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How Can Breast Cancer Genetic Testing Empower Women?

In this podcast, Dr. Stephanie Valente explains how breast cancer genetic testing results can help women learn about their breast cancer risk and guide prognosis and treatment choices. 

About the Guest:

Dr. Stephanie Valente is the Director of the Breast Surgery Fellowship Program at Cleveland Clinic. More about this expert: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/staff/16420-stephanie-valente.

See More from INSIST! Breast Cancer

Notable News March 2021

While we’ve heard a lot about the vaccine for Covid-19, vaccines for cancer have been in development behind the scenes, and they show a lot of promise. Traditional treatments, like surgery, are still helpful as well, and early screenings are key to better survival rates. However, cancer survivors need to pay attention to their hearts, and young men need to be aware of any changes to their skin.

Melanoma is on the rise among younger men, and doctors aren’t quite sure why, reports menshealth.com. It is the fifth most common cancer for men and one of the top three among young adults. Research shows that young, non-Hispanic white men make up more than 60 percent of melanoma-related deaths. Doctors have some theories about why younger men are particularly at risk for melanoma, but the reasons aren’t entirely clear. One theory is that men could be biologically prone to developing melanoma because of their sex hormones. It’s thought that testosterone may cause melanoma to spread quickly and grow faster. Learn more here.

Cancer survivors have a higher risk of heart disease, reports pharmacytimes.com. A new study shows that 35 percent of Americans who have had cancer have an elevated risk of heart disease, compared to 23 percent of those who have never had cancer. Some of the treatments that cancer patients receive, such as radiation and chemotherapy, can affect cardiovascular health, and researchers hope that more attention will be paid to those risk factors. Read more here.

There are new lung cancer screening guidelines that increase the recommended number of people who get yearly CT scans for lung cancer, including more African Americans and women, reports nytimes.com. The new guidelines, which were previously established based on data for white males, reduce the age and smoking history requirements, and now include people, aged 50 to 80, who have smoked at least a pack a day for 20 years or more, and who still smoke or quit within the past 15 years. The goal is to detect lung cancer early in people who are at high risk due to smoking. By reducing the age and smoking history requirements for screening, more women and African Americans will likely benefit from the new guidelines as they tend to develop cancer earlier and from less tobacco exposure than white males. CT scans can reduce cancer death risk by 20 to 25 percent. Learn more here.

A Global Breast Cancer Initiative was introduced this month by the World Health Organization, says www.who.int. The initiative seeks to reduce global breast cancer mortality by 2.5 percent each year until 2040. Breast cancer has surpassed lung cancer as the most commonly diagnosed cancer worldwide. Survival rates have increased in high-income countries, but in low-income countries less progress has been made. To implement the initiative, global partners will use strategic programs that include health promotion, timely diagnosis, and comprehensive treatment and supportive care. Read more about the global initiative here.

Researchers have developed a vaccine that uses tumor cells in a patient to train the immune system to find and kill cancer, reports news.uchicago.edu. The vaccine is injected into the skin and has shown that it stopped melanoma tumor growth in mice. The vaccine is a new, and potentially safer and less expensive, way of using immunotherapy to treat cancers. It works as a therapeutic vaccine, activating the immune system to kill cancer cells. Researchers are planning to test the method on breast and colon cancers, as well as other types of cancers, and eventually plan clinical trials. Learn more here.

A Phase 1 trial is showing incredible promise for a brain tumor vaccine, reports newatlas.com. Research shows that the vaccine is safe and that it triggers an immune system response that slows tumor progression. The vaccine targets a gene mutation common in gliomas, which are a hard-to-treat type of brain cancer. The trial showed that 93 percent of patients had a positive response to the vaccine, and no tumor growth was seen in 82 percent of patients after three years. While the results are promising, researchers are cautious and say larger studies need to be done. A Phase 2 trial is being planned. Find more information here.

New treatments are exciting, but some traditional treatments might need more consideration in some cancers. Surgery, after chemotherapy, increases lifespan of pancreatic cancer patients, reports eurekalert.org. A new study shows that stage II pancreatic cancer patients who are treated with chemotherapy and then surgery to remove the cancerous area, live almost twice as long as patients treated only with chemotherapy. The data also shows that patients live longer even if the cancerous area isn’t completely removed. The study reveals that surgery is helpful in treating more pancreatic cancer patients than was previously believed. Learn more here.

Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor: Taking Control of Your Quality of Life

Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor: Taking Control of Your Quality of Life from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Stage IV metastatic breast cancer survivor Lesley shares her story of taking control of her care. After her oncologist chose aggressive treatment that would include 8 rounds of chemo, bi-lateral mastectomy, and radiation, she experienced a severe emotional toll along with extreme nausea, fatigue, bone aches, low blood counts, neutropenia, gasping for breath, and then sepsis. After receiving an emotional response when asking for a second opinion, Lesley was able to get an appointment with another oncologist, took control of her own life, and decided to stop treatment until she achieved her goal of climbing Mt. Whitney. And after summiting the mountain, she chose a new treatment with her oncologist based on side effects and quality of life.

Lesley’s advice,

“We have this one life, let’s live it to the best of our ability. These actions are key to staying on your path to empowerment.”

