BC Treatment & Clinical Trials Archives

When it comes to breast cancer treatment, patients and their care partners have much to consider. Some people may seek breast cancer treatment and clinical trials, others may have few feasible options. Understanding treatment options, goals, and what to expect are vital to achieving the best possible outcome for you.

More resources for Category Name from Patient Empowerment Network.

Understanding Clinical Trials: A Jargon Buster Guide

When it comes to cancer treatment you or a loved one may be considering participating in a clinical trial as a treatment option.  Clinical trials are designed to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of a treatment. They may involve researchers administering drugs, taking blood or tissue samples, or checking the progress of patients as they take a treatment according to a study’s protocol.

Learning about clinical trials can be a steep learning curve – not least because the process comes with a lot of new terms, acronyms and jargon.  To help you, I’ve put together this list of the most common terms you will find when you are researching clinical trial information. This is not an exhaustive list but it is a helpful starting point. At the end of this article you will see links to find more information.

Adverse Effects (AE)   

Also called Adverse Events, or Adverse Drug Reaction, AEs are any harmful event experienced by a person while they are having a drug or any other treatment or intervention. In clinical trials, researchers must always report adverse events, regardless of whether or not the event is suspected to be related to or caused by the drug, treatment or intervention.

Arm 

Subsection of people within a study who have a particular intervention.

Bias

Bias is an error that distorts the objectivity of a study. It can arise if a researcher doesn’t adhere to rigorous standards in designing the study, selecting the subjects, administering the treatments, analysing the data, or reporting and interpreting the study results. It can also result from circumstances beyond a researcher’s control, as when there is an uneven distribution of some characteristic between groups as a result of randomization.

Blinding

Blinding is a method of controlling for bias in a study by ensuring that those involved are unable to tell if they are in an intervention or control group so they cannot influence the results. In a single-blind study, patients do not know whether they are receiving the active drug or a placebo. In a double-blind study, neither the patients nor the persons administering the treatments know which patients are receiving the active drug. In a triple-blind study, the patients, clinicians/researchers and the persons evaluating the results do not know which treatment patients had. Whenever blinding is used, there will always be a method in which the treatment can be unblinded in the event that information is required for safety.

Comparator

When a treatment for a specific medical condition already exists, it would be unethical to do a randomized controlled trial that would require some participants to be given an ineffective substitute. In this case, new treatments are tested against the best existing treatment, (i.e. a comparator). The comparator can also be no intervention (for example, best supportive care).

Completed

A trial is considered completed when trial participants are no longer being examined or treated (i.e. no longer in follow-up); the database has been ‘locked’ and records have been archived.

Control

A group of people in a study who do not have the intervention or test being studied. Instead, they may have the standard intervention (sometimes called ‘usual care’) or a dummy intervention (placebo). The results for the control group are compared with those for a group having the intervention being tested. The aim is to check for any differences. The people in the control group should be as similar as possible to those in the intervention group, to make it as easy as possible to detect any effects due to the intervention.

Efficacy

How beneficial a treatment is under ideal conditions (for example, in a laboratory), compared with doing nothing or opting for another type of care. A drug passes efficacy trials if it is effective at the dose tested and against the illness for which it is prescribed.

Eligibility Criteria/ Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria

Eligibility criteria ensures patients enrolling in a clinical trial share similar characteristics (e.g. gender, age, medications, disease type and status) so that the results of the study are more likely due to the treatment received rather than other factors.

Follow-up

Observation over a period of time of participants enrolled in a trial to observe changes in health status.

Informed Consent

A process (by means of a written informed consent form) by which a participant voluntarily agrees to take part in a trial, having been informed of the possible benefits, risks and side effects associated with participating in the study.

Intervention

The treatment (e.g., a drug, surgical procedure, or diagnostic test) being researched. The intervention group consists of the study participants that have been randomly assigned to receive the treatment.

Investigator

A person responsible for the conduct of the clinical trial at a trial site. If a trial is conducted by a team of individuals at a trial site, the investigator is the responsible leader of the team and may be called the principal investigator (PI).

Multicentre Trial

A clinical trial conducted according to a single protocol but at more than one site, and therefore, carried out by more than one investigator.

Number needed to treat (NNT)

The average number of patients who need to receive the treatment or other intervention for one of them to get the positive outcome in the time specified.

Outcome Measures

The impact that a test, treatment, or other intervention has on a person, group or population.

Phase I, II, III and IV Studies

Once the safety of a new drug has been demonstrated in tests on animals, it goes through a multi-phase testing process to determine its safety and efficacy in treating human patients. If a drug shows success in one phase, the evaluation moves to the next phase

  • Phase 1 tests a drug on a very small number of healthy volunteers to establish overall safety, identify side effects, and determine the dose levels that are safe and tolerable for humans.
  • Phase II trials test a drug on a small number of people who have the condition the drug is designed to treat. These trials are done to establish what dose range is most effective, and to observe any safety concerns that might arise.
  • Phase III trials test a drug on a large number of people who have the condition the drug is designed to treat. Successful completion of Phase III is the point where the drug is considered ready to be marketed.
  • Phase IV trials can investigate uses of the drug for other conditions, on a broader patient base or for longer term use.

