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Will Telemedicine Be an Equalizer for Patients Experiencing Bias?

Will Telemedicine Be an Equalizer for Patients Experiencing Bias? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Some breast cancer patients may experience in-person bias during visits. Expert Dr. Regina Hampton from Luminis Health Doctors Community Hospital explains her perspective on situations when telemedicine can provide benefit to the patient experience.  

See More from the Breast Cancer TelemEDucation Resource Center

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Transcript:

Dr. Regina Hampton:

Yeah, I think it takes away that, that in-person bias that that providers may have, you can kind of put on whatever you want and put on your face, and then I think that gives some providers just a different view of who that person is without looking at them in-person. And creating that judgment that we all do, we all do it, and that’s just a part of human nature. But I think it’s great for those patients who…I have a lot of patients who are caregivers where they’re caring for their elderly patient, and they can’t leave that patient alone. Well, they can continue to do their doctor’s visit provided they don’t need a physical exam and be able to keep that. It may be helpful for that patient who is stuck at home, it allows them that access. So I think it does help to decrease the barriers, especially for patients who may live in a rural area, who may not be able to travel back and forth to the big city to see their doctor, and being able to jump on a telemedicine visit to be able to get their concerns heard, and then they can figure out if they need an in-person visit, so I think it’s just going to open up the world. 

I think it will give those patients more access, and hopefully it will help to just break down some of these barriers that we see as we move forward. 

Is Telemedicine an Advantage for Low-Risk Breast Cancer Patients?

Is Telemedicine an Advantage for Low-Risk Breast Cancer Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 For low-risk breast cancer patients, is telemedicine an advantage? Expert Dr. Regina Hamptonfrom Luminis Health Doctors Community Hospital shares her views on when telemedicine makes sense for low-risk patients and the benefits she’s seen for patients’ quality of life.

See More from the Breast Cancer TelemEDucation Resource Center

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Transcript:

Dr. Regina Hampton:

I think it helps to eliminate a lot of those in-person visits, which then means they can enjoy life. We want them to enjoy life after surviving their breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. So maybe they’re doing their televisit while they’re on vacation or while they’re out of the state, visiting with relatives. So it really allows them to be able to stay in tune and in touch with their healthcare providers, stay on top of their visits, but allow them the flexibility to continue to live life. I often tell patients, “Look, after we’ve treated you, we don’t want you in our offices all the time. We want you out there living life.” And if we can make that easier by doing a quick tele visit, especially if there’s not something serious going on, then I think that’s a great advantage. And I think as we move deeper and deeper into the telemedicine world, I think patients are going to appreciate that, and they’re going to actually demand it and say, “Well, you know, I’m doing fine, I just need you to look at my mammogram and us to have a quick discussion while on a cruise or while I’m on the beach in Hawaii enjoying some time with my family.” So, I think it’s opened up a new world, and it’s just going to get better and more easy, and I think patients are going to shift their brains to say, “You know, if I don’t have to be in an office somewhere, I’d rather be on a video or a phone visit.

Which Breast Cancer Patients Benefit Most From Telemedicine Visits?

Which Breast Cancer Patients Benefit Most From Telemedicine Visits? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Regina Hampton  from Luminis Health Doctors Community Hospital provides her perspective on care situations when patients can benefit the most from telemedicine – and when in-person visits can provide an advantage.

See More from the Breast Cancer TelemEDucation Resource Center

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Transcript:

Dr. Regina Hampton:

So, I think when we look at new patients, newly diagnosed, I think an in-person visit is certainly advantageous, I think people certainly want to meet their doctor in-person, what I found personally is after that initial visit, then we’ll convert the rest of the visits by telemedicine. As the patient is willing, if they want to come in, I’m happy to have them come in, where I think it’s really beneficial is in survivorship after the patient has gone through treatment, and she may still be following with her medical oncologist, because she’s on hormonal therapy. Or she may be on some form of chemotherapy, and maybe she wants for me to be able to take a look at her mammogram. Well, I can still do that because I can remotely access those films, and then we could do that television, and if she’s not expressing any concerns, then we can do that as a television, so this helps, especially for those patients in survivorship where they’re not going to three and four different doctors on a regular basis. They’re going to that one doctor, they’re getting that in-person visit, and then some of the other providers are part of the team can maybe move theirs to telemedicine visits, so again, I think it helps to keep patients with that connection to some of those without again, having the burden of taking time off of work, having to arrange childcare, they can do those other visits by telemedicine. And that’s something new that we weren’t doing pre-COVID, patients were having to come into the office and see every single provider for every six months for the first two to three years after their diagnosis, so I think that really has made it more convenient for the patients, and it’s really allowed us to really streamline our operations on the provider side, which then allows us to be able to serve more patients.  

What Key Questions Should Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer Patients Ask Providers?

What Key Questions Should Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer Patients Ask Providers? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What key questions should breast cancer patients who are newly diagnosed ask their care providers? Dr. Regina Hampton explains vital points to learn about your specific breast cancer to ensure thorough exploration of treatment options and the best care for you. 

See More From the Best Care No Matter Where You Live Program


Related Programs:

What Steps Can Breast Cancer Patients Take To Be More Proactive?


Transcript:

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

As a breast surgeon, can you share with us what are some key questions that patients with breast cancer should be asking their team at the beginning of their diagnosis? 

