DCIS: Overdiagnosis for Some,
But Breast Cancer Death Rates in Young and Black Women Troubling

Ductal carcinoma in situ – known more by its abbreviation DCIS – has been a term mired in controversy for decades. Over the years, it’s been termed “stage 0” breast cancer, “precancer”, and skeptics have gone so far as to say it is perhaps not much of anything. Before the advent of mammography, the proportion of women with DCIS was as low as 3%, but now 20% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have DCIS. That’s why this morning’s news, about the evolution of DCIS, should give women and their doctors pause about how they have approached a DCIS diagnosis.

In short, Steven A. Narod, MD, and colleagues, analyzing retrospective data on nearly 109,000 women from the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) database, found the following after a diagnosis of DCIS:

  • Overall, 20 years later, the breast cancer mortality rate was 3%, whereas, ten years after, it was 1.1%;
  • Black women were an exception, with a 7% mortality rate;
  • Women diagnosed before age 35 also had a higher rate of 7.8%;
  • Using radiation or mastectomy did not prevent deaths;
  • Preventing an invasive cancer on the same breast as the DCIS did not prevent death from cancer

The researchers analyzed data from a large database of women diagnosed with DCIS between 1988 and 2011 using data from cancer registries across the United States, The paper is published online today in the peer-reviewed JAMA Oncology.

Addressing the big picture, Dr. Susan Love, Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, told PatientPOV: “This is yet another argument that we shouldn’t be overtreating. this is more support for doing less.” However, she added: This clearly does not apply to every woman. This is just an observational study, not a randomized study. You also have to study what accounts for the higher death rates in young and black women. Further research should explore what accounts for this difference, including looks at the anatomy, biology, and screening practices.”

An inadvertent casualty of the fight against overdiagnosis is that patients who do not fit that profile are overlooked. Just as overdiagnosis can spell waste and harm, the health care community must no longer sweep under the rug bad health outcomes for subgroups. It’s not just a footnote. Failure to delve deeper inadvertently fosters continuing health disparities and inequality.

In Stunning Reversal, Unnecessary “Preventive” Mastectomies Are Surging in Young White Women with Insurance

Breast anatomy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Breast anatomy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I remember the first time that I heard about an unexpected rise in unnecessary mastectomies in young white women, who were privately insured. About five years ago, I was at the largest cancer meeting of the year, the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Speakers raised the issue; they’d speculate why; and within minutes, the speaker and the entire audience looked crestfallen and helpless.

For many, it was a devastating turnaround. The women’s health movement and progressive forces in medicine had vigorously fought for breast-conserving surgery because the best science long ago proved that total mastectomies were overkill. Not only has breast-conserving surgery been tested rigorously against total mastectomies, but the results have consistently shown, that for women with early breast cancer, there is no survival advantage to having more aggressive surgery. Compelling proof that breast-conserving surgery AKA lumpectomy and radiation should be the standard of care for early breast cancers goes back until about 1990. Simply put, for women with early breast cancers, if both breasts are removed, they will not reduce their chance of getting cancer again, nor will they improve their survival any more than if they had had a minimally invasive lumpectomy followed by radiation. Additionally, unnecessary hysterectomies were also questioned and they are far less common today.

In the larger picture, organ preservation is a big part of medicine today, and often, for very good reasons. For example, for many early-stage kidney cancers, taking the entire kidney out is now considered excessive and harmful because it elevates a patients’ risk for chronic kidney disease and cardiovascular disease.  Clinical practice guidelines call for reviewing each kidney cancer case with an eye towards which people have organ-confined cancers,  can safely have a limited part of their kidney removed, and avoid chronic devastating conditions.

I’ve seen friends, daughters of friends, siblings of friends, and moms die from breast cancer. But I’ve also seen far more women in recent years who have had lumpectomy and radiation, get regular monitoring, who do quite well. Also breast cancer treatment has changed dramatically so that outcomes from decades ago may not be comparable to today. I don’t blame any woman for thinking that a mastectomy is what she wants after she hears a breast cancer diagnosis. Intuitively, a woman might think, the more removed, the better.  However, it is not straightforward. I am also sure that I would become terrified.