Placebo

A fake (or dummy) treatment given to patients in the control group of a clinical trial.  Placebos are indistinguishable from the actual treatment and used so that the subjects in the control group are unable to tell who is receiving the active drug or treatment. Using placebos prevents bias in judging the effects of the medical intervention being tested.

Population

A group of people with a common link, such as the same medical condition or living in the same area or sharing the same characteristics. The population for a clinical trial is all the people the test or treatment is designed to help.

Protocol

A plan or set of steps that defines how something will be done. Before carrying out a research study, for example, the research protocol sets out what question is to be answered and how information will be collected and analysed.

Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT)

A study in which a number of similar people are randomly assigned to 2 (or more) groups to test a specific drug, treatment or other intervention. One group has the intervention being tested; the other (the comparison or control group) has an alternative intervention, a placebo, or no intervention at all. Participants are assigned to different groups without taking any similarities or differences between them into account. For example, it could involve using a computer-generated random sequence. RCTs are considered the most unbiased way of assessing the outcome of an intervention because each individual has the same chance of having the intervention.

Reliability

The ability to get the same or similar result each time a study is repeated with a different population or group.

Sample

People in a study recruited from part of the study’s target population. If they are recruited in an unbiased way, the results from the sample can be generalised to the target population as a whole.

Subjects

In clinical trials, the people selected to take part are called subjects. The term applies to both those participants receiving the treatment being investigated and to those receiving a placebo or alternate treatment.

Trial Site

The location where trial-related activities are conducted.


References

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)

TROG Cancer Research

ICH.org

NICE

Further Resources

American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Cancer.Net trials site

National Cancer Institute (NCI) Clinical Trials lists open and closed cancer clinical trials sponsored or supported by NCI. 

ClinicalTrials.gov database of privately and publicly funded clinical studies

CenterWatch Clinical Trials Listing

Breast Cancer Before 40: What You Should Know

Breast Cancer Before 40: What You Should Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Stephanie Valente reviews key information for women under the age of 40 with breast cancer, including risk, treatment approaches and the role of genetic testing.

Dr. Stephanie Valente is the Director of the Breast Surgery Fellowship Program at Cleveland Clinic. More about this expert here.

Related Program:

Breast Cancer Before 40: How Can I Preserve My Fertility?


Transcript:

Sure. So, when we talk about breast cancer in young women, usually we are referring to women under the age of 40. And the prevalence for breast cancer in general is one out of eight women. For women under the age of 40, it’s about a seven percent incidence of breast cancer. So, it’s about a seven percent incidence in the general population in the United States. So, that’s about 12,500 women per year are diagnosed under the age of 40 with breast cancer.

So, the prevalence has pretty much been the same over the years. We used to think that women diagnosed at a younger age had a more aggressive breast cancer. But the more we look at things, the more we realize that women under the age of 40 usually are diagnosed at a later stage because it’s not something that somebody in their 20s or 30s is thinking that a breast lump equates to cancer. So, these women unfortunately present at a later stage.

Many times, it’s because they are pregnant, breastfeeding or just not having any family history where the first thing they think of when they get a lump is that they actually have breast cancer.

So, the first thing is women under the age of 40 usually present at a later stage, meaning that they have larger cancers, and the cancers because they are larger have had more time to spread to the lymph nodes. So, these women they don’t necessarily have more aggressive breast cancers than older women, it’s just that it’s found at a later stage.

So, the treatment options are the same for young women with breast cancer. So, depending on the size of the tumor and the size of her breast, women are given the option for a lumpectomy which usually is follow by radiation versus a mastectomy. And studies have shown that either surgical choice is a good option for women. And that one surgery doesn’t make a young woman, or an older woman live any longer.

That the survival for breast cancer is based on stage not the choice of surgery that they pick.

So, one of the first things is that women under the age of 50 – the average age for breast cancer in the United States is between 64 and 68.

So, if you are under the age of 50 or under the age of 40 there’s a higher chance that maybe these women carry a gene that would increase the risk of getting breast cancer. And so nowadays, we test over 21 genes. But these genes can increase their risk of getting breast cancer not only in the breast they have the breast cancer in, but in their other breast as well. It also increases the risk for other types of cancers such as ovarian cancer. And they could potentially pass this gene on to their kids.

So, sometimes women – and this is the great thing about academic medicine. Everything is changing so quickly with the modern research. So, a lot of times a woman who is triple negative, which is an estrogen receptor negative breast cancer.

If they are genetic positive for the BRCA gene, they qualify for certain medications or chemotherapy that we know targets specifically that type of cancer and their gene. So, that’s why it is important for some of these women to get genetic testing to see if the certain chemotherapy regimens or medicines that we have would benefit their type of cancer.

