Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer: MBCN Responds

April 27, 2013

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times; Gabrielle Plucknette/The New York Times (umbrella, socks, oven mitt); A.J. Mast/Associated Press; Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press; Kyle Kurlick/The Commercial Appeal, via Associated Press; Dr. Scott M. Lieberman/Associated Press

By Katherine O’Brien, MBCN Secretary

Editor’s Note: Peggy Orenstein’s April 25, 2013 article–the cover story for this Sunday’ s New York Times’ Magazine, demonstrates a remarkable depth and thoughtfulness. It is long–but well-worth the effort to read. For those looking for a quick overview, we’ve prepared the following summary and added our observations where appropriate. We hope it will aid readers’ understanding of this important article as well as prompt further discussions. Please share your insights in the comment section below.

Initial Treatment and Recurrence | Journalist Peggy Orenstein wrote “Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer,”   subtitled “The battle for awareness has been won. So why aren’t more lives being saved?” Orenstein frames the article within her own breast cancer experience.  Sixteen years ago at 35, Orenstein had a screening mammogram that revealed early stage breast cancer. Her treatment, at that time, was a lumpectomy, as well as six weeks of radiation.

In 2012, at age 52, Orenstein had a nonmetastatic recurrence. She found the lump herself, nine months after her annual mammogram. Because of her prior treatment, Orenstein’s doctor recommended a unilateral mastectomy as well as Tamoxifen.

Early Detection Doubts | In 1996, at the time of her first diagnosis,  Orenstein credited her screening mammogram with saving her life. (“I considered myself a loud-and-proud example of the benefits of early detection,” she writes.) In 2013, following  the cancer’s recurrence, she has changed her mind.

Orenstein  details the US screening mammogram debate. The popular perception,  fueled in part by some nonprofits and pink-ribbon themed efforts,  is that screening mammograms save lives. Evidence of actual mortality reduction is, in fact, conflicting and continues to be questioned by scientists, policy makers and members of the public. According to Orenstein:

“Mammograms, it turns out, are not so great at detecting the most lethal forms of disease — like triple negative — at a treatable phase. Aggressive tumors progress too quickly, often cropping up between mammograms. Even catching them “early,” while they are still small, can be too late: they have already metastasized. That may explain why there has been no decrease in the incidence of metastatic cancer since the introduction of screening.”

We Say: This article can be summed up in one sentence: “Early Detection is Not a Cure.” Metastatic breast cancer can occur 5, 10,  15 or even 20 years after a person’s original diagnosis and successful treatment checkups and annual mammograms.

Overtreatment | Orenstein explains that  breast cancer isn’t a single disease. But early mammography trials were conducted before variations in cancer were recognized: “before Herceptin, before hormonal therapy, even before the widespread use of chemotherapy.” She then raises the question of overtreatment. Dartmouth’s Gilbert Welch  co-authored a study that estimates that only 3 to 13 percent of women whose cancer was detected by mammograms actually benefited from the test.

We Say: We agree with author and patient advocate Musa Mayer who says: “If we had spent a fraction of the dollars devoted to promoting screening on research to determine which DCIS lesions and tiny invasive breast cancers actually need treatment beyond surgery, and which do not, we’d be way ahead now.” Without knowing which tumors will metastasize, we must treat all of them alike. Worse, “good” mammograms may give some women a false sense of security.

DCIS Dilemma | The article says mammograms and improved imaging technology have resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of people diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (D.C.I.S.),  in which abnormal cells are found in the lining of the milk-producing ducts. DCIS and the less common lobular carcinoma in situ account for about a quarter of new breast-cancer cases — some 60,000 a year. “D.C.I.S. survivors are celebrated at pink-ribbon events as triumphs of early detection,” writes Orenstein. “Theirs was an easily treatable disease with a nearly 100 percent 10-year survival rate.”

