Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day – Every Day and every October 13

MetsDay13We all know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. There’s pink everywhere and all sorts of breast cancer awareness campaigns. In 2009 Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) got one day for awareness. Thanks to the efforts of 9 metastatic patients and countless others, they got congress to designate October 13th as Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day.  It’s a start. “Breast Cancer Awareness” without “Mets Awareness” is not awareness at all. Now we need everyone to be aware of MBC all year-long. Every day should be Metastatic Breast Cancer Day.

Ribbon_whitelinedpinkwashingpicEspecially in October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month) there have been lots of questioning of the words, the color and what really matters. There’s frustration in the breast cancer community because breast cancer has been painted with survivors and death rates trending in a favorable direction. Sadly when it comes to MBC and death rates we haven’t come very far.

For example in the United States alone in 1991 there were about 112 deaths from breast cancer a day. This year there are about 108 deaths a day in the US. While those 4 lives a day are very important people I don’t think that in over 20 years preventing 4 deaths a day is tremendous progress in this country. There are about 155,000 people living with MBC in the US a year. There are almost 40,000 deaths a year from MBC in the US and around 400 of these deaths are men.

545527_494545153891973_631458727_aAlmost 30% of all breast cancers become metastatic. Some start out with “mets” (about 6-10% of cases) but if you get breast cancer at an earlier stage there’s up to a 30% chance that you will become metastatic. Those who have MBC know this. We still don’t know the cause of many breast cancers and we also don’t know why breast cancer patients become metastatic.

MBC_Infographic_01_v14There is no cure for MBC. There are many drugs that can extend lives for years, but treatment is life long switching from drugs that work for a period of time until a drug no longer works. Every case is different and there are different types with some types more difficult to treat than others.

What we do know is that MBC kills very special people. When it comes to breast cancer, people’s stories paint the picture of what happens with this disease. One of them was my fearless friend Li Bailey. In our world of social media very few people knew her. She didn’t have a blog, Facebook page or Twitter account. She had Triple Negative (TNBC) MBC and there were fewer options for her treatment. She knew every detail of her case, and was a very sharp ePatient.

Li and I went through our primary chemo together at the same time. We got together a lot as friends and it was a relief that I wasn’t bald alone. We learned so much about breast cancer together. I had a local recurrence. Today I am NED (no evidence of disease). She had a mets recurrence on her birthday, February 19, 2009. She danced in to the light on January 6, 2012. She went through various treatment options that were wonderful when they worked. Having to change regimens is a harsh reality for anyone with mets. While my friend did not live as long as I would have liked with mets, there are so many cases with different outcomes. I have lots of friends that respond longer to treatments who are living with mets for a very long time.

Li had a wonderful ability of living in the moment with me on a great day. I’m not saying there weren’t some bad ones but we made a pact that on great ones we would be in the moment.

IMG_3171IMG_5232One of the best days was when Li got her dog Shelby as a puppy after we finished our primary chemo. I am so grateful that she chose me to take care of her dog. I loved visiting her and Shelby so many times. Shelby helps me every day keeping memories of Li alive. She is such a wonderful gift. I know Li would be proud of how well Shelby is doing, while she is a constant source of joy in my life.

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Li and all my mets sisters living and dying from MBC. I was very lucky that Li let me in to her life with mets and accepted my help. It’s so rewarding to able to help. Li helped me a lot too. She never missed being with me for my many surgeries and I was with her for hers. Having one day for MBC awareness is a start, but we have a long way to go and there should be many more days of awareness for MBC. As patient advocates we have to make metastatic research a priority. We must stop this terrible disease and prevent it from spreading to other organs. This research will hopefully lead to helping end all cancers.