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

What Factors Help Guide Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Decisions?

What Factors Help Guide Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Decisions? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What treatment is best for your metastatic breast cancer? Dr. Halle Moore of Cleveland Clinic reviews important considerations when choosing a therapy, including the role of molecular testing.

Dr. Halle Moore is Director of Medical Breast Oncology at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Moore, here.

See More From Engage Breast Cancer

Related Programs:

COVID-19 Vaccination: What Do Breast Cancer Patients Need to Know?

Breast Cancer Research News: SABCS Conference Highlights

Breast Cancer Research News: SABCS Conference Highlights

Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Decisions: Which Path is Best for You?


Transcript

Dr. Halle Moore:

For patients with advanced breast cancer, some of the major factors that affect our treatment decisions are first the receptor results. This includes the ER and PR, which are the hormone receptors, as well as HER2. These receptors really guide the initial treatment options.

In addition, the patient’s overall health status is an important factor in treatment decisions. And then the prior treatment history, what the patient has previously received, either in an earlier stage of disease or previously for their advanced cancer.

Molecular testing for metastatic breast has gone from something that was primarily used only in the research setting to something that is now quite valuable in making treatment decisions every day in the clinic.

The results of molecular testing may indicate whether our patients are eligible to receive certain treatments, such as immunotherapy or certain targeted cancer treatments. We also have an increasing number of clinical trials that are testing treatments targeted to the molecular drivers of an individual’s cancer.

I would say one of the most interesting new approaches in the treatment of metastatic breast cancer is the use of antibody drug conjugates. These combine an antibody against a target that’s likely to be present on cancer cells more so than on normal cells in the body.

And, typically, a very potent chemotherapy drug is combined with the antibody. The antibody then allows for delivery of a high concentration of this chemotherapy drug preferentially to the cancer cells allowing for very effective treatment of the cancer while limiting toxicity from the treatment to the rest of the body.

COVID-19 Vaccination: What Do Breast Cancer Patients Need to Know?

COVID-19 Vaccination: What Do Breast Cancer Patients Need to Know? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is it safe to get the COVID-19 vaccine if you have breast cancer? Dr. Halle Moore of Cleveland Clinic provides valuable insight, including a discussion of side effects and the importance of staying up-to-date with visits and screenings.

Dr. Halle Moore is Director of Medical Breast Oncology at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Moore, here.

See More From Engage Breast Cancer

Related Programs:

What Factors Help Guide Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Decisions?

What Do Breast Cancer Patients Need to Know About COVID?

Are You Prepared for Your Breast Cancer Appointment? Expert Tips.


Transcript

Dr. Halle Moore:

For most adults with cancer or with a history of cancer, vaccination against COVID-19 with one of the newly approved vaccines is definitely recommended.

Common side effects after the COVID vaccinations are a sore arm, which is probably one of the most common side effects that we see. Fatigue and muscle aches can occur. Also, some patients will experience fever and chills, and that seems to be especially after the second dose of the vaccine. Rarely, severe allergic reactions can occur. And also, some people will experience enlargement of lymph nodes, typically in the underarm area or in the neck on the side of the vaccination.

This is particularly important for cancer patients to be aware of since enlarged lymph nodes could also be seen with cancer, and that might be alarming to some patients if they experience this side effect without knowing that that is a normal immune response to the vaccine.

In addition, cancer patients who are getting imaging, either a CAT scan or even a routine mammogram, if they get that imaging soon after the vaccine, the lymph nodes could be seen on imaging, and that might raise a concern as well. So, it’s important that patients let their provider know if they’ve had a recent vaccine and they’re getting any kind of imaging or mammogram.

So, breast cancer patients who are on chemotherapy or other treatments that could affect the immune system should definitely discuss with their oncology team the timing of vaccination with respect to their treatments.

This often needs to be individualized based on the planned duration of the cancer treatment as well as how much that treatment actually affects the immune system. In general, it is safe to get the vaccine during chemotherapy. It’s just that there may be a potential for reduced immune response during certain types of chemotherapy.

On the other hand, some chemotherapies are given more long term. And we don’t generally advise interrupting the chemotherapy for vaccination. So, oftentimes, we will recommend vaccination even in the setting of cancer treatment. Certainly, anti-estrogen treatments, hormonal treatments for breast cancer, or radiation treatment for the breast cancer should not alter either the safety or the effectiveness of these vaccines.

So, some of the ingredients in the various vaccinations that have led to these allergic reactions that we’ve heard about are also present in certain chemotherapy drugs. So, for people who have had a life-threatening reaction to chemotherapy, for instance, an anaphylactic reaction, it would be a good idea to discuss with your oncologist whether you should see an allergist prior to vaccination. This is something that we’re recommending for patients who’ve had severe allergic reactions to try to determine what component the reaction was to and whether vaccination with any of the individual vaccines might be safest.

Delaying care for non-COVID-related health concerns has been a major concern over the past year. It’s important for people to know that hospitals and medical clinics have numerous safety precautions in place. And we are really strongly encouraging everyone to continue to address all of their healthcare needs and to receive important treatments, particularly cancer treatments.