So, one of the things for any woman diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age is to offer those women genetic testing. And sometimes it can be a relief or sometimes it can be very challenging for these women to think, “Oh my gosh. I have this gene. I’m at increased risk for more cancers.” And that potentially they could pass that on to their children.

So, having the women who come in meet with a genetics counselor to go over the risks. And the reality is that of all the women under the age of 50 that test for the gene, only 10 percent actually carry the gene.

So, the good thing is that 90 percent most likely don’t have the gene. But it still is an anxiety provoking thing for these women to go through.

Another thing is that these women a lot of times are younger. So, they have either two things – young children to take care of which is extremely difficult to mange an already stressful motherhood. You throw in a diagnosis of cancer, whether or not there is a dad involved or a father that needs to help out with these kids. A lot of times their families need to help out. So, we have a psych oncologist that’s part of our team. And it’s really great. How do you tell your kids you have cancer? And how do you manage kind of day-to-day life with going through this? So, that’s another great program that is offered. And importantly for a woman who doesn’t have children but maybe desires to have children or even to have more children than the ones that she has,
looking at fertility options for young women is huge.

So, we know that some of the chemotherapy that we give breast cancer patients decreases their ability to have children in the future. So, the chemotherapy can shut down the ovaries. So, sometimes women – and this is the great thing about academic
medicine. Everything is changing so quickly with the modern research. So, a lot of times a woman who is triple negative, which is an estrogen receptor negative breast cancer.

If they are genetic positive for the BRCA gene, they qualify for certain medications or chemotherapy that we know targets specifically that type of cancer and their gene. So, that’s why it is important for some of these women to get genetic testing to see if the certain chemotherapy regimens or medicines that we have would benefit their type of cancer.

So, the one thing is that I tell these women that breast cancer takes a good year between chemotherapy if they need it, surgery, radiation of they need it and the whole process of recovery. That is really takes a good solid year before they are kind of done going to their doctor’s appointments. But the reality is that for an early stage breast cancer, studies have show for young women the overall survival is over 92 percent. So, I say, “This is going to be a tough year. We are going to get through this together. And the good thing is that you are going to be alive in five, 10, 15, 20 years. And so, our goal is to get you the best quality of life not only now but in the future.”

As far as hope for young women with breast cancer, things are changing so fast. The medicine that’s out there – we’re doing these studies where women are getting chemotherapy and by the time they get to surgery about 40 to 60 percent of the tissue that I take out has no residual cancer. That’s phenomenal. That means that the medications that these women are getting are working really well for their cancer. And so, the hope is that in 10 years I don’t have a job because the medicine that they are getting works so well that the cancer can be removed without needing surgery. And so, I think in our lifetime we will find either a cure or a complete resolution of breast cancer.

Patient Profiles: Breast Cancer Part III

This is the last installment in our three-part series profiling breast cancer survivors. In Part II, the women gave insight into the importance of their mental health and their own attitude as critical components of care. They also shared some of the ways in which they coped with cancer. Today, the women talk about the possibility of recurrence. So, we pick up with the final stage of Shannon’s preventive measures. Based on her history, she knows her cancer can come back, but she wanted to do everything she could to prevent it.

Shannon’s treatment didn’t stop at reconstruction. She opted to have an oophorectomy, which meant she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. Remember, her moms’s cancer had returned and been terminal, so Shannon wanted to take every preventive measure she could. “My fear and my worry is that hers came back 16 years later and she died at 65. If the same thing happened to me, I would die before I’m 60,” says Shannon. Her breast cancer diagnosis meant she was at higher risk for female cancers and she wanted to do whatever she could to have as much time as she could. “I’m relatively young,” she says. “I wanted to give myself as long as I could.” In order to have the procedure, Shannon had to take medication that would put her into menopause and the side effects that came with menopause affect her quality of life, so she says she goes back and forth on whether or not she would do the oophorectomy, if she had it to do all over again.

Although she did have melanoma a couple of years ago, Tina has been 27 years without recurrence of breast cancer. “I didn’t really feel safe until five years out,” she says, but adds that you never really know if it’s coming back, and that you should always be vigilant about checking for lumps. There is a risk of late recurrence, i.e. breast cancer that comes back more than five years after diagnosis and treatment, and it is more likely if it was later stage when first diagnosed, and if the cancer was HR positive.

Like Tina, Betty also had a second cancer. Her colon cancer was discovered in 2009 and her doctor estimated that it had been growing for ten years, but because of where it was growing in relation to the colon wall, the tumor was able to be cleanly removed and no treatment was required. Because her breast cancer was ductal and not in the tissue, and her doctor was able to get very clean margins, Betty says she doesn’t worry about it returning. “I’m more afraid of the colon cancer returning,” she says.

Diana has been nine years without recurrence, but she says, “My guard is always up.” Maybe it’s because her mother and grandmother both had breast cancer, and, despite being BRCA negative, she believes her cancer is hereditary. Shannon feels the same way and says she believes 100 percent that her cancer is genetic. The genetic testing available is limited compared to the number of genes in the human body so, Shannon says, “There’s a long way to go.” And, while it’s early for Shannon to think about recurrence, she can’t help but consider it. “I don’t want to spend every day thinking about cancer. I don’t want that to be my life,” she says, “but it is in the back of my head.” Not knowing how the cancer might come back makes Shannon especially uneasy because she doesn’t have a plan for it.

