What Patients Should Know About CT Scans and MRIs

As patients, we normally rely on our doctors to tell us which tests and medications to take for the betterment of our health. Rarely do we question them since they know a whole lot more than most of us when it comes to medical ailments and overall health. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t find out more about the various suggestions doctors make.

If you have an ailment in the body and your doctor finds it hard to determine exactly what it is, they will likely ask you to get either a CT scan or MRI done. The tests are used to provide a detailed view of your internal body to help determine the ailment. We breakdown the two for your better understanding:

CT Scans

CT scans provide imaging using x-rays at different angles. This scan is more in-depth as compared to an x-ray. X-ray tests use a beam of radiation from a set angle and display the image. Since a CT scan uses a series of radiation beams at different angles, it slices the same image up, giving a 3D view so doctors can understand the ailment better. With the help of a computer, an image is produced. CT scans can help determine ailments such as cancer, bone injuries, and chest and lung ailments.

MRI

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a magnetic field instead of radiation and provides a more detailed image of the body which also includes soft tissues along with the internal body. It is used to help diagnose the following:

  • Brain injury
  • Cancer
  • Damaged blood vessels
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Stroke
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Bone infections
  • Damaged joints
  • It can also be used to ensure that various organs are healthy.

Both methods are noninvasive and rely on heavy technology. But when it comes to CT scans, more and more hospitals are opting for mobile CT scanners, which make it easier for them to manage.

Getting Ready for the Test

Preparing for CT Scan and MRI is slightly different. With CT scans, your doctor may recommend you take a contest dye. The dye helps highlight the scanned region more and is generally consumed when scanning the abdomen. It is important to notify your doctor if you have any allergies because you may react to the dye. If you’ve previously had reactions to prednisone (a steroid), iodine, or seafood then the doctor should be immediately notified. Other than that, the doctor may ask you not to drink or eat several hours before the test.

For an MRI, the one thing you need to make sure is that you are not wearing anything that can be detected by magnets. This means, no jewelry, watches, hearing aids, glasses, and other items that may have a metal can be worn during the test. In some cases, a gadolinium dye may be recommended which is injected into the hand or arm. The dye highlights certain details in the imaging and rarely results in any type of reaction. The test can be lengthy for some as it takes anywhere from 30-45 minutes, so if you are claustrophobic, you may want to discuss that with your doctor since you are required to stay in a closed space for that period.

The Test

  • CT Scan: You will be asked to put on a robe and remove jewelry and other metal objects so they don’t have any impact on the image produced. The scanner itself is a doughnut-shaped machine and you lie on a flat table in the middle. The table starts to move back and forth and x-ray tubes fitted into the scanner send out beams and different angles. They pass through your body to the other end of the scanner. The test is painless but make sure you are comfortable because you will be asked to stay still as the scan is going on.
  • MRI: The MRI machine is a long narrow tube that is open at both ends. Like in a CT scan, you lie down on a flat movable table that slides into the tube. As you slide in, the table stops at the specific part of the body being examined and a magnetic field is created and radio waves are directed to the body. The machine does make tapping and thumping noises, so the technician will likely offer earplugs to block it out.

Understanding the Test Result

After getting either a CT scan or MRI done, you will need to consult your doctor. Unless you are a trained doctor, the images will make little to no sense to you. You will need to consult a radiologist that can explain the results to you. In case of an ailment, they will usually recommend you consult a specialist, depending on the ailment, that can assist you further.

As a patient, it is important for you to understand the tests and treatment doctors recommend. Most of the time, you can consult your doctor and they will be more than willing to give you the information you need. Knowing makes it easier for you to undergo the tests and treatments with a little more ease.

Identifying Biomarkers Gives Doctors Known Targets to Treat Many Cancers

This blog was originally published by Cancer Treatments Centers of America on August 21, 2019, here.

Biomarkers
Doctors are increasingly relying on biomarkers, which help determine a patient’s overall health and/or the presence of disease. Learn what biomarkers are and why they are increasingly important in cancer care.

When faced with opposition, it’s beneficial to learn as much as possible about the opponent. A pitcher reads a scouting report before facing a lineup. An army consults intelligence before engaging the enemy in battle.

The same principles apply to the treatment of some cancers. When treating a tumor, it’s important for a doctor to know as much as possible about that cancer—specifically, what is driving the tumor’s growth.

To get the inside information on a tumor, doctors are increasingly relying on biomarkers, short for biological markers, measurable signs or substances in the body that may indicate a patient’s overall health and/or the presence or progression of disease.

The discovery of biomarkers in cancer drastically changed the course of cancer treatment. For decades, many cancers were treated similarly, with surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Identifying biomarkers in cancer cells has led to the development of new precision medicine drugs, such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy, designed to target specific features in cancer cells, potentially reducing the damage to healthy cells. “The routine use of a variety of biomarkers has substantially changed the way in which cancer medicine is practiced,” says Maurie Markman, MD, President of Medicine & Science at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), “from providing more accurate prognostic information to assisting in the prediction of specific therapeutic strategies that are more likely to result in a favorable outcome for an individual patient.”

What are biomarkers?