Susan Love, MD, Chief Visionary Officer, Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, Santa Monica, CA,  describes how fraught with fear deciding what to do is. “This is the one of the only decisions that women with breast cancer will get to make. Women who hear ‘cancer’ think it is a potentially fatal disease. You just don’t think rationally.” Love also can understand why many women think that “the more aggressive the surgery, the better.”

High-risk women could benefit from more aggressive surgery, but they are not your average woman. For women who have mutations in the BRCA genes or a strong family history of first-degree relatives with breast, all of which can be sorted out with cancer prediction models, this story does not apply. Angelina Jolie was one example of a woman who had an 80% of developing breast cancer. For women with these risks, a preventive mastectomy and removal of ovaries will make sense.  Exactly what constitutes high risk will be addressed in a subsequent post.

Eleanor Walker, MD, Director of Radiation Oncology at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, MI, stresses that taking time with patients is critical. “Young women can expect a healthy lifetime of at least 50 years. Lack of knowledge has to be addressed. There are family issues to address.”

Walker described an “options clinic” at Henry Ford for women who are newly diagnosed. “We need a lot of education for patients to understand that whatever they do, there are no guarantees.” Although reports have been out that address getting a second breast cancer in the unaffected breast, Walker points out: “In 10 to 20 years, if there is a recurrence, it is most likely to be in the same breast. Only the highest risk women are likely to develop breast cancer in the opposite breast.”

The Latest Research and Public Policies

What cancer doctors could only hint at a few years ago came into stark view with the publication Sept. 3 of a large study of double mastectomies in California women between 1998 and 2011.  Using data from California’s Cancer Registry, which collects data on all the patients diagnosed with cancers in California since 1998, investigators provided a wake-up call on the jump in double mastectomies:

  • Of nearly 200,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer since 1998, in each year, between 1998 and 2011, double mastectomies rose by about 14%.
  • Women who had a double mastectomy had no better survival rate than those who had the more conservative lumpectomy.
  • The proportion of double mastectomies in women among women with a diagnosis of breast cancer soared from 2% in all patients with a breast cancer diagnosis in 1998 to 12.3% in 2011.
  • For women under age 40, just 3.6% had both breasts removed in 1998, but this jumped to 33% in 2011.
  • Women who had a single mastectomy (just one breast removed) had slightly worse survival than women who had lumpectomies or double mastectomies.
  • Double mastectomies were more common in National Cancer Institute-designated facilities.

Far less clear are who chooses total breast reconstruction, either at the same time as the mastectomy, or delayed, and who do not. “Women need to know that the Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act passed in 1998, provides protections for women who want total breast reconstruction,” said Otis Brawley, MD, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer of the American Cancer Society.

Women's Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998

Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998

That includes not only total breast reconstruction on the affected breast, but surgery and reconstruction of the other breast to produce a symmetrical appearance, prostheses and physical complications at all stages of mastectomy, including lymphedemas. However, for certain demographics, practitioners and linkage systems are not in place.

Brawley pointed out that  80% of plastic surgeons do not take Medicaid or the uninsured. In fact, perhaps in large part because of this, at some hospitals serving poor, minority women, total breast reconstruction is not even discussed.

However, young, insured, white women are more likely to get their cancer care at an NCI-designated facility and they will  find it much easier to get total reconstructive surgery, according to Love . “It’s far easier to coordinate care if the general surgeon is linked to a plastic surgery team so that if a woman wanted breast reconstruction, they can work together,” she said.

In one sense, there may be a silver lining in terms of how black women fare in some aspects of breast cancer care. Otis Brawley,  commented:

“When something is a new fad [for example, getting unnecessary double mastectomies], the poor and disenfranchised always end up being better off. It was like that when women were going for bone marrow transplants.”

Bone marrow transplants subsequently proved useless.

