passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the reelection of President Obama was cause for real hope among those in pursuit of the Holy Grail in medicine: higher quality at lower cost. However, with the passage of what is called the Breast Density Bill in several states, the quality cost equation seems doomed on both ends. The Affordable Care Act mandates coverage of screening mammograms, without co-pay or deductible, but the Breast Density Bill is destined to push utilization of “non-beneficial” imaging, ie imaging that does not clearly save lives, even further.
The new law, authored by Sen. Joe Simitian, was signed into law this past October in California. Beginning April of next year, the bill requires facilities that perform mammograms to include a special notice, within the imaging report sent to patients, regarding the high density of breast tissue and the benefit of additional screening tests. The notice will state the following; “Because your mammogram demonstrates that you have dense breast tissue, which could hide small abnormalities, you might benefit from supplementary screening tests, depending on your individual risk factors”.
The supporters of the bill make the ethical argument that women have the right to know about how dense breast tissue can obscure mammogram visualization, and should be offered additional test such as ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to alleviate the doubt. To provide further support, the SOMO INSIGHT Breast Cancer Screening Study is a nationwide research effort to evaluate if automated breast ultrasound done together with routine screening mammogram is more accurate in detecting breast cancer in women with dense breast tissue. The study is funded by U-Systems, Inc.; the Silicon Valley based company responsible for the sophisticated and expensive ultrasound technology used in this study. Thus, one cannot deny the possibility of patient interest being confounded by financial interest.
The patient advocacy movement around breast cancer has been championed by several well-known non-profits, such as Susan B Komen, Are You Dense Inc. and even endorsement by the National Football League. Yet, the confusion about screening is reflected in the variability of requirements for insurance coverage between states. For example, while Texas and Mississippi require screening mammograms to be covered for all women 35 and older, Utah has no coverage requirement and several other states do not require coverage until age 40.1 Awareness of breast cancer screening is necessary, and the complexities of picking up certain irregularities certainly deserve attention. However, the patient’s “right to know” should also include the right to know about “over-diagnosis”.
Continue reading “The Breast Density Bill: A (Very) Dense Dilemma …”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: Affordable Care Act, Breast cancer, Breast Density Bill, Mammogram, Mammography, Over Diagnosis, Preventative Care, Susan B. Komen Foundation, Testing
Jan 9, 2013
For those of you who haven’t yet heard, I have recently been diagnosed with Stage IV inflammatory breast cancer. This rare form of breast cancer is known for its rapid spread. True to form, it has metastasized to my spine. This means my time is limited. As a nurse, I knew it from the moment I saw a reddened spot on my breast and recognized it for what it was.
My recent journey through the health care system has been eye-opening. In only a few months, I have witnessed the remarkable capabilities and the stunning shortcomings of our health care system firsthand. I am writing here because in the time I have left, I hope my story and my journey can help illustrate why some of the reforms that my colleagues and I at the John A. Hartford Foundation, as well as many others, have championed are so important.
At the cancer’s earliest appearance, I consulted with a well-regarded oncologist in New York. After the tests were done she regretfully informed me that my disease was not curable. Because my cancer is hormone-receptor-positive, she recommended an evidence-based course of medications aimed at slowing the progression of the disease. Before I committed to this course of care, I wanted to get a second opinion. I secured an appointment with the pre-eminent researcher/clinician in the field of inflammatory breast cancer, at a top medical institution in Philadelphia.
Continue reading “Can Good Care Produce Bad Health?”
Filed Under: The Insider's Guide To Health Care
Tagged: Amy Berman, Breast cancer, End of Life Care, Patients, Physicians
Aug 15, 2012
Not to be overly dramatic, but for me the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act was a matter of life and death. Because the law was largely upheld, I will be able to continue receiving treatment for breast cancer.
I was one of the early beneficiaries of the law. When I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer late last year, I had no health insurance, which meant my options were extremely limited. No insurer would pick up someone in my circumstances. But luckily, the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan had already kicked in, and it made it possible for me to purchase insurance under a government program.
I was uninsured not because I’m a lazy, freeloading deadbeat but because my husband and I are self-employed. We had been purchasing health insurance on the individual market along with 6% of the rest of the population. But after exhausting all of our resources trying to keep up with premiums of $1,500 a month, we had no choice but to cancel it.