A biomarker is any measurable indicator of a person’s health. Blood pressure is a biomarker, as are body temperature, blood sugar and cholesterol measurements. In cancer, biomarkers also include proteins, hormones, gene aberrations, such as mutations or rearranged genes, and other molecules found in or on cancer cells. Cancer biomarkers may be found in routine blood, urine or stool tests. Others may require a biopsy and/or advanced genomic testing to uncover. “Genomics has made it so much easier to find gene mutations,” says Arturo Loaiza-Bonilla, MD, MSEd, FACP, Vice Chair for the CTCA® Department of Medical Oncology. “Now we may be able to target a mutation and potentially get the cancer to stop growing.”

Biomarkers play multiple roles in the treatment of diseases, such as cancer, including:

Diagnostic: Helping confirm the presence of disease, sometimes before symptoms develop

Prognostic: Helping forecast the progression and aggressiveness of the disease and the risk of recurrence

Predictive: Helping doctors identify how patients may respond to certain drugs

Biomarkers may play any or all these roles and more. Some biomarkers may be used to assess a patient’s risk of developing disease, the effectiveness of a treatment or whether a treatment is safe or toxic.

Common cancer biomarkers include:

  • BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes: Mutations in these genes may increase a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer. In men, it may increase the risk of prostate cancer.
  • PSA: Prostate specific antigen may indicate prostate cancer. This biomarker may be used not just to diagnose the disease, but to measure its progression and how the treatment is performing.
  • HER2: Human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 is found in many cancers, especially breast cancer. The targeted therapy drug trastuzumab and other similar monoclonal antibodies may be a treatment option for patients with HER2-positive cancers.
  • BCR-ABL: This gene, known as the Philadelphia chromosome, is found in patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Presence of the gene may indicate the patient may respond well to treatment with a tyrosine kinase inhibitor drug such as imatinib.
  • PD-L1: Programmed death ligand 1 is the companion receptor to PD-1. It may indicate a cancer’s ability to evade the immune system. Immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors may be an option to treat cancers high in PD-L1.
  • CA-125: High levels of cancer antigen-125 are found in many cancers as well as other diseases. Treatment options for cancers with CA-125 vary depending on where the cancer originated.
  • MSI-H: Microsatellite instability-high is a mutation in the DNA of cells found in many cancers, especially colorectal cancer. Checkpoint inhibitor drugs have been approved for cancers with MSI-H.

Difficult targets

Biomarkers don’t always tell the full story. Discovery of a biomarker that might indicate an increased cancer risk doesn’t mean a patient will get cancer. Not all cancers have identifiable biomarkers. And identifying a driving biomarker in a cancer does not necessarily lead to a treatment option. Some biomarkers for cancer have no corresponding targeted therapy or immunotherapy drug. For example:

  • TP53: Tumor protein 53 is a tumor suppressor gene designed to help stop cancer cells from growing. TP53 mutations are the most common found in cancer cells and may be found in most types of cancer.
  • RAS: About 30 percent of all cancers, including 95 percent of all pancreatic cancers, have known mutations in the RAS family of genes that control cell death and growth.

No targeted therapy drugs have been approved specifically to treat cancers with these mutations. “A number of recognized critical signaling pathways in cancer development, progression and resistance remain very difficult to ‘target’ to influence clinical outcomes,” Dr. Markman says. “The ability to successfully and safely target either or both of these pathways has the potential to be an important advancement in cancer management.”

Many cancers, especially solid tumors, have multiple biomarkers, any one of which may be able to drive a cancer’s growth. Target one biomarker, and another may take over as the driving mutation. And not all the same biomarkers are found in every cancer cell. “As cancer cells grow, they start to develop new abnormalities, mistakes made while the cells are multiplying,” Dr. Bonilla says. These new mutations may make the cancer more resistant to treatment.

Also, doctors need to take steps to prevent the patient from being harmed by the process of targeting a specific biomarker. For instance, patients on a checkpoint inhibitor that targets cancers high in PD-L1 may develop symptoms of autoimmune diseases, such as colitis. “The goal is to find the specific biomarker that every single cell expresses without compromising the normal cells,” Dr. Bonilla says, “because once you tell the immune system to kill a population of cells, it is going to kill all those cells, whether they are good or bad. But if you are able to find the specific biomarker that is the hallmark of this disease and needs to be eliminated, then it’s much easier to find a therapy.”

The discovery of biomarkers has led to game-changing developments in the cancer treatment. Women who learn they have BRCA mutations are now empowered to make potentially life-saving decisions to prevent breast and ovarian cancer. Men with slow-developing prostate cancer can now actively monitor their disease, in part, because their PSA levels can be measured. And research is ongoing to find new biomarkers to help in the treatment of other cancers and diseases, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease.

“Biomarkers offer an opportunity to apply genomics to population health and see what diseases or conditions people may be predisposed to,” says Pamela Crilley, DO, Chair of the CTCA Department of Medical Oncology. “Am I going to get diabetes? Am I going to get elevated cholesterol? Is there anything I can do about it? Look at hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. The science has led to being able to prevent disease in patients with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Now we may be able to significantly reduce your risk of disease.”

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