Genetic Testing: How do Results Impact Metastatic Breast Cancer Care?

In this podcast, breast cancer expert Dr. Erin Roesch explains how genetic testing results could impact metastatic breast cancer care–including treatment options–and provides advice for self-advocacy.

Dr. Erin Roesch is a breast medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic. More about this expert here.


Transcript:

Katherine:     

Welcome to Empowered, a podcast by the Patient Empowerment Network. I’m your host, Katherine Banwell.

Today, we’re talking about the role of genetic testing in metastatic breast cancer care—how results can impact treatment options and decisions. We’ll also discuss new and emerging treatment options.

Joining us Dr. Eric Roesch. Dr. Roesch, could you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Roesch:        

Sure. So, my name is Dr. Eric Roesch. I am one of the breast medical oncologists at Cleveland Clinic.

Katherine:       

Thank you. And let’s just start with the basics. So, what is metastatic breast cancer?

Dr. Roesch:  

Metastatic breast cancer refers to a cancer that began in the breast and then has spread to involve other parts of the body. Although metastatic breast cancer is likely uncurable, meaningful advances have been made in treatment over the last several years. The primary goals of treatment are to improve survival, as well as quality of life and symptoms.

Katherine:       

Dr. Roesch, when patients are first diagnosed with Metastatic breast cancer, are there misunderstanding that they have and what are some of them?

Dr. Roesch: 

I think a common misconception that I hear when patients are first diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, is the availability of treatment options. At the initial clinic visit, I really strive to make sure patients understand that although metastatic breast cancer is unlikely curable, it is very treatable. And we have a lot of therapies, especially that have been approved in recent years, that can help patients live better and longer lives.

Katherine: 

That’s really encouraging.

As I mentioned, we’re going to talk about genetic testing, also known as molecular testing.

So, what is genetic testing exactly?

Dr. Roesch: 

Genetic testing refers to any type of testing that can help determine an individual’s genotype. Which is essentially, the DNA makeup, or DNA blueprint, that is associated with clinical manifestations of a certain disease or a specific trait. A phenotype, rather. Genetic testing can be determined for a germline, which refers to cells arising from the germ cells, which are applicable the vast majority of the body.

Or they can be selected for somatic cells, such as those found within tumors. Genetic testing can be helpful for metastatic breast cancer, as there are various drug therapies that are approved for patients found to have specific mutations. For example, if a woman is found to have a BRCA1 or 2 mutation, she may be a candidate for a medication called a PARP-Inhibitor.

Olaparib and talazoparib are both PARP-Inhibitors that are approved for patients with germline BRCA mutations and HER2 negative metastatic breast cancer.

Dr. Roesch:    

Genetic testing is administered in a couple of different ways. So, first it can be performed on blood or saliva containing cheek cells, essentially.

Testing on tumor tissue can also be used to identify additional acquired or somatic genetic changes.

Katherine: 

You mentioned HER2, what is that?

Dr. Roesch:

HER2 is a protein that’s expressed on many other cells throughout the body.

Some breast cancers are driven by, or over express this protein. And that can be helpful to identify patients that might benefit from HER2 targeted therapy.

Katherine: 

And what about BRCA1 and BRCA2, what are they?

Dr. Roesch:   

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are proteins that are involved in DNA repair in the body. And any time one of these mutations is defective, there is an error in DNA repair.

Katherine: 

So, as I understand it, genetic testing can lead to more targeted or personalized treatment. How has targeted therapy changed the landscape in treatment?

Dr. Roesch: 

Targeted therapy has definitely had an impact on metastatic breast cancer treatment. There are various therapies that are now approved for patients with a certain breast cancer subtype. As well as for those with specific mutations or protein over-expression. Some examples of these include, CDK4/6 inhibitors, BRCA mutations, PIK3CA mutations and PDL1 expression. For example, for a patient that is diagnosed with triple negative metastatic breast cancer.

It is now routine practice to evaluate PDL1 status. Which can identify whether a patient is a candidate for, and might benefit from, immunotherapy.

Katherine:

And when thinking about genetic testing for metastatic breast cancer, is the testing standard or is it something patients should ask their doctors about?

Dr. Roesch: 

I would encourage patients to have open lines of communication with their doctor. And certainly, ask about genetic testing. I think it’s important at certainly the initial visit, and subsequent visits, to always review family history, as this might change.

Here at Cleveland Clinic, we work very closely with genetic counselors. And they are always also available to help answer any additional patient questions.

Katherine:  

Let’s shift a bit to self-advocacy. When someone has been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, what do you feel are key steps they should take?

Dr. Roesch: 

I think there are several important things for a patient who is newly diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer to consider. First, I think it’s important to try and have open lines of communication with your oncologist and care team. It’s really important that we as providers are aware of our patient’s goals, wishes and any concerns they might have. Secondly, I would encourage patients to try and be educated and informed about your diagnosis and treatment. I think it is helpful when patients know what to expect, in terms of how they might feel after starting a certain treatment.

Including side effects to be aware of. I think it’s also helpful to understand that the treatment for metastatic breast cancer is a journey. And there likely might be changes or challenges that happen along the way. And that is where we as the oncologist and care providers come in to help explain things as they happen.