When Meredith finished treatment, her doctor said he didn’t expect to see her back for recurrence. The odds were in her favor that she would remain cancer free. Meredith, like Betty, says she got the best cancer to get if you’re going to get cancer, but unlike the other ladies, Meredith was not expecting to get cancer. She didn’t have the same family history. Her only red flag was that she had an aunt that had ovarian cancer and she thought maybe her grandmother had breast cancer when she was 90. Meredith was young, she had three small children, and breast cancer was not on her mind. In fact, she was so sure she didn’t have it, that she took her 18-month-old daughter with her when she got the results from her lumpectomy. But, Meredith, who is also BRCA negative, did have cancer, and while her cancer was ductal, it was bigger than it should have been, and there was also a spot on her other breast that needed to be watched. Wanting to be proactive Meredith opted for a double mastectomy with reconstruction. She also had chemotherapy, because the cancer was found in a lymph node, and she lost all her hair. While she possibly could have gone without radiation, she opted for it. Again, she wanted to be aggressive and as proactive in her treatment as possible. She wanted to make sure her cancer was gone.

About a month ago, Meredith found another lump under her arm. She had a scan that was all clear except for the spot where the lump is located. She and her doctors are hoping it is just scar tissue, but she’ll have a lumpectomy this week and then she’ll wait for the biopsy results, which she is guessing will take several days. “The waiting is the worst,” she says. Liz, as a caregiver, felt the same way about waiting, “The worst part of all of it was waiting for the results.”

Tina, who also had young children at diagnosis, recalls that she just wanted to live long enough to raise her children. She says she found it difficult to accept the idea that she might die before her kids were grown. That thought is clearly on Meredith’s mind as well. “I remember saying, ‘Just give me five more years,’ and now it’s been seven years, and I’m saying, ‘Just give me seven more years,’ but no amount of time is enough,” she says. You can hear in her voice that she’s trying to be brave, and she says, “Hopefully, it will all be fine,” but it’s scary because, even though Meredith got the best cancer you can get if you’re going to get cancer, it is still cancer.

Anxious to hear Meredith’s results? We are, too, and as soon as she gets her results, she’s promised to follow up with us. We’re hoping for good news, and we will let you know as soon as we can.


Sources:

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/diagnosis/hormone_status

https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/20080813

http://www.who.int/cancer/events/breast_cancer_month/en/

https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast

https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet#q2

Patient Profiles: Breast Cancer Part II

In the first part of of this three-part series, you were introduced to Betty, her daughter, Liz, Shannon, Tina, and Diana. You learned that women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are not really all that surprised to get a diagnosis. They are often expecting it. Having breasts is a risk factor, and women have breasts. In today’s installment, you’ll meet Meredith. She wasn’t expecting to get breast cancer. But, before we meet her, we’ll pick up where we left off in part one: the matter of hair loss and chemotherapy.

Whether or not a survivor lost her hair during cancer treatment, it’s one of the first things she says about her experience. Shannon even lost her eyelashes and they never came back. She says she knows it’s a little thing, but it still bothers her. Betty, didn’t lose her hair. Like a growing number of women, she did not have to have chemotherapy. She says avoiding chemo made a huge difference in her experience. At the time, Betty was receiving treatment at a research hospital, and there was a test available to her that would determine how beneficial chemotherapy would be in treating her cancer. She was told that if she scored between a one and a 19, she would not need chemotherapy. Betty scored an 18. While she had to pay for the costly test out of pocket and wait for insurance to reimburse her, she says it was worth it. “It was so helpful,” she says. “Because of what chemo does to your body, you don’t want it unless you need it.” Side effects from chemotherapy can include anemia, diarrhea, fatigue, fertility issues, hair changes/loss, memory loss, neuropathy, menopause and menopausal symptoms, mouth and throat sores, nausea, vaginal dryness, vomiting, bone loss/osteoporosis, heart problems, and vision problems. The test Betty had is now being more widely used and, as you may have read on the Patient Empowerment Network blog in the June Notable News here, researchers have learned that 70 percent of women don’t need chemotherapy when they have the most common type of early-stage breast cancer, with low and moderate risk of recurrence. The test looks at cells from a tumor biopsy to determine what is known as a patient’s recurrence score. Patients are scored between zero and 100, with zero being the lowest risk of recurrence. Researchers now know that women who score less than 25 do not necessarily need chemotherapy.

Betty also did not need to have a mastectomy. She had a lumpectomy followed by intraoperative radiation therapy, a 30-minute procedure that involves surgically placing a ball of radiation in the spot where the tumor had been. The procedure meant that Betty only had to have a single radiation treatment, and it helps reduce the side effects of radiation. Betty was eligible for that form of radiation in part because of the size of her breasts. She says she told the doctor, “I’ve been lugging around these big things my entire life and they are finally paying off.”