We Say: One of our few quibbles with this article is its depiction of DCIS. We agree that most DCIS is successfully treated. But  the article cites an expert who says DCIS is “not cancer but a risk factor.”  This statement creates the overall impression is that DCIS is not a big deal. Again, in most cases DCIS does NOT go on to become invasive breast cancer, but unfortunately it can and does.

Confusing Statistics |  Orenstein say that the Komen organization, a mammogram/early detection proponent,  has been accused of citing deceptive five-year survival rates. Since these allegations first surfaced, Komen has stopped using the statistic in question.

We Say: NBCC does an excellent job of addressing this common misperception:

Mortality numbers tell the story more precisely than survival numbers. Screening skews the survival numbers:  The more we screen, the more we diagnose and treat women with breast cancers that would not have been a threat to their lives,  so it looks like survival for early stage breast cancer is 98 percent.

This is only a 5-year survival number—and includes the 20-30 percent of women who will have recurrence and may die of the disease later. . . Women die of metastatic disease, not primary breast cancer.

Incidence has risen during the past 20 years from 1 in 11 to 1 in 8, it’s now leveling off; mortality has declined slightly but a key point is incidence of stage IV breast cancer—the cancer that is lethal—has stayed the same; screening and improved treatment has not changed this.
Source: http://www.breastcancerdeadline2020.org/get-involved/tools-and-resources/toolkit/resources-and-tools-for-advocates

We Can’t Manage What We Don’t Measure: When will we start collecting meaningful statistics on metastatic breast cancer recurrence?  US cancer registry data captures data at the time of diagnosis and death. The registries don’t track what happens in between.

As Orenstein notes, 30% of those originally diagnosed with early stage breast cancer will have a metastatic recurrence. But this information is not tracked–until people die:

  • NCI and SEER database record  incidence, initial treatment and mortality data. Most people do NOT present with metastatic diagnosis. The cancer registry does not track recurrence—which is how the majority of people are thrust into the metastatic breast cancer ranks.
  • We say that there are 150,000 US people currently living with metastatic breast cancer, but that’s basically a guess.
  • We know for sure that 40,000 US people die from breast cancer every year. We know that 5 to10 percent of those with metastatic breast cancer were Stage IV from their first diagnosis. So what about the 90 to 95% of those 150,000 currently living with metastatic breast cancer  who were previously treated for early stage breast cancer? The cancer registry does not track them—until they die.

Funding Research | We need more metastatic breast cancer research. Orenstein confirms what MBCN and METAvivor have said for years. Metastatic breast cancer research is appallingly underfunded:

According to a Fortune magazine analysis, only an estimated .5 percent of all National Cancer Institute grants since 1972 focus on metastasis; out of more than $2.2 billion dollars raised over the last six years, Komen has dedicated $79 million to such research — a lot of money, to be sure, but a mere 3.6 percent of its total budget during that period.

There’s also the intertwined issue of funding research for the prevention of metastatic breast cancer vs. treatments that will extend the lives of those currently living with the disease:

“A lot of people are under the notion that metastatic work is a waste of time,” said Danny Welch, chairman of the department of cancer biology at the University of Kansas Cancer Center, “because all we have to do is prevent cancer in the first place. The problem is, we still don’t even know what causes cancer. I’d prefer to prevent it completely too, but to put it crassly, that’s throwing a bunch of people under the bus right now.”

We Say: MBCN’s slogan is “Fighting for Treatments to Extend Life.” So we appreciate Welch’s candor and dedication.  And, if we want to prevent metastasis, we may need to rethink our current approach to clinical trials.  During last year’s annual Metastatic Breast Cancer Conference, NIH’s Dr. Patricia  Steeg made a case for redesigning clinical trials to do what she termed “phase II randomized metastasis-prevention trials.” Currently, phase I and phase II clinical trials are done in patients with advanced, refractory metastatic cancer, patients who have had many therapies. In phase II trials, researchers typically are trying to determine if a drug shrinks metastases.“But a drug that prevents metastasis may not shrink a large, refractory tumor,” said Steeg. “It has a different mechanism of action that is not picked up by the clinical trial system.”