Dr. Regina Hampton: 

I think it’s important to understand the type of cancer that you have, is it non-invasive, is it invasive, it’s important to know the characteristics of the tumor, is this a hormone-driven tumor, is in a non-hormone-driven tumor or triple-negative tumor? And then to ask in each step, with each discipline with surgery, finding out what are the pros and cons of a lumpectomy versus a mastectomy, when you get to the medical oncologist, finding out the pros and cons of chemotherapy versus hormone therapy, or doing both. How is that delivered? How is this going to affect my daily life? Can I still work if I’m getting chemotherapy? What happens when I get radiation? And what are the options? So, I think it’s just really important to, I’d say, go online and find a list of questions or a lot of great organizations out there that have pointed questions that you should ask each step of the way, many times the navigators will give you booklets and things to read that, have questions. And I think don’t be afraid to turn one visit into two or even three visits to make sure that you’re understanding the options. 

I‘m always troubled when I see patients who maybe years ago might have had some options, but they just rushed through and decided maybe to do mastectomy and they say, “You know what, had I really just stopped and thought about it, I might have made a different decision.” So, I think it’s very important, and I feel as the provider, the provider really should know how to read the room and really be able to pick up on the fact that, “You know what, she’s just not here today, and so…I’m going to stop talking. I’m going to send her away, let her digest this, and we’re going to come on back so we can have another conversation.” And I think as providers, we have to not be afraid, and I know it’s hard because time is tied. And we’re trying to see as many patients, but it’s really important to understand that every patient may need something a little bit different, and really trying to hone in on that, I think is really important as a provider, and making sure that you’re heard because a lot of times I think women of color, men of color as well, are not really heard by the doctor, and many of the doctors come in with their own biases and think, “Oh well, she’s young, she’s automatically going to want a mastectomy,” or “She’s old, we’re going to go ahead with a mastectomy,” well, it’s a matter of really listening to the patient and seeing how you can meet in the middle, and if the patient has to get a treatment that they’re not really keen on getting, but you know it’s the right thing to do. 

Dr. Regina Hampton: 

Again, it’s just having that conversation and dialogue so that they understand your reasoning. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Thank you. So, Dr. Hampton, it is evident during this interview, and, of course, I also know you personally and professionally, and you have certainly built a reputation of being a compassionate provider. Clearly, you are very committed to communicating with your patients, but the reality is not all of our colleagues are like Dr. Hampton. And so, I’m thinking about something you said about really kind of pushing back, so to speak, sometimes we have to push back in a polite way with our health care providers, and you mentioned maybe the woman is being faced or the man with treatment recommendations and maybe they have some concerns about that, and I know that not every patient feels comfortable disagreeing with their doctor or even engaging in a dialogue where they want to actually have more conversation. So many people, even in 2021, adopt a paternalistic relationship with their doctor where the doctor says, do this, and then they do it. And so, is there any advice that you can give our listeners our watchers, for when they’re in that situation with their breast surgeon or their oncologist, and they’re just not feeling comfortable, they don’t feel like all of the treatment options are being presented, are there any tips that you can provide for that? 

Dr. Regina Hampton: 

And in those cases, it’s important to go and get a second opinion, it doesn’t mean that you’re saying that that doctor is not a great doctor, you just may want to hear the information. It could be the same information, just presented it in a different way. All of us kind of explain things a little bit differently, and so I think getting a second opinion is important, and if your first doctor is offended that you’re getting a second opinion, you should fire that doctor. I tell my patients like, this is not my journey, this is not about me, this is really about you. Where do you want to go? We will help you get there, we’ll help you get the appointment, because I think it’s important for patients to have that information, so feel empowered and realize you can ask questions of the doctor, we’ve changed medicine and that…it’s a patient-centered approach. It’s not me. The doctor, I know all it’s…you may come in with a new study, let’s talk about it, and if you don’t have a doctor who’s open to hearing that information, then that might not be the doctor for you. 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Yes, we have to have that type of relationship with our patients where we’re making joint decisions where the patient and their family members are truly brought in as members of the healthcare team. 

What Steps Can Breast Cancer Patients Take To Be More Proactive?

What Steps Can Breast Cancer Patients Take To Be More Proactive? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What steps can breast cancer patients take to be more proactive in their care? When is it appropriate to voice concerns? Dr. Regina Hampton offers advice for patients and loved ones how to work towards achieving optimal care.

See More From the Best Care No Matter Where You Live Program


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How Can Breast Cancer Patients Connect to Patient-Centered Care?


Transcript:

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Are there some other practices or key steps that patients can take so that they have a proactive approach in their healthcare and that they can feel more confident in voicing some of these concerns when they’re communicating with their healthcare team? 