The intraoperative radiation was another benefit of being at a research hospital. At the time of Betty’s treatment, the procedure wasn’t being widely used and wasn’t available through her local doctors. Receiving treatment at a research hospital also made a difference in Diana’s care. She recalls going in to her local doctor’s office for her test results, and no one in the office would make eye contact with her. Then, when the doctor came in to see her, he told her she had breast cancer, that he wanted to treat it right away, that he’d see her next Tuesday, and then he left the room. Diana says she was left there shaking. “He has a heart, but he didn’t show it,” says Diana, who then went to a research hospital for a second opinion. Her new doctor was much better, she says, and adds that the shoulder of his lab coat was always dirty from the smudge of make up left behind after his patients hugged him.

The importance of good doctors that you are comfortable with seemed to be one of the critical components of care to all the women.They all talked about how much they liked and appreciated their doctors. “A really good physician realizes psychological and spiritual care are just as important,” says Tina, who sought the services of a psychologist after her treatment. She was struggling with anxiety and depression and found that the counseling really helped her to work through her emotions about having cancer, which emphasizes another, perhaps the largest, critical component of care during treatment: emotional and mental support and health. Diana says she found support online and emphasized the importance of staying positive through treatment. “Count your positives,” she says. “That is the key.” Along the same line, Betty says, “The number one thing is attitude.” Actually, she and Liz say “attitude” in unison, and Betty adds, “I think attitude is a big piece of it.” Meredith Cronin who was diagnosed at age 37, says “Attitude is everything.” Meredith, who had three children under the age of six when she was diagnosed, says she understands how easily you could get depressed as a cancer patient. “I always say that I felt blessed that I was young and so busy that I didn’t have time to be depressed.”

Shannon, who was accused of being negative because of her detailed planning to get breast cancer before she actually had breast cancer, says she wasn’t negative; she was realistic and it was that take on it and her preparation and planning that helped her maintain emotional balance.“It didn’t affect me emotionally as much as I think it would have,” she says. Shannon coped through research and attention to details, and she describes her experience in the kind of detail that makes you think she’d just had it done yesterday rather than three years ago. Betty used a different method of coping and says she’s been able to let a lot of the experience go. “I don’t dwell in that place,” she says. She and Liz also found a lot of humor in the experience. The clickity-clack of someone’s shoes, Betty’s preoccupation with cutting out recipes from a magazine, or the ridiculousness of what must have been an excruciating procedure, were all fodder for coping. It’s not that Betty doesn’t take cancer seriously, but she was better able to cope with the diagnosis by finding humor in the situation. “We laughed through our tears,” she says. Liz says that early on in the experience, they imagined the worst possible scenario, which made handling what really happened more doable. The ways of coping with cancer are as varied and vast as are the treatment options.

Next time, in Part III, recurrence.


Sources:

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/diagnosis/hormone_status

https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/20080813

http://www.who.int/cancer/events/breast_cancer_month/en/

https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast

https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet#q2

Beyond Pink: The Other Side of Breast Cancer Awareness and Lessons We’ve Learned From Each Other

It’s October and the pink frenzy is in full force.  Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) is impossible to miss given the pink ribbon avalanche that arrives each Fall.  While there is no denying that BCAM has played a significant role over the past two decades in raising public awareness of breast cancer, there is  nevertheless growing criticism of its off-balance approach to awareness-raising, with many key messages becoming lost in a sea of “pink-washing.”  Interestingly, some studies have even found that pink branding may actually lead the public to take breast cancer less seriously.

“The biggest issue I have with Breast Cancer Awareness month is that it’s not even really awareness,” writes Elizabeth McKenzie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. “Awareness is mindfulness of all aspects of breast cancer, which to a certain respect, is different for all of us, based on medical differences in disease processes, treatment access, and personal, social-emotional and cognitive processes.”

Much of the criticism centers on breast cancer campaigns which over-sexualise the disease, equating breasts with womanhood and femininity. Rod Ritchie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, points out that “October is a bad time for male breast cancer survivors because the trivialisation and sexualisation of the disease by the pink charities reinforces public awareness that breast cancer is gender specific. Since there’s little attempt to educate men that they need to be aware of symptoms too, we are diagnosed later and have a poorer prognosis. So, how about adding some blue to the pink, encouraging research on us, and screening those with a genetic propensity?”

Over a decade ago on an October morning, I was diagnosed with breast cancer; a double reminder each year of the role this disease has played in my own life.   Looking back, I now see that my view of breast cancer was one-dimensional. Standing today on this other side of cancer I see a broader picture, a richer landscape of many shades beyond pink. This post is intended to provide a truer picture of the lives of breast cancer patients in its many varied hues.  Wherever you are in your experience, whether you are caring for a loved one, recently diagnosed, finished treatment, or living with a recurrence or metastatic cancer, I hope this post will speak to you.