Know The  Breast Cancer Facts | In her final paragraphs, Orenstein says we may have more breast cancer “awareness” but this “awareness” is fundamentally flawed: “All that well-meaning awareness has ultimately made women less conscious of the facts: obscuring the limits of screening, conflating risk with disease, compromising our decisions about health care, celebrating “cancer survivors” who may have never required treating. And ultimately, it has come at the expense of those whose lives are most at risk.”

We Say: Nicely done, Peggy. We’d be honored if you would join us at our 2013 Annual Metastatic Breast Cancer Conference, Sept. 21 at MD Anderson in Houston!

NMBCAD logo black smallMark Your Calendar: Peggy Orenstein’s article will go a long way in helping people understand breast cancer. As women living with metastatic breast cancer, we are committed to educating people about this disease. This article is a good start, but our reality remains poorly understood. That is why MBCN fought to establish  Oct. 13 as National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. 

Let’s Keep Talking: On her Facebook post announcing the publication of this article, Orenstein said she hopes it will change the national conversation about breast cancer. We hope so, too. Peggy started the dialogue. Won’t you help us continue it?

4/29/2013 Editor’s Note: This copy has been revised to remove a disputed statistic concerning Stage II and Stage III metastatic recurrence, material that was directly quoted, as indicated,  from http://www.breastcancerdeadline2020.org/get-involved/tools-and-resources/toolkit/resources-and-tools-for-advocates. We will provide additional clarification if available.

4/30/2013 Editor’s Note: As noted above, we removed a disputed statistic we originally quoted from this site after some reader’s questioned its accuracy. [That sentence read in part: For Stage II and III, one-half to two-thirds will develop metastatic disease…] A Google search suggested the statistic came from one of advocate Musa Mayer’s articles. We asked her to comment, and with her permission, share her response. Musa writes:

“I can see I am indeed the source of this statistic, or rather what I wrote in the introductory section of “Silent Voices,” which was written in 2005.  I did get this quote from a text on breast cancer published in 1999, edited by Daniel Roses.  The figures come from an article on the treatment of metastatic breast cancer by Ruth Oratz, an NYU oncologist, written during the era when bone marrow transplants were still being investigated.  I think there may have been an earlier edition.

“There have been a few major advances in the adjuvant treatment of early breast cancer in the last 8 years, principally the use of adjuvant Herceptin, which has reduced recurrence by at least 50% in HER2+ disease, once considered among the deadliest subtype.  The use of adjuvant taxanes with AC regimens in triple-negative breast cancers has also reduced recurrence during these years.  Hormonal treatments have improved in a more incremental way, with the use of the aromatase inhibitors.  So all in all, I believe you can say that for women with non-metastatic disease, the outlook is better than it was even a decade ago.

“Just how much better?  It’s really hard to tell until the numbers mature over time, as we know recurrences can happen later now that more aggressive adjuvant treatment is in use.   The National Cancer Institute’s SEER database shows a steady increase in survival over time, looking at all invasive breast cancers.  For example, 1990 10-year survival was 77%, while in 2000 it was 84%.   But survival figures don’t necessarily represent significant gains, as they are distorted by the overdiagnosis of Stage I breast cancers, which have increased five-fold since the advent of mammography in the 1980’s.

“The numbers are very different in different populations, with low socioeconomic status (hence poor access to care) and African American race predicting higher mortality.  In fact the disparities in survival and mortality have only become greater as more effective treatments are introduced.

“The annual mortality rates for breast cancer, age-adjusted, per 100,000, which DO give an accurate picture of progress, have decreased from 33.1 in 1990 to 27.6 in 2000 to 21.9 in 2010.  That’s a decrease of about one third over 20 years.  Not large, but not trivial, either.”