Dr. Regina Hampton: 

I think it’s important to have a support person. And that could be a family member, it could be a neighbor, it could be your best friend. Doesn’t always have to be family, sometimes it’s better to have somebody who’s not family, because sometimes a family, they get you know they get emotionally involved and we get that, but I think it’s important to have another pair of ears because especially when you get a new diagnosis, you’re not going to hear everything, and I know patients. The second somebody says, cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, they just shut down. That’s it. They’re not going to hear. You could tell them, I have a million dollars for you, they’re not hearing you, they’re not going to follow the directions to go get that million dollars because they just have shut down, and even at that second visit, they still are just sort of…I call it the whomp, whomp, whomp. They see my mouth moving, but they’re not really hearing the words, but if they have another support person who can be there to record the conversation, who can take notes, even in the era of telemedicine, somebody can dial in to listen. I’ve been doing family meetings and people have been on the West Coast, or somebody couldn’t get off the work, but there was somebody there who could hear that information, I think that’s so important, and especially as we get more seasoned, Mom and Dad, sometimes they are a little in denial on the information that they can take in, but so important to be there in some form, and with telemedicine, it makes it quite easy to get another pair of ears in the room. 

Absolutely, you are speaking my language, Dr. Hampton, I’m telling you, because the other thing that I always recommend is for patients to have a buddy, and like you said, that may be a family member, it may be a best friend, it may be someone in your church, but I think the studies  say that something somewhere around 30 percent to 40 percent is all that we retain when we go to the doctor’s office, and so like you said, especially if you’re getting bad news, a lot of that information goes out of your brain, and so it’s so important to have a back-up person and that person can sit and take notes, and sometimes they can even remind you of some of the questions that you may have had or some of your concerns, I really, really appreciate you bringing that up.  

 I think it’s also important to take a deep breath, I find people get a cancer diagnosis and they want to just rush through everything. Well, in most cases, cancer doesn’t spread that fast, but there are a lot of decisions to make, and you really should take that time to hear all the options, may need to get a second or third opinion so that you really can make good decisions, you can’t make good decisions if you’re fearful, just can’t do it.  

How Can Breast Cancer Patients Connect to Patient-Centered Care?

How Can Breast Cancer Patients Connect to Patient-Centered Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What actions can breast cancer patients take to connect to patient-centered care? Dr. Regina Hampton shares insights about breast cancer resources that aid in supporting whole care of the patient.

See More From the Best Care No Matter Where You Live Program


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What Key Questions Should Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer Patients Ask Providers?


Transcript:

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

Something that I see in my field is that most patients and family members are operating from obviously a non-medical viewpoint, and sometimes they just don’t even know what questions to ask, how can we empower patients so that they don’t feel limited in their care, and how do we make them aware of the treatment options that are available? 

Dr. Regina Hampton: 

So I think the good thing about many breast centers is that they do have what are called navigators, who really sit and hand-hold the patient through the process, and they sit and do one-on-one counseling, they try to find resources to help the patient get through treatment, they hold support groups, they really are a wealth of information and a nice go-between between the patient and the physician or the provider. So trying to find a comprehensive breast center where they have a whole program that’s dedicated to patient-centered care, I think is important. It’s also important that patients be empowered to go online, you can find what questions do I ask? Print it out and bring it to your appointment and ask those questions, and it may take a couple of visits to get those questions answered, but I think it’s important to get the questions answered. If you’re with a provider who is feeling like they don’t have time to answer or they’re blowing you off when you’re answering those questions, guess what? You can fire your doctor and go find another doctor and I don’t think we do that enough. 

I get on my patients and say, “You know what, you all scrutinize when you go buy shoes, when you go buy that cute dress, when you go buy that new car, but we should scrutinize our providers because they’re taking care of our most precious commodity, and that is our body.” 

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

That is absolutely true. I have fired a couple of doctors in my day, and I recommended that some of my family members fired their doctors as well, so I really appreciate that coming from you, Dr. Hampton. And you touched on a little bit on what I’m going to ask next, and not really staying on this advocacy piece, we’ve talked about the importance of patients feeling empowered, and you shared a really good tip which I love, which is writing your questions down, it’s something that I frequently recommend to my clients and my friends and family members.  

When Is a Full Mastectomy Appropriate for Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients?

When Is a Full Mastectomy Appropriate for Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Dr. Stephanie Valente discusses mastectomy for metastatic breast cancer patients, including common misconceptions around breast cancer surgery.

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

See More From INSIST! Metastatic Breast Cancer


Transcript:

Dr. Valente:                

So, there are a lot of reasons that a woman undergoes a mastectomy. The first one is choice. So, anytime somebody is diagnosed with breast cancer, they actually have the choice of whether or not they want to remove their whole breast. So, even if their cancer is small, they do have the option of removing the whole breast. If the cancer is smaller, they might have the option to save the breast, which is called a lumpectomy.

Sometimes cancer is found, and it’s a little bit more advanced where saving the breast is not an option. So, the cancer is larger than a lumpectomy would allow. And sometimes that’s what’s called the extent of disease. So, the amount of breast tissue that’s involved requires a majority of the portion of the breast to be removed.

So, just because a woman has breast cancer that’s made its way out of the breast, into the lymph nodes, or beyond – so, metastatic cancer – doesn’t necessarily mean that she needs a mastectomy. So, just because you’ve got metastatic cancer doesn’t necessarily mean that the breast needs to be completely removed.

So, I think that one of the biggest misconceptions is that the more aggressive somebody is with their surgery, the better their chances with survival.

And again, taking a step back and saying you can choose a more aggressive surgery, but a more aggressive surgery doesn’t necessarily mean it gets you out of chemotherapy or it gets you out of radiation therapy. Those things are recommended, independent of a woman’s choice for the type of surgery that she may or may not pick.