Lessons We’ve Learned From Each Other

Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about breast cancer have come, not from my doctors, but from fellow patients. My doctors didn’t tell me about the effect of chemotherapy on my future fertility. I didn’t learn that treatment could damage my heart. And I finished treatment with no clue about late treatment side-effects or the risk of a cancer recurrence.

While valuing her oncologist’s expertise, Catherine Foy, who blogs at My Triple Negative Life, acknowledges that “within the online breast cancer community there will be someone awake somewhere in the world that can provide support and advice. For example, based on someone I followed I got my Vitamin D level checked which was very low and I am now on supplements. Other examples include creating awareness of late treatment side effects and reducing the feelings of isolation that some may experience.”

Liz O’Riordan, a breast surgeon diagnosed with recurrent breast cancer, and co-author of The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer, also refers to the feelings of isolation she experienced during her treatment. “I felt incredibly alone during my breast cancer treatment. I didn’t meet another patient at any of my chemo or radiotherapy sessions. All my advice was from amazing people on Twitter,” she says.  Liz offers this advice to patients undergoing chemotherapy:  “The two best tips I was given to reduce the side effects of chemo were: (1) Drink. Lots. Even when it taste disgusting. Ideally 3 litres a day. Try flavoured water or cordial. Carry a bottle everywhere you go. (2) Exercise. Walk for 30 minutes every day. You’ll hate me for making you. Some days you may have to stop and spit and pant and retch. But do it. You will feel better for it. And they were right. I did feel better.”

Barbara Jacoby of Let Life Happen agrees that we can learn valuable coping lessons from each other. “Whether it is a question of side effects that one is experiencing from a prescribed medication, or questions regarding treatment options or experiences or procedures, if you query a patient support or advocacy group, you are likely to find more answers and information from those who have had actual personal experiences with these issues. There is no doctor or group of medical professionals that has all of the information about real patient experiences and outcomes like any group of actual patients who have dealt with just about anything and everything imaginable on every level,” she says.

Both Catherine and Barbara believe that the information you get online should be shared and discussed with your doctors as the basis of shared decision making (the conversation that happens between a patient and clinician to reach a healthcare choice together).  “I value my oncologist’s advice and experience,” says Catherine, “and would usually discuss with him any new developments that I may have encountered through the various platforms on social media.”

Terri Coutee, a two-time breast cancer survivor, and founder of DiepCFoundation, a non-profit organization providing information on options for breast reconstruction after mastectomy, also embraces the concept of shared decision making and wants others to experience it too.  “I have had chemotherapy, radiation, two lumpectomies, a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction using my own tissue,” she says. ”Each of these occurrences was fraught with difficult decisions and hours of research to optimize my own health care plan. I left offices of various health care providers with armfuls of brochures and information to sort through and organize.”

Terri encourages patients to download the Breast Advocate App, a new tool to aid the shared decision making process.  The app was developed by plastic surgeon Dr Minas Chrysopoulo, whose patient population is primarily those affected by breast cancer or at high risk of developing breast cancer. “Shared decision making is an extremely powerful approach to deciding our treatment plans. Simply put, it empowers us and helps us advocate for ourselves,” explains Terri.  “As patients, we owe it to ourselves to embrace everyday conversations with our health care teams,” she says. “The information on the Breast Advocate app is informative, intuitive, and specific to your individual diagnosis or situation. There are treatment options with evidence-based articles to discuss with your healthcare team. It even features a community section. I encourage you to check out the wealth of shared decision-making information and download the Breast Advocate app to your phone.”

Siobhan Freeney, founder of Being Dense, an organization which raises awareness of Breast Density and its associated links to breast cancer and screening, was completely unaware of the issue until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “40% of women have Dense Breasts,” she explains. “A Mammogram is the only way to determine and measure Breast Density.  In Dense Breasts the reliability of screening mammograms can be reduced by as much as 50%.”   When you have a Mammogram, the radiologist reading it can tell if you have Dense Breasts.  Siobhan recommends you should ask for a copy of your radiology Mammogram report and ask if your breasts are dense. “If you have Dense Breasts you need to know and you should ask your Doctor/Radiologist about more personalised screening such as Breast Ultrasound or MRI,” she advises.

Metastatic Breast Cancer: The Other Side of BCAM

Learning about metastatic breast cancer (MBC; also called stage 4, secondary, or advanced breast cancer) from online blogs and social media networks was revelatory for me. MBC is breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast — to the bones, liver, brain, or another organ. Even if the cancer is found in another organ, it’s still referred to as breast cancer. Like Beth Gainer, who says, she learned “that anyone who’s been diagnosed with breast cancer is at risk,” I too have found, in Beth’s words, “what the metastatic breast cancer community has had to say has been a real eye-opener.”

MBC has been referred to as a story half-told, the other side of BCAM we don’t hear enough about. As Catherine points out, “For me, breast cancer awareness month is for those who are not yet diagnosed or those newly diagnosed. The pink scene looks to future research and provides good information for those starting or in the midst of treatment. There is less focus on those of us living or dying with breast cancer.”