Notes from Dr. Susan Love Speaking at the Summit

I really enjoyed hearing Dr. Susan Love speak at the Inaugural Advocate Leadership Summit. For starters it was such a thrill and so exciting to see her after knowing that she went through intense treatment including chemotherapy and surgery for leukemia. I always feel so uplifted when she talks about breast cancer and opens our minds to see things with a fresh perspective. She raised some great points. I took my notes and I hope I am reflecting what she spoke about in the best way possible to help others read what she had to say.

susan-love-cancer-20130213-001She spoke about breast cancer today, and the damage of treatment and over diagnosis. She said with our goal of finding every tumor even those that are just DCIS and have not progressed to cancer, is like the TSA screening. We are in a climate of over treatment where we tend to slash, burn and poison. Then when we have recurrences we have done so much treatment that it could reduce the treatment’s effectiveness. She acknowledges that doctors roles are to find things. Yet 29% of cancers would not kill. Only 20 -30% will become invasive. We over treat and over test. We are in a climate of more is better. We use MRI, PET CT, and Markers. All of this equals finding reasons for treatment. So we do surgery, radiation, chemo, and hormone targeted therapy.

Yet we never think of not doing a treatment or subtracting from a treatment plan. We just throw everything we can at whatever we find. She talked about how the oncotype dx and/or the mammaprint test at least looks at whether all of this treatment is necessary. She says none of this is malicious on the doctor’s part. It’s just that no one is looking at the big picture.

For example, when patients are diagnosed, they are scared. So they listen to their doctors and do what they are told. But with all of this treatment thrown on all the over diagnostic testing and never subtracting from the treatment especially at an early stage comes in a climate of intense fear. No one is ever told about the terrible toll side effects will play on the patient from all of this slash and burn treatment. There is a huge amount of collateral damage.

Oncotype_boxMammaPrint_posevnoHaving come from doing chemotherapy herself she understands how much this type of treatment takes its toll. Side effects are always down played. No one talks about the effect of AI’s or lymphedema. At least the oncotype dx test and mammaprint test looks at whether treatments might work. It would help us to know before treatment, what all these side effects were, whether all of this treatment is necessary and if every case warranted and needed all of this treatment. Also is all this treatment going to be effective or will it just overtax the body and mind? Is anyone looking at the big picture? Can we try to predict if someone will get lymphedema before we rush to do surgery?

With radiation there is skin damage. Treatment causes muscles to atrophy. Do we make all women wear a protective sleeve on an airplane? Do we let patients know that when we take breast tissue away that there will be no sensation left in the breast? Do we tell ahead of all the pain from surgery?

There is pain from surgery. There is collateral damage from all treatment. There’s numbness, muscle atrophy, skin changes, and heart disease. With all of this systematic therapy all things have side effects. The fatigue and chemobrain lasts for years. There’s heart disease from chemotherapy. Anthracyclines can cause leukemia. These things have lasting side effects. Fertility problems, joint problems, fractures and second cancers…all of these things are real. Treatment is not a free lunch.

chemodrip.jpg.pagespeed.ic.1vc9PB_Kv3When someone is triple negative at the beginning they can do well, but statistics show that triple negative breast cancer tends to recur early on. Other cancers tend to recur later while the patients are far away from all of this intense treatment. This is where prevention makes the most sense. If we can prevent the problem in the first place and knew what the real bugs in the breast were at the beginning wouldn’t we be better off? If we understood the environment before the problems took place and we had a vaccine to prevent these problems and we really understood how to keep a normal breast before we rush to all this treatment, wouldn’t that be a better approach? If we really looked at immunology, anatomy, physiology and found new clues and new ways to study DCIS before we rushed to throw everything in the kitchen sink on it, would we need surgery for DCIS? Could 3D ultrasound help with DCIS?

Ductal carcinoma in sity (DCIS)
Ductal carcinoma in sity (DCIS) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Instead of continuing to follow the things as they are, we at least owe it to ourselves to be asking these questions. Instead of rushing to treatment with DCIS would it be better to see carefully what was happening before we put a patient through these treatments that have collateral damage and side effects? Tamoxifen has a lot of side effects as well as AI’s.

At least by asking these questions and trying to prevent the problem with a vaccine we would be looking at everything we are doing and starting to come up with new ways of approaching the problem instead of just following the status quo of what we are doing. We need to do this so that we can avoid all of this collateral damage and also have these treatments available in case things progressed before someone has been so over treated that when they present with advanced disease all of this has been used and is no longer effective.

