If you have experienced persistent multi-year hot flashes upon reaching menopause, you might be facing a significant elevated breast cancer risk, according to recent research at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California. The study was described in a January 2019 Medscape article. This finding makes ongoing cancer screenings particularly important for menopausal women.
If you have a young smoker in your household, heads up: Despite information about the toxicity and addictive potential of all forms of smoking, the Centers for Disease Control report that youth smoking is on the rise, particularly in terms of e-cigarette usage. Around 40% of youth smokers are using more than one smoking product (that is, cigarettes plus vaping, for example). Youth smoking has risen fast enough in the past few months that the FDA has declared it to be an epidemic and is considering taking vaping products off the market.
According to STAT News (January 9, 2019), the most recent data from the American Cancer Society (ACS) reveal that the U.S. cancer death rate declined 27% between 1991 and 2016. While cancer still remains as the second highest cause of death, reduced smoking and gains in early detection have combined with new treatments to fuel that drop.
The good news includes a narrowing in racial disparities. Yet the ACS anticipates over 1.7 million new U.S. cancer cases in 2019, with more than 600,000 deaths. Mortality associated with cancers that relate to obesity (pancreatic, liver, and uterine) have risen, and lung and pancreatic cancers continue to have high mortality because of problems detecting them early. Liver cancer incidence early in this period was triggered by opiod abuse and hepatitis C infections, but obesity has become the prmary driver of this particular cancer.
For men diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer that hasn't spread, the choice of whether to watch-and-wait, have surgery, or implant radioactive seeds can be a real dilemma. A relatively new online tool can help understand the choices that many other men have made. The tool is based on medical records of over 5,000 men and was validated with more than 2,500 patients with new diagnoses. It was demonstrated to have remarkable accuracy and to be a productive tool to help men prepare for the treatment choice discussion with their urologist. The highlighted article provides more information and a link to find the tool.
A breast cancer diagnosis is disturbing enough, but when you're told you have the BRCA1 gene, it's nothing short of terrifying. Apparently Myriad Genetics has had a huge BRCA1 data base for years and refused to share its contents with other researchers. Now a breakthrough study at the University of Washington has revealed that among all of the possible BRCA1 mutations, certain ones are far more risky than others and are more likely to warrant prophylactic surgery. If your family history gives you concern, take a look at this study and use it in conversation with your medical team. In particular:
"By deliberately causing every possible mutation of the kind that occurs most commonly in BRCA1, and tracking how cells growing in lab dishes respond, scientists at the University of Washington determined which mutations are pathogenic and which are benign, they reported on Wednesday in the journal Nature. They also made that call for more than 2,000 variants whose health consequences have been unknown, a breakthrough that promises to spare thousands of women the anxiety of not knowing if their BRCA1 variant is a ticking time bomb or nothing to worry about."
Take a look!
The FDA announced in September its commitment to force manufacturers of E-cigarettes to control youth access to their products, which are becoming almost epidemic in their impacts on teens. That action includes both financial penalties on manufacturers and retailer point-of-purchase controls, as well as inclusion of E-cigarettes in FDA youth tobacco control plans.
The press release says, in particular: "One aspect of the agency’s plan will entail increased enforcement. The more than 1,300 warning letters and fines to retailers announced today were part of a large-scale, undercover nationwide blitz to crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors at both brick-and-mortar and online retailers, which was conducted from June through the end of August. The vast majority of the violations were for the illegal sale of five e-cigarette products – Vuse, Blu, JUUL, MarkTen XL, and Logic. These five brands currently comprise over 97 percent of the U.S. market for e-cigarettes."
This is an important milestone in the control of nicotine-delivery devices.
There are lots of resoruces about smoking cessation that can be helpful. The challenge today is to stop smoking and prevent nicotine addiction as early as possible, among teens and young adults. I've come across a new resource available online through a private faith-based university, Maryville University, which is offered as part of their health professions curriculum. The pamphlet focuses on smoking among college students. Posting the document here does not in any way represent an endorsement of their educational offerings, but it represents a sharing of a useful document that they have produced.
Recently research (summarized in the New England Journal of Medicine) has revealed that less invasive cervical cancer surgery is not a good idea. Rates of recurrence are significantly higher than those for the total hysterectomy surgery that has been the recommended approach for many years. In addition, survival rates are significantly lower. If you're dealing with even an early cervical cancer diagnosis, it's worth reading up on the options and their implications.
The Washington Post details the latest actions being planned at the FDA to take on vaping, which is a growing threat for young adults. It's also limiting where e-cigarettes may be sold. That's good news for all of us who are worried about addiction to nicotine products and their health implications.