Nancy Stordahl is unequivocal in her criticism of the failure each October to adequately raise awareness of MBC. “Despite all the pink, all the races, all the pink ribbons, most people still know little or nothing about metastatic breast cancer,” she writes. “No wonder so many with metastatic breast cancer feel left out, isolated, alone and yes, even erased.”

Joanne Taylor, a metastatic breast cancer patient and advocate, is pushing for more information and awareness of MBC.  She created this infographic to show the red flag symptoms of advanced breast cancer.

While metastatic breast cancer is terminal and cannot be cured, because of improved treatments more women are living longer than ever with it. Even so, many misconceptions and lack of information about this diagnosis persist.    “A stranger called Elizabeth Richards contacted me and like many other women she knew very little about MBC, yet the more she found out, the more angry and amazed she became that the illness was side-lined,” says Joanne. “Elizabeth’s view was that as long as metastatic cancer wasn’t mainstream people would not be aware of the limited treatment options available to them. If they knew, they’d demand more.”

One of the biggest misconceptions is that MBC is an instant death sentence. “We thought with BCAM coming up we would do something different to show how people could live well with MBC, so we started the #busylivingwithmets campaign,” explains Joanne. “Elizabeth had the idea, it was positive, it showed what people can do if they have access to drugs and surgery. I was her inspiration! If I can do it, others can as well – if they are given the right options.”

Lessons of Resilience, Connection, and Hope

Cancer can be a lonely and isolating experience, but it doesn’t have to be. “A friend told me to accept whatever help was offered, says breast cancer survivor Connie Rosser Riddle. “It was her way of saying to quit being Superwoman, that it was okay to be in need, vulnerable. It was best to be specific when folks asked, “What can I do for you?” My answer combined what that person was best at and where I needed help, and that made a good fit for both of us.”

Audrey Birt, diagnosed with breast cancer three times, shares lessons of courage, connection and resilience on her blog.  “Cancer taught me I’m more resilient than I would have believed, it helped make me braver,” she says. “It also taught me that life cannot be controlled. This made me more able to live in the moment, and for the moment.  That’s probably not so good for my bank balance but it’s great for my life balance in a way. It taught me to reengage with writing through my blog and in a funny way it changed my life and connection to others. But it also taught me my fragility and that’s a lesson I’m still learning, one day at a time.”

Ultimately however, the lessons you learn will be unique to you. “There is not a single person, story, book, lecture or talk, which will teach us all we need to know to understand the impact of cancer on our lives. That’s what we have to figure out for ourselves when we go through our own cancer experience,” says therapist, Karin Sieger . “Having been diagnosed twice with breast cancer all I can say is try and stay open minded – to your body, the illness, treatment options. You always have choices. Don’t get stuck in fear and don’t get stuck in complacency either. Live your life to the best of your ability and stay true to who you are – with or without cancer.”

Patient Profiles: Breast Cancer Part I

Female breast cancer awareness, with it’s pink ribbons, and Save the Ta-tas t-shirts, and fundraising 5Ks, sweeps into October each year with the same prevalence as pumpkins. No other cancer has managed to garner as much support, attention, or money. But, even without the pink campaigns, the prevalence of breast cancer is not a secret. An estimated one in eight women is diagnosed in our country, and there are about 1.38 million new cases worldwide each year. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know a breast cancer survivor. This month, in a three-part series, Patient Empowerment Network is taking a closer look at five survivor stories and one caregiver. These women represent the more than 3.1 million women in the United States who have a history of breast cancer. In today’s installment, you’ll be introduced to five of the six women, and you’ll learn that getting a breast cancer diagnosis wasn’t really a surprise to any of them.

Breast cancer survivors are interlaced through all of our lives, and there is something very endearing about how openly willing they are to share their stories. They freely talk about their diagnosis and treatment, but more than that, they talk about their darkest moments alone in the hospital, or their need for counseling after treatment. They discuss the lengths they will go to endure invasive treatment that may prolong their lives, and they share their prayers to live long enough to see their children grown. They are so deeply candid that it’s as if they are inviting you to be a guest for the day in their exclusive club.

Only it’s a club you don’t really want to be a part of, says Betty Abbott, who was diagnosed five years ago. She was 72 at the time, and her cancer was ductal and non-invasive. She says it’s the kind you want to get if you’re going to get it. But, is there really a kind of cancer any woman wants to get? While the death rates for breast cancer have been decreasing since 1989 thanks to increased awareness, early detection, and advances in treatment, breast cancer is still the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women in the United States, second only to lung cancer. In 2018, approximately 40,920 women are expected to die from breast cancer.