Metastatic Breast Cancer: Accessing the Best Treatment For YOU

Metastatic Breast Cancer: Accessing the Best Treatment For YOU from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How could genetic testing results impact your metastatic breast cancer treatment options? In this INSIST! Breast Cancer webinar, Dr. Julie Gralow discusses essential testing, the latest targeted therapies and emerging breast cancer research.

Dr. Julie Gralow is the Jill Bennett Endowed Professor of Breast Medical Oncology at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Download Program Resource Guide


Transcript:

Katherine:

Welcome to Insist Breast Cancer, a program focused on empowering patients to take an active role and insist on better care. Today, we’ll discuss the latest advances in metastatic breast cancer, including the role of genetic testing and how this may affect treatment options. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program, and joining me is Dr. Julie Gralow. Welcome, Dr. Gralow. Would you introduce yourself?

Dr. Gralow:   

Hi, thanks, Katherine. I’m Dr. Julie Gralow. I’m the Jill Bennett Endowed Professor of Breast Medical Oncology at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Katherine:    

Excellent, thank you. Before we begin the discussion, a reminder that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your own healthcare team. Well, Dr. Gralow, let’s start by helping people understand how breast cancer is staged. Could we go through those stages?

Dr. Gralow:     

The staging of breast cancer has traditionally been by something we call anatomic staging, which has the tumor size, the number of local lymph nodes involved, and whether it has metastasized beyond the lymph nodes. So, that’s TNM – tumor, nodes, metastases. And so, that’s the classic staging, and based on combinations of those things, you can be a Stage 0 through Stage 4. Stage 0 is reserved for ductal carcinoma in situ, which is a noninvasive breast cancer that can’t generally spread beyond the breast, so that’s Stage 0, and then we go up for invasive cancer.

Interestingly, just a couple years ago, the big group that oversees the staging of cancers decided that in breast cancer, that TNM – the size, the lymph nodes, and the location beyond the lymph nodes – is not good enough anymore, so they came up with a proposal for what we call a clinical prognostic stage, which is a companion to the traditional TNM staging.

What they were getting at here was it’s not just how big your cancer is, how many lymph nodes, or whatever, it’s also at the biology of your cancer. So, this new clinical prognostic stage takes into account the estrogen and progesterone receptor of your cancer, the HER2 receptor at the grade, which is a degree of aggressiveness, and then, if your tumor qualifies, one of the newer genomic testing profiles that we use in earlier-stage breast cancer, such as the Oncotype DX 21-gene recurrence score or the MammaPrint 70-gene assay.

So, all of that goes into account now, and the whole point here is that the estrogen receptor, the HER2, the grade, and some of these genomics may actually make more difference than how many lymph nodes you have, where the cancer is, and how big it is, so it’s not just the size, but also the biology of the cancer that we’re trying to include in the new staging systems.

Katherine:    

In this program, Dr. Gralow, we ’re focusing on metastatic breast cancer. Would you explain when breast cancer is considered to have metastasized?

Dr. Gralow:  

That’s a great question because technically, if the lymph nodes in the armpit – the axillary area – are involved, that does represent spread beyond the breast, but if it stays in the local lymph node areas, it’s not technically called a metastatic or Stage 4 breast cancer. So, metastatic breast cancer would have traveled beyond the breast and those local lymph nodes, and some common sites would be to the bone, to the lungs, to the liver, less commonly – at least, up front – to the brain, and it could also travel to other lymph node groups beyond those just in the armpit and the local chest wall area as well.

Katherine:   

What about subtypes? How are they determined?

Dr. Gralow:   

The main way that we subtype breast cancer right now is based on the expression of estrogen and progesterone receptor, the two hormone receptors, and the HER2 receptor, the human epidermal growth factor receptor. So, to date, those are the most important features when we subtype, and so, a tumor can either express estrogen and progesterone receptor or not, and it can overexpress or amplify HER2 or not, and if you think that through, you can come up with four different major subtypes, in a way, based on estrogen receptor positive or negative and HER2 positive or negative.

When all three of those are negative, we call that triple negative breast cancer, and that’s about 18-20% of all breast cancers as diagnosed in the U.S. And then, when all three are positive, we sometimes call it triple positive, and the reason that we subtype is because we know that those different subsets act differently and that we have different drugs to treat them with, and we’ve got great drugs in the categories of hormone receptor positive and HER2 positive, and increasingly, some recently hope in a new drug approval or two in triple negative breast cancer as well.

Katherine:     

For a patient to get diagnosed, what are the essential tests?

Dr. Gralow:  

So, we’re talking about metastatic breast cancer here, and in the U.S., maybe up to 10% or slightly less of breast cancer is technically Stage 4 or metastatic at diagnosis. That means at the time we first found it in the breast, it had already spread beyond. So, an important thing that we’ll do with a newly diagnosed breast cancer is especially if there are a lot of lymph nodes are involved or the patient has symptoms that might say there’s something in the bone, liver, or lung is staging.

So, we’ll use scans – maybe a CAT scan, bone scan, or PET scan – and we will look at whether the disease has gone beyond the breast and the lymph nodes, and if so, where. So, maybe 8-10% of breast cancer diagnosed in the U.S. already has some evidence that it has spread beyond the breast, but the most common way that metastatic breast cancer happens is that a patient was diagnosed possibly years and years ago, treated in the early-stage setting, and now it comes back, and that is the most common presentation for metastatic breast cancer, and sometimes that can be due to symptoms.