28627_119149311460178_7118937_aI also asked her whether by working on a vaccine to prevent breast cancer could we also apply using this for metastatic disease by injecting someone with a vaccine and being able to turn their disease around?  She very carefully admitted that this was not her expertise and that she had just finished treatments, but she did feel that there was nothing to prevent us from trying to make a vaccine that also tackled metastatic breast cancer. Whether or not this is feasible I do not know, but what I did appreciate was hearing her perspective after going through as much as she has been through, and I am so glad that she is part of the team of trying to find answers and look at new ways that we approach this terrible disease.

It’s so great to have her back with all of us, after her treatments. She is truly someone who I admire and knows so much about breast cancer and it’s amazing to see her post treatment with so much enthusiasm for getting back to work on all of these important issues revolved around breast cancer.

Dr. Susan Love, MD, MBA, FACS is a Clinical Professor of Surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and the President of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. She leads the Love/Avon Army of Women, an initiative partnering of women (and men) who are willing to participate in breast cancer research with scientists who are conducting research on the prevention of breast cancer. She is the author of “Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book,” which is in it’s 5th edition. Dr. Love is a founding member of NBCC and her foundation is represented on the Board of Directors of NBCC. She received her medical degree from SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York and did her surgical training at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital.

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After realizing that some people are not aware of the Oncotype DX test or the Mammaprint test, I went to their websites and here is the current information about the tests. Of course, always discuss this with your oncologist as this is only here to help those that don’t know the latest information about these tests that is available online.

According to the Oncotype DX website:

The Oncotype DX® test is a diagnostic test that helps identify which women with early-stage, estrogen-receptor positive and lymph-node-negative breast cancer are more likely to benefit from adding chemotherapy to their hormonal treatment. This test also helps assess the likelihood that an individual woman’s breast cancer will return. The Oncotype DX test provides important information that you and your doctor may use when making decisions about treatment. Post-menopausal women recently diagnosed with node-positive, hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer may also be appropriate candidates for the Oncotype DX test.

According to the MammaPrint website:

To be eligible for the MammaPrint gene expression profile, a breast cancer patient should fulfill the following criteria:

  • Breast Cancer Stage 1 or Stage 2
  • Invasive carcinoma (infiltrating carcinoma)
  • Tumor size <5.0 cm
  • Lymph node negative
  • Estrogen receptor positive (ER+) or Estrogen receptor negative (ER-)
  • Women of all ages

Hope from the NBCC Deadline 2020 Advocate Summit and Lobby Day

As I returned home from the NBCC (National Breast Cancer Coalition) Advocates Summit and Lobby Day to end Breast Cancer Deadline 2020, I was really happy I went. I have to admit I had so many reservations going. I labored over my decision. I thought I was going to fly home with “Frustration – Part Two.” There’s been a lot of people angry with the NBCC because of issues about putting MBC (Metastatic Breast Cancer) under the bus literally. My fearless friends have real reasons to be upset. Here is an organization that has educated so many women who have had to hear the words “You or a loved one has breast cancer.” They have an incredible program called Project LEAD which is an intensive six-day course teaching the science and very important advocate issues about breast cancer.

MusaSmI have learned a great deal from Project LEAD, LEADcasts, summits and attending Breast Cancer Symposiums that stemmed from first learning with the NBCC about breast cancer. Great scientists, researchers, doctors and leaders of breast cancer advocacy taught me the grim statistics that now in the US alone 108 women die a day of MBC (metastatic breast cancer). That’s one woman every 14 minutes. There are also men but the stats are less. In 1975 there were 112 deaths a day in the US from MBC. It’s 2013. Four less deaths a day is not much progress when it comes to death rates.

So here was my dilemma. The NBCC who taught us about the death rates has a campaign to end breast cancer in 2020. So what happens to the metastatic patient while they figure out how to get a vaccine to end breast cancer?

There has been a lot of differences of opinion within the breast cancer community and understandably so. If you are only preventing breast cancer and preventing metastatic breast cancer what of the person diagnosed as metastatic. The very people they say they are helping…Are they really helping them?