Lastly, but just as importantly, I think it’s really essential to continue to enjoy life and do the things that you like to do. Of course, always doing so in a safe fashion and always check with your physicians about any restrictions related to the type of treatment you might be on.

Katherine: 

Why is it so important for patients to partner with their physician on their care decisions?

Dr. Roesch:  

I would say it is very beneficial when patients are engaged in their own care and treatment plan. I often have patient that will come to our clinic visit and have a detailed list of questions for me, and I love this. I think it is empowering for patients to understand and be involved in the development of their treatment plan. This type of interaction also really helps to foster a relationship between patients and their oncology providers.

Katherine:  

And what about patients who don’t feel comfortable being their own advocate? Do you have any advice for them?

Dr. Roesch: 

For patients who maybe have difficulty speaking up or self-advocating, I think a strong support system can be very helpful in this case. This can also be helpful for patients who are comfortable advocating for themselves. It can be helpful to identify others who are close to you, who can help relay any concerns or issues that may arise.

There are also support groups and an entire network of resources within the cancer center that are available to our patients.

Katherine:

Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Roesch, and sharing this valuable information.

Dr. Roesch:  

Happy to be here, thank you.

Katherine:  

And, thank you to our listeners for joining us.  This has been Empowered, a podcast by the Patient Empowerment Network.

I’m Katherine Banwell.


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December 2020 Notable News

This month there is a lot of promising news giving hope to the possibility of a brighter, better new year. A better understanding of why humans are prone to advanced cancers and more knowledge about obesity as a risk factor, coupled with advances in targeted therapies and combinations of medications to better treat myeloid leukemias, breast cancer, and get the immune cells involved are all helping to bring about better treatments and outcomes for cancer patients. However, the technology used to create the vaccine for the novel coronavirus Covid-19, that dominated the year and changed the world for us all, just may be the biggest game changer of all. It could revolutionize the way we treat cancers and many other diseases.

The Covid-19 vaccines use a technology that could lead to managing other diseases, like cancer and heart disease, reports bloomberg.com. The technology, called mRNA therapeutics, uses messenger RNA in the vaccines to turn the body’s immune system into a factory with the healthy cells producing viral proteins that create a strong immune response. The approach has never-before been used outside of clinical experiments, and many researchers are stunned by how well it works. Cancer researchers have been studying the technology for 20 years, and the vaccine was able to be created so quickly due to what they knew from working on developing cancer vaccines. These vaccines could lead to a whole new field of medicine, with mRNA drugs for treating cancer expected to be approved in two or three years. It’s possible all infectious disease vaccines will use the technology in the next ten to 20 years, as the method is faster and cheaper than current options. The hope is to use mRNA to create flu vaccines, heart failure treatments, an HIV vaccine, and much more. Learn more about the exciting mRNA possibilities here.

When compared to our closest cousin, the chimpanzee, humans have a high risk of developing advanced cancers, and researchers now think they know why, says sciencedaily.com. New research shows that there is an evolutionary genetic mutation that is unique to humans. The SIGLEC12 gene was eliminated by the body because it lost its ability to distinguish between self and invading microbes. However, it’s not completely gone from the population, and it can be a problem for the 30 percent of people who still produce SIGLEC12 proteins. Those people, when compared to people who don’t produce the proteins, are at more than twice the risk of developing an advanced cancer during their lifetimes. Researchers are hoping to use the information to help determine who is most likely to get advanced cancers, and have developed a simple urine test to detect the proteins. Learn more about this evolutionary snafu here.

In another story about cancer risk from sciencedaily.com, researchers better understand the relationship between obesity and cancer. Obesity is linked to increased risk for more than a dozen types of cancer, as well as a worse prognosis and chance of survival. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have discovered that obesity provides the right environment for cancer cells to take fuel away from cancer-fighting T cells. Cancer cells respond to increased fat availability by reprograming themselves to eat fat molecules and thus deprive T cells of fuel. Get more information here.

When it comes to treating cancer, better therapies are discovered all the time, and now researchers have found a new class of targeted cancer drugs that may effectively treat some common types of leukemia, reports medicalxpress.com. The drugs target and eliminate leukemia cells with TET2 mutations, which are one of the most common mutations found in myeloid leukemias. The findings show that a synthetic molecule called TETi76 can target and kill cancer cells in both early and fully developed phases of leukemia and may be more effective than current targeted therapies. Find out more here.

Speaking of more effective treatments, it turns out that some women with breast cancer might not have to undergo chemotherapy for treatment, reports nih.gov. Initial results from a clinical trial show that postmenopausal women with hormone receptor (HR)-positive, human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER 2)-negative breast cancer that has spread to one to three lymph nodes and has a low risk of recurrence won’t benefit from adding chemotherapy to hormone therapy. The trial also showed that premenopausal women with the same HR-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer characteristics did benefit from chemotherapy. The trial was made up of more than 9,000 women who were monitored for an average of five years and will continue to be followed, so more insights about breast cancer are expected to come out of the trial. Get more information about the trial here.