On Sept. 4, a team of University of Chicago researchers presented a paper at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Breast Cancer Symposium 2014  in San Francisco that provided more insight. They surveyed women who had chosen a double mastectomy before surgery, finding that those women were far more worried about recurrence, had higher anxiety levels, and less knowledge than those not considering it. Many stated that the diagnosis “sent them into a daze.”

I am Not My Breast

Besides fear, anxiety, or poor information contributing to health decisions, I can see why movements are afoot with the MO “I am NOT my breast.” I too don’t want to be objectified. As more news surfaces on an epidemic in rapes, anger about rape justice escalates. In a hostile sexist climate, it makes sense that some women might say the heck with my breasts. They might be more trustful of their instincts and their allies than outside authorities. For example, in Atlanta, African-American women have joined forces to create a group called Bold and Breastless. 

 Coming Full Circle

In an ironic twist, the trend towards breast-conserving surgery goes back to some of the nation’s first women’s health advocates, including Our Bodies, Ourselves, as well as many other grassroots women’s health groups around the country, and advocates, especially Rose Kushner. In 1975, Kushner wrote the landmark book and bestseller Why Me: What Every Woman Should Know About Breast Cancer to Save Her Life. (It was originally titled Breast Cancer: A Personal History and Investigative Report.) Kushner was one of the strongest voices against disfiguring mastectomies.

Taken together, since the 1970s, women’s health advocates have argued against violating women unnecessarily, questioning not only unnecessary mastectomies, but hysterectomies, the safety of the first birth control pills, and much more. Self-education and getting the best information to women have been part and parcel of the women’s health movement for decades. Inside the medical profession, progressive individuals continue to question unnecessarily harming women and pressing for science to guide practice.

I don’t know whether and when the trend towards unnecessary preventive mastectomies among young white women with insurance will change. Maybe each generation has to see for themselves what makes sense.

I will say this: like it or not, insurers have demonstrated increasing concern with eliminating excess procedures that offer limited or no proven health benefit. Double mastectomies are costly and studies have consistently favored breast-conserving surgeries for early noninvasive breast cancers. If insurers go after it, public debate will pit a rising group of outspoken women up against the medical establishment and insurers. Sorting this out will not be easy.


Next on PatientPOV: Celebrity Breast Cancer War Stories

Within the past two years, three celebrities have gone public with their breast cancer stories: Good Morning America anchor Amy Robach, the comedian Wanda Sykes, and actress and director Angelina Jolie. What have they contributed?



Are Dense-Breast, Right-to-Know Laws Helpful?

Doctor reviews a digital mammogram of a dense breast and points to a potential cancer. Credit: National Cancer Institute.

In a victory for the dense-breast patient movement, Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) signed legislation last week requiring that doctors who discover that women have dense breasts on mammography must inform women that:

  • dense breasts are a risk factor for breast cancer;
  • mammography sees cancer less well in dense breasts than in normal breasts; and
  • women may benefit from additional breast cancer screening.

The California law goes into effect on April 1, 2013. It follows four states (Connecticut, Texas, Virginia, and New York) with similar statutes. All have enjoyed solid bipartisan support. Rarely do naysayers or skeptics speak up.

Young women who are leading the charge often bring lawmakers the story of a young constituent, diagnosed with a very aggressive, lethal cancer that was not shown on film-screen mammography. The Are You Dense? patient advocacy group engages patients on Facebook, where women share their experiences with breast cancer, organize events, and lobby for legislation. Individual radiologists work with the advocacy groups, but many radiology groups and breast surgeons do not endorse these laws.

A Closer Look at Breast Cancer Data

Living in an age when information is viewed as an entitlement, knowledge, and power, many physicians find it hard to argue against a patient’s right to know. Can sharing information be a mistake? Some epidemiologists think so. Otis W. Brawley, MD, FACP, Chief Medical & Scientific Officer, American Cancer Society, says: “I really worry when we legislate things that no one understands. People can get harmed.” Numerous issues have to be worked out, according to Brawley. For one, he explains: “There is no standard way to define density.” Additionally, “even though studies suggest that density increases the risk of cancer, these cancers tend to be the less serious kind, but even that is open to question,” Brawley says. “We in medicine do not know what to do for women who have increased density.”