Source: email correspondence with Musa Mayer

 

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The Long View of Breast Cancer Research

February 9, 2013

GlauraNBCC1uest blogger: Laura Nikolaides, MS, Director of Research & Quality Care Programs, National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC)

Thank you, Laura for allowing MBCN to reblog your remarks on the breast cancer research landscape and on NBCC projects and priorities, given during the opening plenary of the Collaborative Summit on Breast Cancer Research in Washington D.C., held January 31- February 1. The goal of the Summit was to gather researchers, funders, advocates, and industry representatives together to assess the breast cancer research landscape and to develop collaborative projects for moving forward.

 We have added emphasis and subheadings to some sections. Original blog at: Laura Nikolaides Speaks at Collaborative Summit on Breast Cancer Research in Washington, DC

WHAT ABOUT OUR DAUGHTERS?

I am excited to be here and to have the chance to talk about the bigger picture of breast cancer research, where we have been and where we should be going. So much of the year is spent down in the weeds when it comes to breast cancer research, when we attend the ASCO meeting or SABCS, or when we review grant proposals, so it is gratifying to have this opportunity to for all of us to pull our heads up from the weeds and to discuss the long view.

And for me, the long view, means thinking about my 13-year-old daughter. Where do we need to be by the time she and her friends are adults? Are we on track?

Will things be dramatically different in ten, twenty, thirty years when it comes to breast cancer?

Or will mothers, grandmothers and young women and even men still be dying of breast cancer? Will we know by then why breast cancer cells can lay dormant for 15 years to reemerge and metastasize? Will we know how to eliminate those dormant cells from the beginning? And what about women who have aggressive disease from the get-go. Will we understand why it developed and more importantly know how to stop the progression for the long-term?

TOO MANY QUESTIONS REMAIN UNANSWERED

Unfortunately, I don’t see dramatic change on the horizon with current approaches.

The ACS [American Cancer Society] predicts that over 300,000 women will be diagnosed this year with in situ or invasive breast cancer. Dr. Gil Welch and others predict that between 30 to 50% of those could be considered overdiagnosis. We continue to add more women into the equation, putting them at risk of harm from treatments, and yet, are we seeing a difference in the measures that matter? Yes, we have seen steady, incremental declines in breast cancer mortality since the early 90s, but there has been no acceleration in this decline. And do we know what this really means? What IS working for women and what is not? Do we know how many women have died from the treatments? Do we know if death from breast cancer is being delayed rather than prevented? Are we really any closer to knowing how to prevent breast cancer or a breast cancer death for an individual woman?

NO REAL PROGRESS ON THE METASTATIC FRONT

What we do know is that the rate of diagnoses of Stage IV disease has remained constant for 30 years. What we do know is that 40,000 women and men will die from the disease again this year. What we do know is that the median survival for metastatic breast cancer has remained constant, at about three years.

With billions in resources and decades of effort, we see discovery of new targets, and development of new agents, that extend life by three to four months at a time, if we are lucky. We are learning a lot about the DNA of breast tumors, and the layers of complexity involved, but are we really gaining a better understanding of the why and how of breast cancer? The kind of understanding that will allow for development of gamechangers?

A pharma analysis report prepared a few years ago concluded that with what is currently in the pipeline, and based on historical trends, the median survival for metastatic breast cancer will inch forward from three years, to three years and six months by the year 2021.

Important progress and critical efforts, yes, but is it good enough? No, it is not good enough. We can and must do better. We need new approaches to complement the old ones. We need new ways to look at the disease. We need to find approaches that give us hope of doing better. Targeting of mutations alone, in a disease that constantly grows and mutates, will never be enough.

NBCC’S 2020 DEADLINE TO END BREAST CANCER

In 2010, NBCC set a deadline. By the end of the decade we need to understand much more about metastasis and about development of primary breast cancer, so that we can prevent deaths and end this disease. The deadline is a tool to cause disruptive change.