Another advancement in breast cancer treatment was reported by cancernetwork.com. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved margetuximab-cmkb (Margenza) in combination with chemotherapy to treat patients with metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer who have received 2 or more prior anti-HER2 regimens. A study showed a 24 percent reduction in the risk of disease progression or death. More information is available here.

Immunotherapies have helped change the way many cancers are treated, and the process is still evolving. Researchers at Purdue University have created a new immunotherapy treatment, reports purdue.edu. The new treatment focuses on the immune system and has been shown to work in six different tumor types by reprograming the immune cells within the tumor to kill the tumor rather than giving it the chance to grow. The technique could be used to treat many types of cancers because the nonmalignant immune cells that are in the different types of tumors tend to be similar. Folate, a type of vitamin B, is used to deliver the anti-cancer drugs to the cells. The new therapy could be available within ten years. Learn more about the new therapy here.

Immunotherapies used to treat advanced cancers don’t always work for everyone, but now researchers have found that two cholesterol lowering drugs might improve the effectiveness of these therapies, reports cancer.gov. Studies show that when evolocumb (Repatha) and alirocumab (Praluent) are used on their own and in combination with immune checkpoint inhibitors, they slowed the growth of tumors. The drugs, approved by the FDA since 2015 are considered safe, can be taken at home, and are less expensive than many cancer therapies. Learn more here.

Breast Cancer Research News: SABCS Conference Highlights

Breast Cancer Research News: SABCS Conference Highlights from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Expert Dr. Megan Kruse shares highlights from the 2020 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS). Dr. Kruse provides an overview of what this news means for early stage breast cancer patients, along with her optimism about the future of breast cancer research and treatment.

Dr. Megan Kruse is a Breast Medical Oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. More about this expert here.

See More From The Pro-Active Breast Cancer Patient Toolkit

Related Resources:

 

Transcript:

Dr. Kruse:                   

The San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium is a national meeting with international presence that combines all of the latest data from research on breast cancer topics. It involves clinical research, basic science research, a lot of patient, and patient advocate support.

And the idea here is to bring together all the different disciplines that are involved in breast cancer patient care and do the best information and knowledge sharing that we can each year.

This year’s San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium brought us a lot of interesting research focusing on early-stage breast cancer patients. I think the most important presentations that were given had to do with the treatment of high-risk lymph node-positive hormone receptor-positive breast cancer patients. And these were really across three abstracts. The first abstract of interest was the Monarch E study, which looked at high-risk women with hormone receptor-positive HER2-negative breast cancer and optimizing their medical therapy.

So, these patients are typically treated with anti-estrogen therapy and the idea of the research that was presented was if the addition of a targeted medication called abemaciclib or Verzenio could help to improve outcomes for women in this population. And what the trial found was that for women who took their anti-estrogen therapy for the usual length of time but added the abemaciclib for the first two years of that anti-estrogen therapy that there is actually an improvement in cancer-free survival time or an improvement in cure rates. And this was important because these women may not benefit from chemotherapy, as we’ll talk about in another abstract.

An addition research presentation that was given that goes alongside of the monarch E study was that of the Penelope B study. And the Penelope B took a similar population to what was studied in Monarch E. So, again high-risk women with lymph node-positive, hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer; however, in Penelope B, all of these patients had received pre-surgery chemotherapy.

And in order to qualify for the trial, the patients had to have some cancer that remained in the breast or the lymph nodes that was taken out at the time of their surgery. So, these are patients clearly in which chemotherapy did not do the whole job in terms of getting rid of the cancer. And again, the idea here was to add a second targeted therapy to the endocrine therapy to see if that would improve cancer-free time for patients in this population. The difference in this study was that the partner targeted therapy that was used was a drug called palbociclib or Ibrance.

And the drug was actually only used for one year in combination with endocrine therapy rather than two years as was used in the Monarch E study with abemaciclib. Interestingly enough, the Penelope B study was a negative study, meaning that it did not improve the cancer-free survival time for women who took the endocrine therapy plus targeted therapy compared to women who took the endocrine therapy alone.

So, I think that these are two interesting studies that one should look at together. And clearly, may impact what we do for the treatment of high-risk hormone receptor-positive women moving forward. The third abstract that I’d like to touch on that I think was important for women with early-stage breast cancer is the RxPONDER study, also known as SWOG 1007. And this study again was looking at lymph node-positive, hormone receptor-positive HER2-negative breast cancer patients and seeing if the addition of chemotherapy helped to improve their cancer-free survival compared to anti-estrogen therapy alone.

And so, in this study, while the study population was all women with early-stage breast cancer, meeting the one to three lymph node-positive criteria, you really have to break the results down into the results for pre-menopausal women and the results for post-menopausal women.

Because overall the study really showed no significant benefit to chemotherapy on top of endocrine therapy for women in this population; however, we did see that there was a clear benefit for women who were pre-menopausal. So, the women who had no benefit from chemotherapy were largely those who were post-menopausal, while those who were pre-menopausal derived extra benefit from chemo on top of anti-estrogen therapy. And that benefit depended on what the Oncotype recurrent score was.

With women that had the lowest of the recurrent scores having a chemo benefit of about three percent going up to over five percent for women who had Oncotype recurrent scores in the mid-teens to 25 range. In both of these groups, women who had Oncotype scores of 26 or above would have chemotherapy as per our standard of care.