I went to symposium expecting to come home finished with them. But my mind was open. I saw that Musa Meyer was going to the conference. She is the head of the advanced metastatic breast cancer organization. She is committed to the advanced breast cancer community and through her website http://www.advancedbc.org and the BCMets,org online community Musa focuses daily with BCMETS.org by helping women with MBC and their families understand treatment options and emerging research.abc

There was also an impressive line up of speakers. Dr Dennis Slamon gave a great talk. He is best known for being instrumental in the identification of the Her2/neu oncogene and the resulting treatment of tratusunab (Herceptin) which has been hailed as the first triumph in an emerging wave of targeted therapies. Some other speakers included Dr. Susan Love, Dr. Michael Baum, Dr. Peter Lee, and Dr. Barrett Kramer to name a few. In my next post I will be writing more about what some of these speakers spoke about.susan-love-cancer-20130213-001

Shirley Mertz of the MBCN (Metastatic Breast Cancer Network) was also at the conference. If leading metastatic breast cancer patients and their organizations were getting behind the deadline, and I have always supported the NBCC, I owed it to myself and Advocates for Breast Cancer to attend and make up my mind.

The most moving plenary session I attended was called “Effectively Targeting Metastasis in Breast Cancer.” First Shirley Mertz spoke to us, endorsing Deadline 2020. She talked about the differences between early stage breast cancer patients and MBC. 80-90% of all breast cancer patients start at early stage breast cancer. Early stage can be anything from DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) which is pre-cancer and a little more complicated but for this post I will leave the explanation as that. Early stage cancer can also be cancer that is contained in the breast where someone might only need a lumpectomy or a mastectomy and/or radiation depending on the size of the tumor and whether there is lymph node involvement. Otherwise another early stage breast cancer is when the cancer travels to the lymph nodes and the patient could have a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and/or radiation and/or a mastectomy but the most important thing to understand about early stage is that one is told they have a 70% chance of survival and many do whatever treatments that are recommended or they feel will work and after treatment some prescribed medications depending on their pathology. Some also choose alternative therapies. For most early stage patients, when they “finish primary treatment”  and are told they have NED (No Evidence of Disease) they can have the chance of knowing they may be “cured.” Then they are told they have a 30% chance of a metastatic recurrence that can happen at any time, but at least there is an end point to the treatment. Of course there are many side effects and I am oversimplifying “treatment” as an end point but I am trying to show the differences between early stage breast cancer and MBC. MBC is chronic and so far there is no known “cure”.

IMG_5124Shirley explained about how she goes for chemotherapy infusions and where she goes there are early stage patients getting chemo and when they get their last treatment they have a special bell and everyone celebrates their end point of chemotherapy treatment. When one has metastatic breast cancer there is no end point to treatment so Shirley remembers the joy of knowing there was an end point but unfortunately for the MBC patient this will never happen. There are also people with inflammatory breast cancer which is an unbelievably aggressive form of breast cancer that many do not survive. Again for simplicity I am just trying to show the many differences that exist in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment options.

After Shirley Mertz, Suzanne Faqua PHD continued talking with us about the science involved and critical issues in metastasis research. Suzanne is a professor in the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. She specializes in metastatic research especially working with hormone positive MBC.

She explained the way current science recognizes the need to study not only the primary tumor but looking at the similarities and differences of the heterogeneity of a metastatic tumor. As we look at the critical issues in metastatic research our approach is important. For optimal targeted therapy we must identify key pathways (key drivers), block the pathway completely, anticipate escape mechanisms and block them too, and explore combination therapy. She talked about studies related to PIK3CA status in blood, liquid biopsies, circulating tumor cells and how we must do targeted therapies in human trials. Her talk had some of the complicated science involved with tumor dormancy, including the fact that there aren’t current dormancy-cell killing drugs in clinical trials. This needs to change.

Some of her personal perspective of the critical issues in metastasis research includes the need for us to get the pace moving. We have to change the dogma that “The horse is out of the barn” so we can prevent metastasis. There is a lack of clear “drivers” to target. Suzanne also spoke about how important it is to now understand the metastatic tumors and be able to collect tissue samples from biopsies of metastatic tumors and analyze them. Apparently there is a problem within the research community where the researchers want to study the tissue samples from metastatic tumors and how there is difficulty getting theses samples. The woman sitting next to me said she gave her samples and is disappointed that researchers aren’t getting their samples. Another problem is funding. Negative funding will slow and halt progress. That’s why Lobby Day was so important and we also need to keep the program at the DOD (Department of Defense) going so we continue vital research especially when it comes to metastasis.