The purpose is to shift the focus, to look at the disease differently, to consider new approaches that give us hope of doing better.

How do we get there?To achieve success we have to do more than bring everyone together who works in the field, increase funding, and see what happens.

We need to demand more focused research with the end results in mind. We need to bring new perspectives to the table. We need more translational research. And we need to measure what matters. It may just take having specific goals in mind, timelines, and yes, deadlines to get us there.

Many say to us, that’s not how science works. But, I know how science works. I did graduate work in nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University, I carried out a large thesis project involving lactating rats, looking at the impact of malnutrition on milk composition. I know that science works by asking questions, and figuring out how to test theories about the answers to those questions.

SCIENTISTS CAN MEET DEADLINES

So what if we can all agree on what those questions should be? Questions that will help drive us to an understanding of how to prevent deaths from breast cancer? Science can work towards meeting goals and yes – even meeting deadlines. I know I had to answer my research questions in a certain time to finish my thesis and graduate. Scientists meet deadlines all the time.

Right now, in the field of breast cancer research, we have many people asking many questions in an infinite number of directions. We are producing incredible volumes of information. But for all of that effort we are seeing minimal benefit for women. Something has to change.

We need leadership and coordination of efforts, sharing of information, all of us working together on common goals. We need the will to ask the right questions, and the resources to explore those questions. And then we have to measure what matters to judge success.

PATIENT ADVOCATES AND RESEARCHERS COLLABORATIONS

NBCC has spent the last two years exploring how to do this on a small scale with what we call Artemis Projects. These are a series of collaborations among patient advocates and researchers from diverse perspectives. The purpose of the collaborations is to develop strategies, research plans and timelines for answering key breast cancer questions. Patient advocates are there to make sure efforts are always focused on the end result.

The first of our Artemis Projects was launched in 2011, bringing together a group of advocates and scientists to take a strategic, systematic yet broad approach to the development of a breast cancer preventive vaccine within five years. We bring together a group of close to 40 each year to assess progress and to readjust plans. We also hold smaller meetings to bring together experts to bear on particular issues as needed, and have an online community for the project to keep things moving in between meetings.

SEED GRANTS TARGET VACCINATION RESEARCH AND MORE

As most of you know, we don’t typically fund research directly. But through the generous support of National Philanthropic Trust (NPT), NBCC has awarded two seed grants as part of this project, one to Dr. Paul Spellman and Dr. Joe Gray of Oregon Health and Science University to identify possible vaccine targets using existing and developing human genomic data within different breast cancer subtypes.

And a second seed grant was awarded to Dr. Paul Ewald at the University of Louisville, and Dr. Vladimir Belyi of The Cancer Institute of NJ to look at infectious agents and breast cancer. Bioinformatic tools will be used to take a systematic approach to intersect the genomes of known viruses and a broad array of cellular pathogens to identify their presence and prevalence in breast cancer genomes relative to normal breast tissue. Initial data from both of these seed grants will be presented at the next annual meeting in March.

MORE METASTATIC RESEARCH

We will also be kicking off a second Artemis Project on Metastasis in June to focus on tumor dormancy.

As with the Artemis Project on the Preventive Vaccine, our goal is to bring together investigators with diverse perspectives to brainstorm and develop innovative strategies for accelerating progress.

EYES ON THE PRIZE

In summary, I think we do have the will and the resources to come together on asking the right questions. We have heard from others this morning about new initiatives focused on prevention and metastasis. I see positive steps being taken to prove that pharma analysis wrong. If we can keep the end result in mind, where we want to be when all of those 13 year olds are 21 year old adults and beyond, I feel hopeful we can change the course. I look forward to the rest of the meeting for further discussion on how we are going to get there. Thank you.

Editor’s note: Shirley Mertz will represent the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network at the Tumor Dormancy Summit in June.