So, I think that this abstract is important because in the past women who had lymph node-positive breast cancer generally received chemotherapy no matter what. More recently we’ve understood that not all of these cancers are created equal and that some cancers may not actually have benefit from chemotherapy in terms of improving cure rate. So, this study is a big step forward to help individualize and specify the treatment for women with lymph node-positive, hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative early breast cancer.

I’ve very hopeful about the research that is going to lead to new developments for breast cancer treatment in the next few years.

I think what we’ve seen both at this San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium as well as other conferences in the recent past has been a lot of focus on finding the right treatment for the right patient at the right time. And so, patients seem to be very interested in finding out this information. They often come to clinic armed with the most recent data, which allows their providers to have really informed discussions about what the best treatment might be. And to talk about if the new treatments are not great right now, what treatments might look like in the future.

I think the other thing that’s encouraging about the research that we’ve seen presented at this conference is that some of these trials are very, very large. For example, the RxPONDER trial was a trial of over 9,000 patients. And I really think that’s amazing to get that many patients interested in research that may not directly impact their patient care but will impact the care of others moving forward.                                   

It’s just a sign that our breast cancer patients are empowered, and they want to make a difference in the scientific community as a whole.

 

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Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Its Many Shades of Pink (and Blue)

We are more than half-way through Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) – 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.” 

“BCAM is a 2-sided coin in our community,” states Jean Rowe, Director of Support and Provider Engagement at The Young Survival Coalition. On the one hand, she explains, celebrating successful treatment outcomes and raising awareness is important, but “on the other side, expectations that come with the pink ribbon in October can be overwhelming, isolating, infuriating and bewildering.” 

The pink ribbon, so long a symbol of breast cancer awareness and support, has become for many a symbol of what’s missing from the BCAM narrative.  When I first pinned a pink ribbon on myself,  I was newly diagnosed with breast cancer. Back then, I felt that wearing a ribbon was a symbol of solidarity, and I wore it proudly. Looking back, I now see that my view of breast cancer was one-dimensional. Standing today on the other side of cancer I see a broader picture, a richer landscape of many shades beyond pink.

A Whiter Shade of Breast Cancer

For Siobhan Freeney breast cancer is not pink. “When I see pink I’m reminded of all things feminine, “ she says. “My delayed breast cancer diagnosis resulted in a mastectomy. There’s nothing feminine or pink about that. I see breast cancer as the elusive ‘snowball in a snowstorm’ because my breast cancer, all seven centimeters of it, was missed on consecutive mammogram screenings. I know now that I had extremely dense breasts, this caused a masking effect – white on white.”

Breast Cancer Shaded Blue

Much of the criticism of BCAM centers on breast cancer campaigns which over-sexualize 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 trivialization and sexualization 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.” 

Ritchie suggests “adding some blue to the pink, encouraging research on us, and screening those with a genetic propensity. Reminding the community that this is a genderless disease will give us a chance to receive an early diagnosis and therefore a better prognosis. We deserve equality.”

Metastatic Breast Cancer: The Other Side of BCAM

Learning about metastatic breast cancer (MBC, also called stage 4, secondary breast cancer (SBC) or advanced breast cancer) from online blogs and social media networks was revelatory for me. As Lisa de Ferrari points out, “although breast cancer has been commercialized and is often presented in a way that seems to minimize the seriousness of the disease, the reality is that deaths from this disease remain extremely high.”

MBC has been referred to as a story half-told, the other side of BCAM we don’t hear enough about. “Every Breast Cancer Awareness Month the huge focus is on awareness of primary disease. There has been little focus on secondary breast cancer and the only day for awareness is 13th October,“ points out Jo Taylor. “Awareness of SBC needs to be across the whole month.”

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.”

How To Honor All Sides of the BCAM Coin

This article is not meant in any way as a criticism of those for whom wearing a pink ribbon is  meaningful. I  am grateful that the original pink ribbon movement has brought breast cancer out of the dark ages when it was taboo to even mention the words “breast cancer” aloud.  However, time has moved on, and it is time to challenge the singular narrative of breast cancer as a female only disease wrapped up prettily in a pink ribbon. 

So to quote, Gayle A. Sulik, a medical sociologist, and author of Pink Ribbon Blues,  “this is not a condemnation of anyone who finds meaning in the ribbon or public events. It is a call to broaden the discussion, re-orient the cause toward prevention and life-saving research, and acknowledge the unintended consequences of commercialization, festive awareness activities, and the lack of evidence-based information that makes its way to the public.”

It’s important to honor your feelings and emotions at this time. If you want to celebrate BCAM, celebrate; if you want to sit out this month or use it as an opportunity to educate others in a different way, then do that. In the words of Rowe, “Everyone gets to experience BCAM the way in which they need and want to.”

However, I will add to this that whichever way you choose to honor this month, be more questioning. As MBC patient advocate Abigail Johnston says, “ask if the pink ribbon represents the community you are trying to reach before using it automatically. Be open to understanding that not everyone identifies with the same images and concepts.”