Cancer is cancer, no matter the stage, the type, or the form. “That’s the thing about breast cancer…it’s still cancer,” says Liz Abbott. She’s Betty’s daughter. The two are very close, and Liz was with Betty every step of the way through diagnosis and treatment. Liz hasn’t had breast cancer…yet, but she fully expects to get it. She knows the statistics. Even though less than 15 percent of people who get diagnosed with breast cancer have a relative diagnosed with it, a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer nearly doubles if a first degree relative (a mother, sister, daughter) has had it. So many women get breast cancer, so many families of women, that for some women it’s no longer if they will get it, It’s when. Since her mom’s diagnosis, “our new realities are very different,” says Liz, who can’t help but worry if breast cancer is her own daughter’s path as well.

It was the path for Shannon Knudsen, who was diagnosed three years ago, when she was 43. Like Liz, Shannon was very close with her mother and walked with her through diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Shannon’s grandmother and great grandmother had breast cancer as well. So, for Shannon, breast cancer was never an if. “I never thought I wasn’t going to get it,” she says. “It was always a matter of when.” So Shannon wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis, but she says she was angry. You see, while she was prepared and had a plan, cancer still managed to throw her what she calls “an interesting little twist”.

Since she watched what her mom went through, being diagnosed at 49 with recurrence as leukemia 16 years later that was ultimately terminal, Shannon was diligent about staying on top of cancer research, and as soon as she learned that genetic testing was available, she looked into having it done. She was absolutely positive that her family carried the BRCA gene mutation. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes produce proteins that help repair damaged DNA cells. When either of the genes has a mutation and the genes don’t produce the protein or function correctly, DNA cells are more likely to develop changes that can lead to cancer. There are specific mutations of the genes that increase the risk of female breast and ovarian cancers. People who have inherited the mutations, which can come from the mother or the father, are more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancers at younger ages.

As soon as Shannon’s insurance covered the testing, she had it done. Fully expecting a positive result, Shannon was prepared to have a preemptive double mastectomy with reconstruction. But, Shannon’s results were negative. She doesn’t carry the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutations.“I was shocked,” says Shannon, and she feels like the results gave her a little false security. That’s where the anger came in, because in August 2015, when her mammogram and subsequent 3D testing showed a black and jagged spot of concern, she knew that meant she was bound for chemotherapy, and that was something she had always planned to avoid by having preventive surgery. “I was 100 percent prepared to do that, and it didn’t work out that way,” says Shannon. Cancer, as it often does, had other plans.

Cancer had other plans for Tina Donahue as well. “It was a really, really difficult time in our lives,” says Tina of her diagnosis in 1991. It’s not that Tina wasn’t expecting to get a diagnosis at some point. She also had a family history of the disease, her maternal aunt died from breast cancer, and Tina was a nurse so she had a keen understanding of her risk, but when she was diagnosed at 44, she had just been promoted to an executive vice president position at work, and she had three young sons. She was also in school to get her MBA. Cancer was not part of her plan, and she thought she was going to have to quit school when she was diagnosed. However, thanks to the support of the other women in her study group, Tina didn’t have to quit school. She says the women rallied around her, told her not to quit and helped her, encouraged her, and tutored her through.

When it came to treatment, Tina and Shannon, though diagnosed more than 20 years apart, had very similar methods. “I just wanted to hit it as aggressively as I could and give myself as much life as I could,” says Shannon. She told her surgical oncologist that hers would be the easiest consultation ever. She had done the research, she knew the risks, she knew exactly what treatment she wanted. Tina, who also wanted to treat her cancer aggressively says she told her doctors, “Give me everything you’ve got.” Both women had a double mastectomy and reconstruction with silicone implants. Tina says her implants lasted 23 years before she noticed they started getting folds in them, which was a sign that both implants, though contained, had burst, and she had to have them redone. Shannon’s implants are a newer technology called gummy bear implants and are designed so that they won’t burst. Tina says the silicone felt and looked more natural, and Shannon says that was important to her as well. Tina also says that if she hadn’t been a nurse who had seen a lot of recurrence in women who had had a single mastectomy, and if she hadn’t been witness to her aunt’s experience, she may not have opted for the double mastectomy.

Diana Geiser did not opt for the double mastectomy, but now says she wishes she had. Diagnosed at age 50, Diana says she struggled with the decision at the time and remembers feeling like she wanted to keep part of herself. “Now I wish I’d done both,” she says explaining that one of the draw backs is that her natural breast gets bigger or smaller with weight fluctuations, but her reconstructed breast does not.

Regardless, all three women had four rounds of chemotherapy. They all had clear lymph nodes, and were hormone-receptor-negative (HR negative), meaning that it was likely that hormonal therapies wouldn’t work for them. Tina, still wanting to treat her cancer aggressively, says she wanted to kill everything and had low dose chemotherapy. She lost some of her hair, but not all of it. For Shannon and Diana, the pathology reports came back showing their tumors were aggressive, Shannon’s highly so, making chemotherapy necessary. They both lost all of their hair, which is something that must be incredibly pertinent to breast cancer survivors, because whether they did or they didn’t lose it, they all tell you about their hair.

Next time, in Part II, meet Meredith.

 


Sources:

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/diagnosis/hormone_status

https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/20080813

http://www.who.int/cancer/events/breast_cancer_month/en/

https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast

https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet#q2