Apparently Juul is getting concerned enough about pressure against its vaping products that it is offering to pay schools to blame the rise in vaping on teen peer pressure and not on addiction. The company is creating "educational" materials and offering them, together with financial compensation, to schools to include in their health curricula. This is shocking. Take a look at the article and see for yourself.
Cancer researchers have for a long time confronted a dilemma: each patient's personal medical data is private and confidential, owned by the patient but stored in his medical records. Yet progress in solving cancer's most complex puzzles, at the cell biology and genomics level, depends on researchers being able to use "big data" (huge computer processing capabilities) in sorting through large quantities of patient data. Now, using data that are separated from patient identifiers, a nonprofit exists that allows patients to opt in to share their data in the interests of medical discovery.
The Boston Globe (October 19, 2018) described the formation and early success of Count Me In, which was founded by a collaboration among Emerson Collective (a California-based social change organization) and three prestigious cancer research nonprofits (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Biden Cancer Initiative, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute). If you are or have been in treatment for cancer, you may want to check out this organization. It looks like a responsible and productive way to share your data in a confidential but potentially useful manner that may help resolve some of cancer's most intractable questions.
The blessing of cancer research is that new treatments are being discovered, but the curse is that they grow ever more costly. Statistics show that the financial impact of cancer treatments can be devastating for caregivers and their loved ones. This becomes even more critical in an environment where healthcare insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions and Medicare / Medicaid insurance are being threatened by an Administration that's lacking in the combination of compassion and common sense. For cancer patients and caregivers, it's important to ensure that you ask the right questions about the costs of treatments and ask cancer centers for suggestions of where to find funding support.
The New York Times explained the dymanics of cancer's financial toxicity in October 2018.
I'll be seeking more financial support resources to post on this website's Resources page.
E-cigarettes (vaping) have become a legitimate anti-cancer target. The chemicals in the vapor can be as addictive as those in cigarettes, and they can have a dangerous impact on our youth. Here's the latest, from the Washington Post.
A new approach to breast reconstruction after mastectomy is described in the New York Times and offers useful information for women who are about to undergo this surgical procedure. Unlike traditional techniques, which inserted the implant under pectoral muscles and engendered ongoing pain and discomfort, this approach is said to be significantly more patient-friendly. If you're considering the alternatives, this could be "must" reading.
More on e-cigarettes and vaping: "A study of saliva samples from a small group of electronic-cigarette users confirmed that vaping produces chemicals capable of damaging DNA and potentially increasing cancer risk." If you or a loved one is vaping, this is worth a read.
The Washington Post is reporting that use of E-cigarette products by kids has grown exponentially, and the FDA is taking action to enforce restrictions on their sale to minors, calling their use an "epidemic." The tobacco wars have been ongoing for years, but this marks an important milestone for the agency.
An article from the Washington Post helps explain not just the health consequences, but the financial consequences of surviving pediatric cancer. It certainly beats the alternative, but it's a big patient support issue that professional cancer caregivers and medical institutions have yet to address appropriately.
The FDA, in April, indicated that if kids' access to e-cigarettes isn't curtailed, they will further constrain adults' access to vaping. This article lays out the FDA message.
Several months ago, the American Cancer Society (ACS) issued a statement that vaping is acceptable as an aid to stop smoking, but that it is harmful in and of itself if continued and, worse, if used as an accessory to cigarette smoking. This article may prove useful if you're in a quandry about what to do. Yet other preliminary research information suggests that vaping is not an effective smoking cessation tool.
There's a lot of research underway to attack pancreatic cancer, one of the most difficult to treat. For those who are in treatment for "resectable" pancreatic cancer (that means operable), there is a new post-surgery treatment that appears to lengthen lifespan in a meaningful way. Hopefully this is only the beginning of a new wave of progress in treating this nasty form of cancer.
Cancer research is making great strides toward breakthroughs, but the costs can be alarming. The most current wordof miraculous progress comes through an early June Washington Post article. This article offers hope, although the costs are overwhelming. It's a sign of progress.
Even for those who have health insurance, financial issues associated with cancer treatment can be overwhelming. A very useful article ran on April 27, 2018 in the New York Times about the need for a patient's bill of rights. If you're entering into cancer treatment, you might want to read this article to get a feel for questions you should ask before committing to a course of action. You can't avoid all of the hazards, but it may help you to know your choices more clearly before the fact.
When cancer seems to run in the family, it's natural to worry about whether you're carrying a gene (BRCA 1 or 2) that increases the probability of your being diagnosed with breast cancer. Recently a consumer test has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but it's not all that you might hope for. There are over 1,000 genetic mutations that could lead to breast cancer, but the new test only identifies the presence of three of them. These are not the only BRCA-related mutations, and they only relate to a small proportion of breast cancer patients.