As I said, if it comes back in the bone, maybe that’s bone pain. If it’s in the lung, it’s a cough. There are symptoms. Sometimes, it’s because we’ve done a blood test or something and we find some changes there.

And so, when a breast cancer has recurred, it’s really important to document that it’s really breast cancer coming back, first of all, and so, if we can, we generally want a biopsy, and we want to stick a needle in it if it’s safe to do, and look and verify that it looks like breast cancer, and also, it’s really important that we repeat all those receptors that we talked about from the beginning because it can change.

So, a cancer up front 10 years ago could have been positive for estrogen receptor, but the only cells that survived – mutated, changed – were estrogen receptor negative, so what comes back could be different. So, it’s really critical to get that biopsy, repeat the estrogen/progesterone receptor and HER2, and also, in an ideal world, now that it’s 2020 and we’re moving more toward genomics, to do a full genomic profile and look for other changes and mutations that could drive our therapeutic options.

So, staging, knowing where the cancer is, getting a good baseline by understanding where it is and how big it is so that we can follow it and hopefully see that it’s responding to treatment, and then, repeating all of the biology components so that we know what the best options are for treatment are really critical.

Katherine:  

Right. How can patients advocate for a precise breast cancer diagnosis, and why is that important?

Dr. Gralow:    

Well, all those things I just mentioned are key. Knowing exactly where it is so that we can monitor it – for example, if the cancer has come back in the bones, we would add what we call a bone modifying agent, a drug like zoledronic acid or denosumab – Zometa or – which can suppress bone destruction from the cancer, but if it’s not in the bone, we wouldn’t add that.

And, we want to have a good look everywhere so that we can see if it’s responding because sometimes, the tumor can respond differently in one area than another. Also, I think it’s really important to know what your treatment options are by doing that biopsy, getting a full panel, and looking at potentially hundreds of genes that could be mutated, deleted, or amplified so that we know what our treatment options are.

And, we’re not going to use all the treatment options up front, so it’s helpful for knowing that if this treatment doesn’t work or is too toxic, what are the second-line or third-line options? So, we make sure that there’s what we call good staging up front so we know where the cancer is, and then we make sure that we’ve looked at it as best we can in 2020 with all the genomics.

That would give us the best chance of being tailored – individualized – to the tumor. Sometimes, if we can’t biopsy it, like with a needle that would go into a liver spot, then increasingly, we’re looking at what we call liquid biopsies, and that can be drawing the blood and seeing if we can find parts of the tumor, whether it be the DNA or the RNA that’s floating around in the blood, and sometimes we can get that information out of the blood as well.

Katherine: 

All right. Dr. Gralow, when you meet with patients, what are some of the more common misconceptions that you hear related to diagnosis?

Dr. Gralow:  

Well, I think people do confuse – especially at an early diagnosis – that the metastases, the travel to the local lymph nodes, is not the same as a metastatic breast cancer, so we spend some time talking about how it’s still curable and not considered a distant metastasis if the lymph nodes are in the armpit or up above the collarbone, and so, that’s something that we spend some time talking about.

This whole term of “metastatic recurrence” – unfortunately, when you start looking online and get your information from Dr. Google, you read right away that it’s no longer curable, and in 2020, yes, that’s true. That’s probably the most specific statement that we can make. We are not going with curative intent, which means we treat for a defined amount of time, and then all the disease goes away, and we stop treatment, and then you go on with your life, and it never comes back. That would be cure.

But, I think it’s really important to point out that much of metastatic breast cancer can be highly treatable, and what we hope to do – and certainly, at least a subset of metastatic breast cancer – we want to convert it more to what we would call a chronic disease, and so, think of it more like hypertension, high blood pressure, or diabetes. These are diseases that we generally don’t cure with treatment, but that we can control with drug therapy, which sometimes has to be adjusted, and if we don’t control it, we can get some bad complications.

So, that’s not all metastatic breast cancer, unfortunately – we can’t convert all of it do something where we can use a therapy for a long time that keeps it in check and where you have a pretty good quality of life – but we’re hoping that more and more, we’re getting targeted therapies and more specific treatments to patients so that we can convert more patients to a more chronic kind of situation.

Katherine:

So, it’s something that patients live with.

Dr. Gralow:  

Right.

Katherine:  

Many people are confused about genetic testing. They often think that it relates to ancestry or physical traits like hair and eye color. What’s the role of genetic testing in breast cancer?

Dr. Gralow:    

Well, you can do genetic testing of the patient’s inheritance, which is how most people think of genetic testing, and that’s actually really important and increasingly important in metastatic breast cancer to do your own inheritance. Have you inherited a gene that was associated with how your cancer developed? Because now, we actually have a class of drugs called PARP inhibitors that are approved for tumors that have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation with them. Most of those mutations were inherited, but not all. Sometimes they can develop as well.