A study of more than 9,000 women in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute revealed that women with very dense breasts were no more likely to die than similar patients whose breasts were not as dense. “When tumors are found later in more dense breasts, they are no more aggressive or difficult to treat,” says Karla Kerlikowske, MD, study coauthor, and professor of medicine and epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco. In fact, an increased risk of death was only found in women with the least dense breasts.

The trouble is what is known about dense breasts is murky. Asked whether he backs advising women that dense breasts are a risk factor for breast cancer, Anthony B. Miller, MD, Co-Chair of the Cancer Risk Management Initiative and a member of the Action Council, Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, and lead investigator of the Canadian National Breast Cancer Screening Study, says: “I would be very cautious. The trouble is people want certainty and chances are whatever we find, all we can do is explain.”

Women in their forties, who are most likely to have dense breasts (density declines with age) may want to seek out digital mammography. In studies comparing digital mammography to film-screen mammography in the same women, digital mammography has been shown to improve breast cancer detection in women with dense breasts. Findings from the Digital Mammographic Imaging Screening Study, showed better breast cancer detection with digital mammography. But digital mammography is not available in many areas.  Moreover, Miller explains: “We do not know if this will benefit women at all.  It is very probable that removal of the additional small lesions will simply increase anxiety and health costs, including the overdiagnosis of breast cancer, and have no impact upon mortality from breast cancer.”

Additional imaging studies sound attractive to people convinced that there is something clinically significant to find. But as I pointed out in my last post, many radiologists and breast physicians contend that there is no evidence that magnetic resonance imaging or any other imaging study aids breast cancer screening in women with dense breasts. Brawley notes: “These laws will certainly lead to more referral for MRI and ultrasound without clear evidence that women will benefit (lives will be saved.) It’s clear that radiologists will make more money offering more tests.” Miller adds: “A number of doctors are trying to capitalize on this and some of them should know a lot better.”

Many Advocates Question More Tests, Statutes

Even though the “Are You Dense?” campaign has been instrumental in getting legislation on the books across the county, other advocacy groups and patient advocates want research, enhanced patient literacy about risks and benefits of procedures. Many recall mistakes made that led women down the path of aggressive procedures. In that group is the radical Halsted mastectomy, used widely before systematic study, but once studied,  found no better than breast-conserving surgery for many cancers, and bone marrow transplants, also found to be ineffective, wearing, and costly.

Jody Schoger, a breast cancer social media activist at @jodyms who engages women weekly on twitter at #bcsm, had this to say on my blog about the onslaught of additional screening tests:

“What is needed is not another expensive modality… but concentrated focus for a biomarker to indicate the women who WILL benefit from additional screening. Because what’s happening now is an avalanche of screening, and its subsequent emotional and financial costs, that is often far out of proportion to both the relative and absolute risk for invasive cancer. I simply don’t think more “external” technology is the answer but one that evolves from the biology of cancer.”

Eve Harris @harriseve, a proponent of patient navigation and patient literacy, challenged Peter Ubel, MD, professor of business administration and medicine, at Duke University, on his view of the value of patient empowerment on the breast density issue. In a post on Forbes, replicated in Psychology Today, Ubel argued that in cases where the pros and cons of a patient’s alternatives are well known, for example, considering mastectomy or lumpectomy, patient empowerment play an important role. “But we are mistaken to turn to patient empowerment to solve dilemmas about how best to screen for cancer in women with dense breasts,” he writes.

Harris disagrees, making a compelling case for patient engagement:

“I think that we can agree that legislative interference with medical practice is not warranted when it cannot provide true consumer protection. But the context is the biggest culprit in this situation. American women’s fear of breast cancer is out of proportion with its incidence and its mortality rate. Truly empowering people—patients would mean improving health literacy and understanding of risk…”

But evidence and literacy take time, don’t make for snappy reading or headlines, and don’t shore up political points. Can we stop the train towards right-to-inform laws and make real headway in women’s health? Can we reallocate healthcare dollars towards effective treatments that serve patients and engage them in their care? You have to wonder.