Continue reading “How the United States Supreme Court Saved My Life”
Filed Under: THCB
Tagged: Affordable Care Act, Breast cancer, Chemotherapy, double mastectomy, health care reform, health insurance premiums, Obamacare, polls, Pre-existing conditions, The Supreme Court Challenge, the uninsured
Jul 11, 2012
First, a confession: I like to watch reality TV. Not all reality TV, not often. (I wish I could say, as I would about a junky magazine, “I saw it at the hairdresser” or “ . . . while I was waiting in line at the supermarket.” But no — I sit in my living room, turn on the TV, and choose the station. I take full responsibility. Though I do also use the time to fold laundry.)
The show I’ve gotten hooked on lately is called “Giuliana and Bill.” Giuliana and Bill are on TV because they are famous for being on TV — she as a host of E! News and he as a winner of “The Apprentice.” Their eponymous reality show, about the ups and downs of their marriage, is a marvel of glitzy minutiae. Giuliana and Bill are just like us, only with a lot more Hermès accessories. They bicker; they smooch; they argue about what to have for dinner; they host New Year’s Eve in Times Square. It’s “reality” — life’s big and little moments, carefully staged to seem breezy and spontaneous. But what has hooked me on the show this year is that “reality” has suddenly collided with reality: Giuliana’s diagnosis of breast cancer.
Giuliana and Bill started as a show about newlyweds who wanted to have a baby. But the couple wrestled with infertility, and an IVF pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Before proceeding with another round of fertility treatment their doctor insisted on a mammogram.
Breast cancer was diagnosed last October; and after Giuliana’s lumpectomies failed to produce cancer-free margins, she and Bill had to decide what to do next.
Continue reading “When Reality TV Collides with Reality”
Filed Under: THCB
Tagged: Breast cancer, Cancer treatments, Giuliana and Bill, infertility, mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, The Insider's Guide To Health Care
May 9, 2012
Cancer. It’s a word that creates fear and uncertainty. Many of the doctors I know use the word “hate” whenever they discuss their feelings about cancer.
Last Thursday, my wife Kathy was diagnosed with poorly differentiated breast cancer. She is not facing this alone. We’re approaching this as a team, as if together we have cancer. She has been my best friend for 30 years. I will do whatever it takes to ensure we have another 30 years together.
She’s has agreed that I can chronicle the process, the diagnostic tests, the therapeutic decisions, the life events, and the emotions we experience with the hope it will help other patients and families on their cancer treatment journey.
Here’s how it all started.
On Monday, December 5, she felt a small lump under her left breast. She has no family history, no risk factors, and no warning. We scheduled a mammogram for December 12 and she brought me a DVD with the DICOM images a few minutes after the study. On comparison with her previous mammograms it was clear she had two lesions, one anterior and one posterior in a dumbbell shape. I hand carried the DICOM images to the Breast Center team at BIDMC.
On December 13 she had an ultrasound guided biopsy which yielded the diagnosis – invasive ductal carcinoma, grade 3.
Continue reading “We Have Cancer”
Filed Under: THCB, The Insider's Guide To Health Care
Tagged: Breast cancer, We Have Cancer
Dec 22, 2011
There isn’t a country on this planet where there isn’t someone dreaming of curing cancer. What if there was something even more spectacular than curing cancer? What if you could stop cancer right in its tracks and eliminate its existence. Prevent it. Squash it before it starts.
Vincent Tuohy, PhD, an immunologist at Cleveland Clinic, may be on a path toward living this dream. This month at our hospital’s quarterly meeting, Tuohy was awarded Cleveland Clinic’s F. Mason Sones Award for 2010 Innovator of the Year for his recent breakthrough that may one day prevent breast cancer and perhaps revolutionize our approach to fighting all cancers.
Tuohy has spent the past eight years working to create a vaccine to prevent breast cancer. He and his team have found that vaccination with the protein α-lactalbumin prevents breast cancer in mice. His results were published in Nature Medicine, one of the most respected science journals, last summer.
The study yielded dramatic results. A group of mice that were at high risk to develop cancer according to their genetic profile was selected. Half of the mice were given the vaccine and half were not. All the ones given the vaccine did not develop breast cancer. All the ones not given the vaccine developed breast cancer. Yes, these are mice, and human trials are yet to begin. It may be ten years before we have a finished product, but such overwhelming results are promising and exciting. Continue reading “A World Without Breast Cancer?”
Filed Under: The Insider's Guide To Health Care
Tagged: Breast cancer, Cleveland Clinic, Immunology, Oncology
Mar 19, 2011