The NBCC is going to have a special meeting in June with scientists, doctors and metastatic breast cancer patient advocates to study metastatic breast cancer and tumor dormancy. The science is complicated. But someone explained to me that the basics are if the scientists can take the metastatic patients and get their metastatic tumors to go back to sleep and not spread any further, they can go on to live with the disease for many years. The best way I can understand and explain it is that with AIDS they have not found “the cure” but they have found medications that allow people to continue to live with AIDS and they can live for a very long time.

This information is very important to me. I know I have written about the death of my best friend from MBC who survived and thrived through primary chemo with me and lived as long as she could with triple negative MBC. I have so many friends with metastatic breast cancer now, and met some really special new friends at the conference and I have written about how upset I am that they need to have more money dedicated to metastatic research.

One of the difficult things in the breast cancer world is that different organizations have different agendas. Sometimes there are clashes. I am someone who wants everyone to work together. I believe in teamwork. It is the spirit of teamwork that helps me understand the mistakes of the past with breast cancer and pink culture yet try to move forward with my advocacy.

This is what I gained from the people who are committed to deadline 2020. Advocates are working in every way they can to see an end to this disease so that we don’t have to have our sons and daughters hear the words “you or a loved one has breast cancer.”pink_425x320

I understand that some people are moving on from the NBCC and others like me and many of my new friends that I met in DC are supporting the NBCC. For those that don’t want to support them, please know I understand your point of view and I am not going to tell anyone they have to feel the same as I do. This was my experience at the conference. This is what I went away feeling that I am doing what I believe is right for myself and my organization. I am passionate about my advocacy and making a difference with breast cancer and nothing will change that. I hope that one day this horrible disease can be contained and women can go on to live happy productive lives with the most quality of life that they can as result of the scars that come with this disease.

I respect that others see some of what the NBCC is doing with a different lens. When it comes to our passion and intentions, we are all on the same side. What is most important is that we respect each other and work towards ending this disease in every form while we continue to place much emphasis on metastatic research.

Setting a deadline is always a good idea to set goals and try to reach them. Had we never set a goal to get a man on the moon we never would have footage of Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon and saying thDepartment_of_Defense[1]e famous words, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Lobby Day was also important to get bipartisan agreement and congressional representatives to sign “The Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act”, H.R. 1830, and that we continued to get the funding support for the Peer-Reviewed Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP).

I also met some amazing new fearless friends many who currently are metastatic and have such interesting stories. As we all know it is our unique stories that move us to understand more about this horrible disease and fuels us to do whatever we can to help one another in this land of cancer.

I am so glad I went to DC and came back with all of this hope as well as meeting great new friends. The Summit was so much at once and my only criticism is that they packed in so much that we didn’t even have a break during meals because there were speeches and meetings during the whole time. Even though it was exhausting, the Summit was really worth it. Hope is a great thing to have in our lives.

Breast Cancer and the Environment

Yesterday I put an article in my Breast Cancer Newspaper about a federal committee of leading breast cancer experts that released a report about reducing our exposures to chemicals and radiation in our environment. Today I received an email from Jeanne Rizzo, R.N.
President and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund stating that she is serves as a co-chair with the federal committee.

congressimagesThe report, “Breast Cancer and the Environment: Prioritizing Prevention,” concludes that “preventing environmental exposures is the most promising path to decrease incidence of the disease, and calls for a national breast cancer prevention strategy.”

The report’s first stop is the desk of U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who must create an action plan to implement the report. This action plan can lay the groundwork for a national prevention strategy that will require commitment and hard work from the Obama administration and Congress.”

Write to Secretary Sebelius today to urge her to immediately create an action plan.
Let her know that it’s time for our nation to embrace the notion that we can and must prevent breast cancer.

(To learn more about the report and download the full report go to: http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/boards/ibcercc/.)

Together, we have built a mighty movement, and because of you, we’re on the edge of a sea change. To write to Secretary Sebelius, just follow this link from the Breast Cancer Fund. All you have to do is put in your information and the letter is written for you, unless you want to add or change something.