Is the Bar High Enough for Screening
Breast Ultrasounds for Dense Breasts?

In a unanimous decision yesterday, FDA approved the first breast ultrasound imaging system for dense breast tissue “for use in combination with a standard mammography in women with dense breast tissue who have a negative mammogram and no symptoms of breast cancer.” Patients should not interpret FDA’s approval of the somo-v Automated Breast Ultrasound System as an endorsement of the device as necessarily beneficial for this indication and this will be a thorny concept for many patients to appreciate.

If the approval did not take place in the setting of intense pressure to both inform women that they have dense breasts and lobbying to roll out all sorts of imaging studies quickly, no matter how well they have been studied, it would not be worth posting.

Dense breasts are worrisome to women, especially young women (in their 40s particularly) because they have proved a risk factor for developing breast cancer. Doing ultrasound on every woman with dense breasts, though, who has no symptoms, and a normal mammogram potentially encompasses as many as 40% of women undergoing screening mammography who also have dense breasts, according to the FDA’s press release. Dense breast tissue is most common in young women, specifically women in their forties, and breast density declines with age.

The limitations of mammography in seeing through dense breast tissue have been well known for decades and the search has been on for better imaging studies. Government appointed panels have reviewed the issue and mammography for women in their forties has been controversial. What’s new is the “Are You Dense?” patient movement and legislation to inform women that they have dense breasts.

Merits and Pitfalls of Device Approval

The approval of breast ultrasound hinges on a study of 200 women with dense breast evaluated retrospectively at 13 sites across the United States with mammography and ultrasound. The study showed a statistically significant increase in breast cancer detection when ultrasound was used with mammography.

Approval of a device of this nature (noninvasive, already approved in general, but not for this indication) does not require the company to demonstrate that use of the device reduces morbidity or mortality, or that health benefits outweigh risks.

Eitan Amir, MD, PhD, medical oncologist at Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto, Canada, said: “It’s really not a policy decision. All this is, is notice that if you want to buy the technology, you can.”

That’s clearly an important point, but not one that patients in the US understand. Patients hear “FDA approval” and assume that means a technology most certainly is for them and a necessary add-on. This disconnect in the FDA medical device approval process and in what patients think it means warrants an overhaul or at the minimum, a clarification for the public.

Materials for FDA submission are available on the FDA website, including the study filed with FDA and a PowerPoint presentation, but lots of luck, finding them quickly. “In the submission by Sunnyvale CA uSystems to FDA, the company stated that screening reduces lymph node positive breast cancer,” noted Amir. “There are few data to support this comment.”

Is Cancer Detection A Sufficient Goal?

In the FDA study, more cancers were identified with ultrasound. However, one has to question whether breast cancer detection alone is meaningful in driving use of a technology. In the past year, prostate cancer detection through PSA screening has been attacked because several studies and epidemiologists have found that screening is a poor predictor of who will die from prostate cancer or be bothered by it during their lifetime. We seem to be picking up findings that don’t lead to much to worry about, according to some researchers. Could new imaging studies for breast cancer suffer the same limitation? It is possible.

Another question is whether or not the detected cancers on ultrasound in the FDA study would have been identified shortly thereafter on a routine mammogram. It’s a question that is unclear from the FDA submission, according to Amir.

One of the problems that arises from excess screening is overdiagnosis, overtreatment, and high-cost, unaffordable care. An outcomes analysis of 9,232 women in the US Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium led by Gretchen L. Gierach, PhD, MPH, at the National Institutes of Health MD, and published online in the August 21 Journal of the National Cancer Institute, revealed: “High mammographic breast density was not associated with risk of death from breast cancer or death from any cause after accounting for other patient and tumor characteristics.” –Gierach et al., 2012

Proposed Breast Cancer Screening Tests

Meanwhile, numerous imaging modalities have been proposed as an adjunct to mammography and as potential replacements for mammography. In 2002, proponents of positron emission tomography (PET) asked Medicare to approve pet scans for imaging dense breast tissue, especially in Asian women. The Medicare Coverage Advisory Commission heard testimony, but in the end, Medicare did not approve it for the dense-breast indication.