Perhaps consider wearing the more inclusive green and teal ribbon designed by METAvivor. To highlight the uniqueness of the disease and show its commonality with other stage 4 cancers, METAvivor designed a base ribbon of green and teal to represent metastasis. “Green represents the triumph of spring over winter, life over death, and symbolizes renewal, hope, and immortality while teal symbolizes healing and spirituality. The thin pink ribbon overlay signifies that the metastatic cancer originated in the breast.”

Also use this month as an opportunity to broaden your understanding of breast cancer awareness. In the words of Terri Coutee, founder of DiepCFoundation,  “Without the metastatic community, I cannot understand, learn, or appreciate their experience of living with breast cancer. The men in the breast cancer space who are living with or have been treated with this disease have amplified their voices over the years to level the breast cancer awareness campaign to let us all know, breast cancer does not discriminate.”

Above all, don’t let breast cancer awareness in all its many shades be for one month alone. “When I began my advocacy, I hopped on the October bandwagon to bring awareness to a disease that has affected me, my own family, and dear friends too often, “ says Terri. “ Now, I look at it as only one month out of a year we need to bring awareness to latest studies in oncology, clinical trials, surgical best practices, emotional recovery, support, all mixed in with a bit of gratitude for the friends I’ve made along the way and to mourn those I have lost.”

What Do Breast Cancer Patients Need to Know About COVID?

What Do Breast Cancer Patients Need to Know About COVID? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Due to COVID-19, many patients with breast cancer have faced new challenges when it comes to receiving care. Dr. Lisa Flaum addresses precautions when receiving care, and the role of telemedicine in virtual care. 

Dr. Lisa Flaum is a Medical Oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Flaum:                  

Right, so COVID has introduced challenges for all of us, for cancer patients specifically. However, we have not typically altered our recommendations for appropriately treating patients based on COVID. So, any of the treatments that would be appropriate are still appropriate, and for most patients, I’m recommending that they follow the guidelines that they are likely following otherwise. I think that a lot of the precautions that are put in place from a COVID standpoint, which are people are washing their hands, and sanitizing, and wearing masks, and keeping distance, and not socializing and big crowds, all of those things are already helping our patients and certainly prevent COVID, but also prevent all the normal stuff that people are typically exposed to when they’re going through a cancer diagnosis.

What I tell people is that they’re already probably going above and beyond what we would have recommended in a normal setting of metastatic cancer. Although they’re likely at a little higher risk, depending on what they’re receiving, than the general population, for the most part, patients have done well and we have not seen an excess number of COVID cases in our patient population. Again, it’s likely because people are doing the right things anyway, COVID or not COVID, and certainly regardless of their cancer diagnosis.

I guess the one change or the changes that we’ve made is implementing a little more tele-medicine versus in person visits when it’s appropriate. So, there are things that we can accomplish over the phone in terms of managing side effects and asking how patients are doing.

Obviously we can’t do an exam, we can’t do imaging, but a number of things can take place over the phone and we’ve made accommodations in terms of some of that to allow for patients to stay out of the hospital setting as much as possible.

In some situations, it has impacted decision making if there’s a choice between one treatment and another, and one is more aggressive or more suppressing of the immune system, if you’re going to weigh the normal pros and cons and we’re always going to throw COVID into the mix. Well, if you’ve got this particular treatment, your immune system shouldn’t be as suppressed, you don’t have to come in as often, you don’t require an IV. So, the variables definitely come into play, but certainly COVID doesn’t prohibit us from choosing any given option, but it affects some of the discussion in most cases.

Are You Prepared for Your Breast Cancer Appointment? Expert Tips.

Are You Prepared for Your Breast Cancer Appointment? Expert Tips. from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Could you be better prepared for your breast cancer appointment? Breast cancer specialist, Dr. Lisa Flaum reviews helpful tools that can help ensure patients get the most out of their doctor visit.

Dr. Lisa Flaum is a Medical Oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Flaum:                  

I think they should think ahead of time about what issues are most important to them, have a list of questions, whatever they might be. And hopefully, our job, if we’re doing it well, is to answer the questions that the patients don’t even necessarily know to ask. So, I think that the important thing is not so much a specific question, but getting your questions answered, sort of walking out of that initial visit at least with a preliminary understanding of what your diagnosis is, what the implications are, what the decision making is regarding treatment. And understanding why your doctor is choosing the treatment that they’re choosing or recommending and what your alternatives are.

And I think knowing what the balance is. So, not just, okay, you’re choosing this because you think it’s most effective, but then how do you balance it with quality of life, with side effects, and with all the other variables that go into that choice. Patients have different perspectives in terms of how much information they want, in terms of the bigger picture. Do people want information about prognosis? Is that even answerable at an initial visit? So, a lot of it differs in terms of what the patient’s desires are and where you are in the workup to know how best to answer those as well.

The other thing I would say about preparation for a visit is, it’s important to have someone with you, either in-person or remotely given the circumstances. So, an initial visit with a medical oncologist can be overwhelming and having a second set of ears and eyes and someone to take notes so you can listen, is really helpful. Because often patients walk out of that visit forgetting everything that was said, or at least not comprehending all of it immediately. So, always having another set of ears or eyes listening is really important.

Should You See a Breast Cancer Specialist?