So, now, when my patient – if she didn’t previously have genetic testing for an inherited risk for breast cancer either coming from mom or dad’s side of the family, a lot of people do have that up front, especially if they’re younger at diagnosis or they have a lot of family members with breast cancer. If she didn’t have that genetic testing done previously, at the time of the metastatic occurrence, I’m going to recommend that that be done because knowing if the cancer is associated with one of these DNA repair genes – BRCA1, BRCA2, some other genes – we have a new treatment option, which is an oral pill that actually is highly effective if the tumor has a mutation in one of these.

But, we can also – so, that’s genetic testing of the patient’s own DNA, but we can also do what we call genetic testing – or genomic testing, if you will – of the genes of the cancer. What were the changes in the DNA at the gene level that caused a normal breast cell over time to develop into a cancer cell that’s now growing without responding to our body’s checks and balances? So, what were those mutations, deletions, or amplifications in the tumor itself?

So, we’ve got the patient’s genetics, we’ve got the tumor’s genetics, and both of those come into play when we’re making our best treatment recommendations and trying to understand what the right approach is.

Katherine:       

How is testing administered?

Dr. Gralow: 

So, for our inherited testing, those gene changes can be found in every cell in the body, so we can do that from a simple blood test where we just look at the blood cells. We can actually do it with our sputum and with a cheek swab, even. You can get enough of the DNA from the inside of the mouth to do that.

For a tumor’s genetics, we need some of the tumor, so that’s either done with a biopsy into the metastatic site or, as I mentioned before, increasingly, we’re exploring the potential for a liquid biopsy – so, drawing some blood and then trying to find pieces of the tumor that are shed into the blood.

Katherine:      

What advances have there been in testing?

Dr. Gralow: 

Well, it used to be – just going back a couple of years ago – that we didn’t do a lot of this genetic testing or genomic profiling of the tumor because we didn’t have many – the term is an “actionable mutation.” So, if we found something, would we do something with it? Did we have a drug we could use to do it? But, more and more and more, even in breast cancer, we’re finding actionable mutations that would drive therapy.

For example, in estrogen receptor positive breast cancer, we have a new class of targeted therapies called PI 3-kinase inhibitors – a drug called alpelisib or Piqray was approved in the last couple of years in that category – and it only is effective in estrogen receptor positive breast cancer that has a mutation in the PI 3-kinase gene. So, that would be something we’re looking for in the tumor’s genes, and actually, we need to know that there’s a mutation to even get the drug approved for treatment because it doesn’t work if you don’t have that mutation.

Increasingly, we’re finding some changes that can happen in the estrogen receptor gene and the HER2 gene, interestingly, so that you can have estrogen receptor expressed on your tumor, but over time, that tumor might develop an estrogen receptor mutation so that it stops responding to certain drugs that target the estrogen receptor.

And so, that’s called an ESR1. That’s the name of the estrogen receptor gene – an ESR1 mutation – and that would tell me probably not going to respond as well to a drug in the class we call aromatase inhibitors, but might respond better to a drug in the class that we call the selective estrogen receptor degraders like fulvestrant or Faslodex, is the name of a drug in that class.

We’re also finding that you can have what we call activating mutations in HER2, and they can be present whether the tumor overexpresses HER2 or not, and we’ve got some ongoing clinical trials looking at if the tumor doesn’t have extra HER2 on its surface – so, it doesn’t have extra HER2 protein, but at the gene level, it’s got an activated HER2 gene – we can use certain types of HER2 therapy to treat it, and we’re testing that right now in clinical trials.

So, could we even use some HER2 drugs even though technically, the tumor would be classified as HER2 negative? So, fascinating increasing information that we’re understanding, and I also mentioned before we can inherit mutations in genes such as BRCA1 and 2, but fascinatingly, the tumor can acquire those mutations. Even if we didn’t inherit a mutation, we can see mutations in the BRCA1 and 2 gene – we call those somatic as opposed to germline mutations. So, “germline” means it’s in every cell in your body, but “somatic” means the tumor somehow acquired this over time.

And so, we’ve done – we just presented some very early results of a trial, and we’re expanding this trial, looking at if you didn’t inherit a BRCA1 or 2 mutation, so technically, you don’t qualify for a PARP inhibitor, but if the tumor acquired a mutation and we can prove that with testing the tumor’s DNA, then we have seen responses from these PARP inhibitors, so that opens up another whole class of treatments, and there are other DNA repair genes that actually may be qualified as well that we can inherit or that can be acquired by the tumor.

So, more and more, we’re doing this genomic profiling, and it is leading to results that would give us possible treatment options.

Katherine:  

Dr. Gralow, the goal of this program is to provide the confidence and tool for patients to advocate for the essential tests to get best care personalized to them. Are there specific tests that patients should make sure they have?

Dr. Gralow:  

Well, there are a lot of assays out there to do this genomic profiling or genetic testing of the tumor, so I don’t promote any one. Various institutions do it and do it well, various companies do it, but I think every metastatic patient should have the tumor looked at in this kind of profiling.

I also think every metastatic patient should advocate for having a biopsy of their cancer, and if a biopsy cannot be done safely in the recurrence, then see if they could get a liquid biopsy – have blood drawn to find it. So, I think that patients should be asking about this. Sometimes, insurance won’t always cover it, and so, my job as a treating physician is to advocate for that, to do an appeal.

More and more, because we have so many actionable mutations in breast cancer now, I’m not having insurance decline, but occasionally, it does, and then it’s our job as the healthcare providers to make the case that yes, this will impact the patient, and yes, it should be covered by insurance.