PET scans are far less popular today, while magnetic resonance imaging (AKA MR, MRI) and imaging have emerged as as adjuncts to mammography for women with certain risk factors. Like ultrasound, the outcomes data is not in the bag for screening with it.

In an interview with Monica Morrow, MD, Chief of Breast Surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, several months ago concerning the rise in legislation to inform women about dense breasts, which frequently leads to additional imaging studies, she said: “There is no good data that women with dense breasts benefit from additional MR screening.” She is not the only investigator to question potentially deleterious use of MR ahead of data collection and analysis. Many breast researchers have expressed fear that women will opt for double mastectomies, based on MR, that in the end, may have been absolutely unnecessary.

“There is one clear indication for MR screening,” stressed Morrow, explaining that women with BRCA mutations should be screened with MRI. “Outside of that group, there was no evidence that screening women with MR was beneficial.”

At just about every breast cancer meeting in the past two years, the benefits and harms of MR and other proposed screening modalities come up, and there is no consensus in the field.  It  should be noted, though, that plenty of breast physicians are skeptical about broad use of MR– not just generalists outside of the field. In other words, it is not breast and radiology specialists versus the US Preventive Services Task Force – a very important message for patients to understand.

One thing is clear: as these new technologies gain FDA approval, it will be a windfall for industry. If industry is successful and doctors are biased to promoting these tests, many may offer them on the estimated 40% of women with dense breasts who undergo routine mammograms, as well as other women evaluated as having a high lifetime risk.  The tests will be offered in a setting of unclear value and uncertain harms. Even though FDA has not approved breast MRI for screening dense breasts, breast MR is being used off label and it is far more costly than mammography.

When patients raise concerns about the unaffordability of medical care, they should be counseled about the uncertain benefit and potential harms of such a test. That may be a tall bill for most Americans to consider: it’s clear that the more is better philosophy is alive and well. Early detection of something, anything, even something dormant, going nowhere, is preferable to skipping a test, and risking who-knows-what, and that is something, most of us cannot imagine at the outset.


NEXT UP: The Dense Breast Lobby Pushes Legislation to Inform, Increase Access to Tests




With Breast Cancer Awareness Overexposed, Hard to See Many Patients Want Science, Not Pink

Nothing has me making a beeline for the exit more  than disease awareness events– and when it comes to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the sheer overexposure of the disease makes me yearn to cover anything but it. I know I am not alone.  Most of us have been touched by breast cancer. It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in the unlikely event that you haven’t noticed. I don’t see how you could miss it: weekend sections in newspapers ran tons of stories, and there will be an infinite number more. Pink ribbons sit on the top of the masthead of many newspapers. My local drugstore is even asking whether I’d like to round out my cash register receipt with a contribution to the Susan B. Komen Foundation. You cannot escape it.

I have been dreading this month. Unfortunately, the pink madness is driving people away. “I ignore the breast cancer stuff because I strongly feel they are hogging the limelight,” an independent reporter told me. “There are plenty of other diseases. My mom died of breast cancer, but I resent their intrusion for an entire month.” When I asked another colleague how she planned to get through the onslaught of news, she responded emphatically: “With earplugs and blinders.”

Fortunately, many thoughtful bloggers and advocates, like @jodyms, @harriseve, @MarilynMann, and Fran Visco are dedicated to educating the public about risk, science, and optimal decision making. I’ve also just discovered Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues. Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), the groundbreaking women’s health collective turned 40 this weekend, releasing an updated edition. It has been a critical force, in pushing for fair and scientifically based women’s health care first in the United States, and now setting its goals on global health. I applaud them all.

I have been working hard on another post on breast cancer that will address some of the science or lack thereof that underpins breast cancer initiatives. In the meantime, I am curious what you folks think. IMO, the discussion needs to move away from the pink ribbon to considering far less frivolous issues.

But the larger question is this: If you could pick the top 3 concerns for patients with breast cancer, what would they be?