The moral is to be careful and know what you're buying if you decide to invest in such a test. Easy doesn't necessarily mean that it will give you a clear direction on your own probability of a breast cancer diagnosis.
Proton Beam therapy is the gold standard for particular kinds of cancers, especially for children (whose tissue growth could be damaged by excess radiation) and adults with cancers in spots (like head, neck, and left breast) where precision is required in radiation delivery to minimize damage to critical organs. It's a technology that allows the bulk of the delivered radiation to be deposited into the tumor itself, with far less damage to surrounding tissues than traditional radiation, which goes completely through the body and often damages tissues on the other side of the tumor. The equipment is enormous and is installed in a multi-story building, partly underground, which can feel intimidating. The Washington Post has a useful article explaing how it works and giving insights about why it's effective. If you're receiving or have been offered proton beam therapy, this article migiht prove enlightening.
Hospice care is available after you receive a medical diagnosis that a patient has less than six months to live. It represents a cessation of curative treatment and intensifying of palliative care to keep the patient comfortable during his or her final months, weeks, or days.
Hospice can be a Godsend to patients and their caregivers. It helps manage physical needs while preparing the family for imminent loss. The combination of physical and psychological support can prove invaluable if you know what questions to ask and what to expect. As in other stages of cancer care, expectations must be managed.
In-home hospice medical services are generally delivered by a team of nurses, interchanging roles from day to day. It’s important to have a case manager and to ensure that there is a seamless transition from one person to another in terms of hand-offs and continuity of care. The care team manages medications, pain and anxiety relief, bowel care, hydration, and general physical well-being for bed-bound patients.
Psychological services vary, depending on the family structure. At times social workers can help families to have difficult conversations about the dying process and help manage patient and family expectations. For many, such conversations are both memorable and soothing in the aftermath.
Let’s take them one at a time.
Regarding physical care, Deborah’s husband was unclear how hospice would work. He had cared for her during her nine-month rapid decline from inoperable lung cancer. (She had never smoked.) As he reflected on the experience six weeks after her death, he knew he was having different caregivers each day but afterward he realized he had assumed that the hospice team would coordinate among themselves in addressing whatever physical and medical issues needed attention.
After Deborah experienced predictable and preventable bed sores and bowel-care issues that weren’t handled until they became serious, he realized that no one had actually been in charge and that there had been little coordination among caregivers. Reality is that you have a choice of hospice providers, and asking how coordination is handled should be an important of your hospice decision.
Psychological support is a second important hospice component, especially when children are involved. For some, it’s about end-of-life conversations, and for others (like Artie’s grandchildren) it’s about knowing what to expect as your loved one is dying and creating memories and objects that will remind you and the children of their loved one.
Conversations are opportunities to learn and to share in ways that will pay back after the patient dies.
For example, for Doug’s mom, one of the most important conversations with her dying son was in response to her question, “How would you like to be remembered?” That conversation allowed them to create a family foundation in his memory, for adolescent cancer patients.
When John’s daughter asked him what he expected after he died, his response was memorable: “I’ll always be there, but you just won’t see me. When the sun is out, it will just be me breaking into your world.” She still says there are days when she feels his presence more than others, many years after he died.
Artie’s grandchildren still have a mobile that a social worker helped them make, so the sound would remind them of him every time a breeze jostles it. They also saved and still have his pillow case for when they want to comfort themselves recollecting his presence.
Sometimes the combination of physical and psychological services works better than others. For Deborah’s husband, hospice social workers and nurses didn’t manage his expectations or help him create the moment to say goodbye.
Early on in her illness, even though they knew her cancer was inoperable and likely terminal, they were devoted to praying and hoping for a miracle. Thinking back, he says that saying goodbye or leaving notes or recordings for the family might have felt like being unfaithful to their hopes and prayers. Then, when the transition came to hospice, she took a sudden turn for the worse and couldn’t communicate any longer.
“I know that my hardest days are when I trick myself into thinking that somewhere I will find a note from her. I have torn the house apart looking, and even though intellectually I know it is probably not to be found, emotionally I am destroyed by my desire to hear from her. . . . I tore the house apart looking. I found pages of notes written to God asking for healing and telling him she didn’t want to go, but I haven’t found anything written to me. Because she turned from well to debilitated so fast, she never did say goodbye.
"Patients need to be encouraged to say goodbye before they become too ill to do so, even if it turns out to be like the Rolling Stones Farewell Tour, which, I think, has been underway for over 20 years!”
Hospice can be a gift if you use it wisely, and hospice at home can relieve stress and residual PTSD for patient, family, and friends. When you move a loved one into hospice care, ask lots of questions, both about services that will be provided and how they'll be coordinated among care team members and about what to expect as your loved one’s health deteriorates.