Katherine:  

You’ve been referring to a number of terms. Patients may have heard the BRCA or “braca” that relate to breast cancer in genetics. Would you give us an overview of common mutations in breast cancer?

Dr. Gralow:    

So, of the mutations that we can inherit, the first two that were discovered were BRCA1 and BRCA2, and for all breast cancer – not just metastatic, but all breast cancer – we think that maybe 5-10% of breast cancer is the direct result of the inheritance of a strong gene that gives you a high – not 100%, but a high likelihood of developing breast cancer.

So, for BRCA1 and 2, these two genes are associated predominantly with breast and ovarian cancer, and if you live out your normal lifespan, you could have up to a 75-80% chance of getting one of those two cancers, and breast cancer being more common. Also, some association with some other cancers including, interestingly, prostate cancer, which we’re learning more about.

So, BRCA1 and 2 are the most common, and they tend to be found – because they have such a high association with the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, they tend to be found in families that have a lot of other breast cancers, and also breast and ovarian cancer presenting at a younger age. So, you’ve inherited a gene that leads to a high predisposition, and the cancer occurs earlier.

So, whereas the average age of diagnosis of breast cancer in the U.S. is 61-62 most commonly, in a patient who’s inherited a BRCA1 or 2 gene mutation, it’s closer to 40-42 – so, a lot younger. And then, there are a variety of other genes that can be inherited that are either much less common or have a weaker link. So, for example, there are genes called CHEK2 or PALB2, ATM, P53 – I just mention that because some of the listeners will potentially have one of those mutations or have heard it. Those are either rarer or they’re associated with a weaker chance of getting cancer.

So, those might be more commonly found in a family that doesn’t have a lot of cancer in it because a carrier – the mother or the father – and their other relatives would have maybe only a 30% chance of getting breast cancer in some cases. So, there would be a lot of carriers who don’t get cancer.

So, as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s really important – especially right now in metastatic breast cancer – that pretty much everybody, even if you didn’t have a strong family history, even if you weren’t diagnosed at a young age, get tested because if we find one of these inherited mutations, we now have some additional treatment options, especially right now, approved for BRCA1 or 2, but clinical trials going on for many of these other genes.

Katherine: 

How do these mutations affect disease progression and prognosis?

Dr. Gralow:          

So, most of the genes I’ve mentioned – in their normal state, they’re critical, actually. They’re called DNA repair genes, and their job in our life is when we accidentally make a mistake when we’re replicating our DNA and two cells are dividing, if there’s a mistake in the DNA, they go in and repair it. And, we’ve got all kinds of mechanisms to try to prevent mutations from happening as cells divide, and BRCA1 and 2 are a key part of that, and so, they’re fixing it.

So, if you inherit a mutation in one of those genes, you still have some ability to repair any routine mistakes that are being made, but over time, you have less ability, and then, if you get a cancer that has a deficiency in BRCA1 or 2, those cancers can be more sensitive to certain kinds of chemotherapy that affects DNA repair.

So, for example a class of chemotherapy agents called the platinum drugs – carboplatin and cisplatin – may be more effective in BRCA1- or 2-mutated cancers, also more generally in triple negative breast cancer because they can be more similar to BRCA1-mutated cancers in a lot of ways.

So, to go back to your original question, once a cancer has developed in a patient who has a BRCA1 or 2 mutation, we treat that cancer for what it is. So, it might have developed estrogen – have estrogen receptor on the surface or HER2, so we treat it as the subtype that developed, and actually, the chance of cure is just the same for BRCA1-associated breast cancer as it would be for one that doesn’t have a BRCA.

But, the chance of getting a second breast cancer – a totally new breast cancer – would be higher unless you chose to remove both of your breasts and the bulk of your breast tissue. So, decisions like surgery – if you had a known BRCA1 mutation, we’d treat the cancer you have now aggressively and for cure, but when you talk about your surgery options, we’d say doing more aggressive surgery, like removing both of your breasts – that’s not gonna improve your chance of surviving the cancer you have now, but it will markedly reduce the chance of getting a second breast cancer.

So, you could consider that as an option for surgery – not to improve your chance of this cancer, but to reduce the chance of another breast cancer. So, your surgery decisions might be impacted by knowing your BRCA1 or 2 mutation. And then, clearly, if you had metastatic breast cancer, knowing if you had the option of a PARP inhibitor, one of the drugs in that class could be – you could have a different treatment option for drug therapy.

Katherine: 

Well, Dr. Gralow, what other factors should be taken into consideration with a treatment route?

Dr. Gralow:   

I always like to think of the treatment decision as relying on three factors, and the first relates to the tumor factor, the cancer factor.

So, we talked a lot about the biology, the estrogen receptor, the HER2, the genomic profiling. So, that’s critical, but there are two other components that we need to really strongly consider when trying to devise the right treatment regimen. One of those is patient factors, and not just the patient’s genetics, but are they pre- or post-menopausal?

What is the age? Where are they in life? Are they young with young kids? Are they working, and is that an important priority for them? Are they older and with grandchildren, and they don’t need to work? What is it that would be critical? What are the patient’s priorities here, and what are their fears, what are the things they would – what would be really important as we plan a regimen? And so, the patient factors which would be patient priorities and where they are in life right now.