Dear Fran Visco (President of NBCC)

June 28, 2012

Metastatic Breast Cancer Network applauds and supports the efforts of National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC) to establish a 2020 Deadline to End Breast Cancer. In your recent op-ed piece in the Boston Globe,  you laid out a cogent argument for why we need to approach breast cancer with a deadline and a co-ordinated, bold plan, reminiscent of President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon in a decade. We know all too well the successes and failures of breast cancer treatment, research and advocacy. We live from scan to scan and enthusiastically accept incremental advances in treatment because that is our only choice. We agree that we need a  plan that attacks the problems of “organizational and systemic dysfunction that discourages bold new ideas in favor of safe research and predictable results.”

As a voice for the metastatic breast cancer community, we particularly liked your clear statement of goals for the 2020 Deadline campaign:

  • preventing people from getting breast cancer in the first place and
  • preventing those who get it from dying of it.

Previously this goal had been stated as “preventing metastases,” which left many of us wondering if we were included or not. We already have mets, so it didn’t seem that prevention was going to work for us. Some argued that preventing metastases meant preventing their further spread, but it was still an unclear and contentious issue.

We thank you for clarifying this with a simple phrase: preventing those who get it from dying of it. No doubt there that we are included.

As an organization, Metastatic Breast Cancer Network urges all of our members to sign the petition and visit your website to find out how to support the campaign in other ways.

Thank you. We look forward to working together with NBCC.

Michele Przypyszny – President

Metastatic Breast Cancer Network (MBCN)


Report from National Breast Cancer Coalition’s 2012 Advocate Summit

May 26, 2012

ImageI have attended NBCC’s Annual Advocacy Conference (now called Summit) as a metastatic breast cancer patient every year since 2006.   The content of this Summit, held on May 5 through May 8, was significantly different from past gatherings.

First, this year’s presentations clearly emphasized what we do not know about breast cancer.

  • Why do some breast cancer cells remain dormant years and even decades after the primary tumor was removed and then return as invasive or metastatic disease?
  • What distinguishes different types of breast cancer, and why does this make breast cancer difficult to treat?
  • What causes some cancer cells to metastasize or travel to other organs of the body?
  • How and why do cancer cells keep changing over the course of treatments, making treatment selection and efficacy difficult?

The lack of scientific answers to these questions clearly hinders efforts to end deaths from breast cancer and extend the lives of metastatic patients.

Second, there was an atmosphere of urgency throughout this Summit.  The program title said it succinctly—“It’s Time.”  It is time to end breast cancer and deaths from breast cancer.   This message is very different from what the public hears during breast cancer awareness month.  Urgency is at the core of NBCC’s Breast Cancer Deadline 2020 which seeks to focus attention on preventing the disease AND discovering the causes of the spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body—bones, lungs, liver and brain.   Plenary sessions that focused on metastasis included the following:

  • Ann Chambers, PhD., explained her research on tumor dormancy and metastasis;
  • Yibin Kang, PhD, discussed his efforts to soon begin testing a new drug for bone metastasis;
  • Alana Welm, PhD, shared her success to develop different types of metastasis models in living mice so that personalized breast cancer treatments can be tested within a living organism.

In my view, these summit presentations furthered the goal of the metastatic community to educate the larger breast cancer community about our disease and need for treatments to extend our lives.

Finally, the Summit offered excellent sessions on how patient advocates can learn from other social change movements, like the AIDS movement, to redefine the status quo, empower patients through education about their disease, and pressure for more treatment options.

As a patient advocate who has worked diligently on behalf of metastatic breast cancer patients for many years, I personally support NBCC’s Breast Cancer Deadline 2020.  When scientists can explain how and why cancer cells travel to other parts of the body, metastatic patients may realize treatments to keep their disease contained.

And, since advocacy is not just about oneself, I welcome research that will prevent my sons and nieces from getting breast cancer or being told they have metastatic breast cancer.

All best wishes,

Shirley Mertz