Should You See a Breast Cancer Specialist? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

As breast cancer treatment options continue to expand, it’s important to partner with a physician who is up to date on the latest developments. Dr. Lisa Flaum explains why patients should consider seeking a specialist and obtaining a second opinion.

Dr. Lisa Flaum is a Medical Oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Flaum:                  

So, in terms of who you should see as a medical oncologist and whether you need a breast cancer-specific specialist. I do think it’s a good idea for the majority of patients do at least have an opinion with someone who specializes in breast cancer. Increasingly, cancer diagnoses of all kinds, and breast cancer specifically is becoming more complex. There’s a lot of variables that guide treatment, and it’s important to have someone on board who’s up to date on the latest knowledge treatments, clinical trials if indicated.

Sometimes it makes sense to see a breast cancer specialist, but potentially get your care with whoever is more easily accessible in terms of an oncologist closer to home, if that makes sense. But to at least start with an opinion by someone, from someone who specializes in breast cancer.

I think the patients should seek a second opinion when they think it’s appropriate. And it’s often appropriate; even if it’s just for peace of mind to know that what you’re hearing from your initial visit is, if there’s agreement amongst specialists. Most doctors, I can speak for myself personally, do not get their feelings hurt when someone asks for a second opinion and often I encourage it. I think it’s helpful from a patient peace of mind standpoint, and it’s even appropriate to ask your doctor if I’m going to seek a second opinion, is there somewhere you would recommend that I go. I think it’s appropriate if you have a doctor in a community practice and they may have a referral system of who they would refer to.

And even then from an academic standpoint, if someone asks me where they could or would go for an opinion, I would recommend colleagues at other institutions who I think would be appropriate. So, I think you have to advocate for yourself. You have to do what’s best for you. And number one, I don’t think feelings will get hurt. And number two, I don’t think that’s the reason to not get the care that is appropriate.

How Can a Breast Cancer Psychologist Help You?

How Can a Breast Cancer Psychologist Help You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Kathleen Ashton shares advices for patients facing a breast cancer diagnosis, including tips for emotional coping, talking to friends and family, as well as utilizing support services.

Dr. Kathleen Ashton is a psychologist in the Breast Center, Digestive Disease and Surgery Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Ashton, here

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Metastatic Breast Cancer: Accessing the Best Treatment for YOU

Transcript:

Dr. Ashton:                

My name is Dr. Kathleen Ashton. I am a breast psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Breast Center.

So, I work with breast cancer patients in a number of different ways. I work with patients when they’re first diagnosed in terms of adjusting to their diagnosis and managing treatments. I work with long-term survivors of breast cancer who might be dealing with symptom management or the emotional after effects of their cancer. And then, I work with metastatic breast cancer patients as well. 

Some of the common fear is that breast cancer patients experience are progression. They worry about how their disease is going to affect their family. They might worry about managing symptoms like fatigue and pain. And they also worry about their quality of life and maintaining the things that are most important to them.

When I work with patients who are worried about how metastatic breast cancer is going to affect their life, I often use two specific types of therapy.

One is called cognitive behavioral therapy which deals with the different thoughts that a patient might be having about their breast cancer as well as the different behaviors they might engage in that either help them or hurt them with their emotions. And then, the second type of therapy I often use is called acceptance and commitment therapy. And in particular, for metastatic breast cancer patients, this is a really helpful type of therapy that focuses on values, what gives people meaning in life, and whether their actions are in line with their values.

When metastatic breast cancer patients come to me for advice, one of the first things I usually tell them is that metastatic breast cancer is an emotional roller coaster.

There are ups and downs, there’s scans, there’s new types of treatment that they might be encountering and wondering about what the side effects are. So, what can be most helpful to those patients is really learning to stay in the present moment to, kind of, cope with things as they come and not look too far ahead, but also, be able to enjoy the moment that they’re going through.

When sharing their diagnosis with their family and friends, metastatic breast pit – breast cancer patients may experience just misunderstanding in what it means to have metastatic breast cancer. They may need to educate their family and friends that the goal of their treatment is often not a cure, but there are still treatments that can be helpful for them, and they can still maintain a good quality of life.

As a patient, if you’re interested in seeking a second opinion, it’s important to know that getting a second opinion is very normal with metastatic breast cancer. And your providers often are expecting this and would support that. So, just sharing with your provider your plan, the specific questions that you might have can help to facilitate communication between the two of you.

It’s important to know, as a breast cancer patient, that there are many resources to help deal with emotional issues. So, there are psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers who often have specific expertise in working with breast cancer patients. In addition, there are other resources such as cancer support communities, there are patient networks that help patients talk to each other.

There’s one called 4th Angel that we use a lot at the Cleveland Clinic that’s very helpful. And there’s alternative therapies as well, things like yoga, art therapy, music therapy that are all available to metastatic breast cancer patients.

When facing metastatic breast cancer, it’s important that patients know that they can lead meaningful lives, have close relationships, and have good quality of life. I also would add that, it’s important for them to know that mental health can be a part of their treatment team, that it’s common to have anxiety and depression, and just stress management concerns, and psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers all might be possibilities to add to their team to help them to have a good treatment outcome.

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.