And then, there’s factors related to the treatment itself, which would include not just how effective it is, but – and, this is really important when trying to decide regimens – what are the side effects of a regimen? For some patients, hair loss is a big deal, and we can put it off as long as possible – maybe choosing the first couple regimens don’t cause hair loss sometimes.

But, for other people, that doesn’t matter to them. For some, we have oral – some regimens, and that could keep them out of the infusion room, and others actually – I’ve had patients who actually like coming into the infusion room regularly so that they can review the side effects and get the reassurance provided by it. So, we’ve got different route of administration of the drugs, different side effects. If you already had, for example, a neuropathy – a numbness/tingling of fingers and toes – from treatment that you might have gotten for early-stage disease, we’d probably want to avoid drugs where that’s their major side effect in the metastatic setting and that would increase that even further.

We’ve got some drugs that cause a lot of toxicity to our GI system – nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea – and other drugs that don’t. And so, understanding what symptoms the patient already has and actually tailoring the treatment based on some of the side effects of the drug could also be done, as well as how they’re administered. So, again, patient factors, tumor factors, and then, factors related to the treatment itself all come into play when we make decisions.

Katherine:    

There have been so many advances in breast cancer research. What are you excited about in research right now?

Dr. Gralow: 

Well, every single drug that’s been approved, every single new regimen that’s been approved in breast cancer is the direct result of clinical trials, and this is a major part of my career, is to help patients get access to clinical trials and run important clinical trials that could lead to new discoveries – is this regimen better? What’s the toxicity?

Because until we have a cure for breast cancer, we need to do better, and we need to research better treatment options. So, doing trials, having access to clinical trials where you can participate, help move the science forward is key.

I think where we’re moving with breast cancer is the more we’re understanding the patient and the tumor, the more we’re realizing every single breast cancer is different, actually, and whereas when I started my training 20-plus years ago, breast cancer was breast cancer – we weren’t even using HER2 yet, we were just learning how to use estrogen receptor, and we kind of treated everything the same – now, we’re subsetting, and subsetting, and subsetting. Even in triple negative breast cancer now, which is about 18-20% of breast cancer, we’re subsetting.

Does that triple negative breast cancer have PD-L1, which is associated with being able to get immunotherapy drugs? Does it express androgen receptor? Because sometimes, even a breast cancer that doesn’t have estrogen or progesterone receptor can express the androgen receptor, like prostate cancer, and we can use some prostate cancer drugs. So, even triple negative breast cancer we’re subsetting and subsetting, and could that triple negative breast cancer be associated with a BRCA1 or 2 mutation, and then we can use the PARP inhibitors?

So, I’m actually really excited about that we’re learning more and more, and subsetting, and not treating breast cancer as one size fits all, and if we can better tailor the treatments to the patient and the tumor, that we are going to get to the point where I can tell my patients yes, we can get cures in metastatic breast cancer.

Katherine:    

For patients who may be hesitant to speak up – to advocate for themselves in the process – I’m gonna start again. For patients who may be hesitant to speak out for themselves and advocate for their own care and treatment, what advice do you have?

Dr. Gralow:   

You have a whole team who’s behind you, and I’m the MD on the team, but I’ve got a nurse practitioner, and a nurse, and a scheduler, and a social worker, and a nutritionist, and a physical therapy team, and financial counselors. I’ve got a whole team who works with me. And so, a patient might be hesitant to speak up during the actual appointment with their physician. It’s a short amount of time. I would recommend come into it with written-down questions because things go fast. You don’t get a lot of time with your doctor.

Things go fast, but don’t come in with 25 questions, either. Pick your top few that you want to get taken care of this visit because if you come in with 25 or 30, you’re gonna lose the answers to most of them. Maybe bring somebody with you who’s an advocate and a listener for you who could be taking notes, so you can process and you don’t have to write it down, or ask if you can record it. It’s really important if you’re newly diagnosed or maybe there’s a progression and you’re going on a new treatment. That’s okay too.

But, I would also say you have a whole team behind you, so sometimes, if you don’t have time or if you’re hesitant to speak up in your doctor’s visit, you can ask the nurse, or maybe you can ask the social worker for help, even. See if there’s support groups around.

Interestingly, we’ve got a peer-to-peer network where patients can request to talk to somebody else who’s matched to them by some tumor features, and their stage, and things like that. Maybe finding somebody else who’s gone through something similar, and somebody independent to talk to instead of relying on your family.

It can also be really helpful to talk to a therapist or a psychologist about your fears, and sometimes, you want to be strong for your family, strong for your children and all, but you need a safe space with somebody that you can just express your fears and your anger if that’s what’s going on, or your depression or anxiety to while you’re trying to hold a strong face for others in your family. So, I would encourage patients to look at who is the whole team and talk to the other members of the team as well, and sometimes, they can help advocate.

Also, find somebody who might be able to come to your appointments with you, somebody who will help you advocate or remind you – “Didn’t you want to ask this question?” – or be another set of ears that you can process it with afterwards.

Katherine:     

Dr. Gralow, we’ve covered a lot of useful information today for patients. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Gralow:    

Thank you, Katherine.

Katherine:       

And, thank you to all of our partners. To learn more about breast cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell.