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In which Dr. Gorski is taken to task by an eminent radiologist for his posts on mammography

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Introduction: An unexpected e-mail arrives

One of the consequences of the growing traffic and prominence of this blog over the last few years is that people who would otherwise have probably ignored what I or my partners in blogging write now sometimes actually take notice. Nearly a decade ago, long before I joined this blog as a founding blogger, if I wrote a post criticizing something that a prominent academic said, it was highly unlikely that that person would even become aware of it, much less bother to respond to whatever my criticism was. I was, quite simply, beneath their notice, sometimes happily, sometimes unhappily.

It appears that those days might be over. Last week Dr. Daniel Kopans, a prominent Harvard radiologist and well-known long-time defender of screening mammography, sent me a rather unhappy e-mail complaining about my “attack” on him on this blog, a charge that he repeated in a subsequent e-mail. Before I publish his initial e-mail verbatim (with his permission), I would like to point out that, while it’s true that I did criticize some of Dr. Kopans’ statements rather harshly in my post about the Canadian National Breast Screening Study (CNBSS), even characterizing one statement as a “howler,” I would hardly characterize what I wrote as an “attack.” That to me tends to imply a personal attack. Using Dr. Kopans’ apparent definition, what he has said and written about investigators like those running the CNBSS, as documented in my post, about H. Gilbert Welch, who published a large study in 2012 estimating the extent of overdiagnosis due to mammography, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), the group that in 2009 suggested changing guidelines for routine screening mammography in asymptomatic women to begin at age 50 instead of age 40, would appear to also qualify as “attacks.”

Be that as it may, I also wondered why Dr. Kopans hadn’t noticed my CNBSS post until more than three months after it had originally appeared. Then, the day after I received Dr. Kopans’ e-mail, my Google Alert on mammography popped up an article in the Wall Street Journal by Dr. Kopans entitled “Mammograms Save Lives: Criticism of breast-cancer screenings is more about rationing than rationality.” That’s when I guessed that someone probably had either posted or e-mailed Dr. Kopans a link to my previous post in response to that article. Given the confluence of events, I think it’s a perfect time to discuss both Dr. Kopans’ e-mail and his article, because they cover many of the same issues. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health

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The Canadian National Breast Screening Study ignites a new round in the mammography wars

The last couple of weeks, I’ve made allusions to the “Bat Signal” (or, as I called it, the “Cancer Signal,” although that’s a horrible name and I need to think of a better one). Basically, when the Bat Cancer Signal goes up (hey, I like that one better, but do bats get cancer?), it means that a study or story has hit the press that demands my attention. It happened again just last week, when stories started hitting the press hot and heavy about a new study of mammography, stories with titles like Vast Study Casts Doubts on Value of Mammograms and Do Mammograms Save Lives? ‘Hardly,’ a New Study Finds, but I had a dilemma. The reason is that the stories about this new study hit the press largely last Tuesday and Wednesday, the study having apparently been released “in the wild” Monday night. People were e-mailing me and Tweeting at me the study and asking if I was going to blog it. Even Harriet Hall wanted to know if I was going to cover it. (And you know we all have a damned hard time denying such a request when Harriet makes it.) Even worse, the PR person at my cancer center was sending out frantic e-mails to breast cancer clinicians because the press had been calling her and wanted expert comment. Yikes!

What to do? What to do? My turn to blog here wasn’t for five more days, and, although I have in the past occasionally jumped my turn and posted on a day not my own, I hate to draw attention from one of our other fine bloggers unless it’s something really critical. Yet, in the blogosphere, stories like this have a short half-life. I could have written something up and posted it on my not-so-secret other blog (NSSOB, for you newbies), but I like to save studies like this to appear either first here or, at worst, concurrently with a crosspost at my NSSOB. (Guess what’s happening today?) So that’s what I ended up doing, and in a way I’m glad I did. The reason is that it gave me time to cogitate and wait for reactions. True, it’s at the risk of the study fading from the public consciousness, as it had already begun to do by Friday, but such is life.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health

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No, carrying your cell phone in your bra will not cause breast cancer, no matter what Dr. Oz says

I don’t think very highly of Dr. Oz.

Yes, yes, I realize that saying that is akin to saying that water is wet, the sun rises in the east, and that it gets damned cold here in the upper Midwest in December, but there you go. This year, I’ve been mostly avoiding the now un-esteemed Dr. Mehmet Oz, a.k.a. “America’s doctor,” even though his show could, if I paid much attention to it anymore, provide me with copious blogging material, because I’ve come to the conclusion that he is beyond redemption. He’s gone over to the Dark Side and is profiting handsomely from it. There’s little I can do about it except for, from time to time, writing about some of Dr. Oz’s more egregious offenses against medical science and reason, putting our tens of thousands of readers per day against his millions of viewers per day. It’s an asymmetric battle that we don’t have much of a shot at winning. However, at least from time to time I can correct misinformation that Oz promotes, particularly when it impacts my speciality. Consider it doing something pre-emptively to help myself. When one of my patients ask about something that’s been on Oz’s show, I can simply point her to specific blog posts, as I did the last time around when Oz arguably flouted the human subjects protection regulations of his own university and of the Department of Health and Human Services by running in essence a poorly-designed clinical trial to show that green coffee bean extract can promote weight loss. Of course, it showed nothing of the sort.

This time around, Dr. Oz caught my attention about a week and a half ago. I had planned on blogging about it last week, but the case of the Amish girl with cancer whose parents stopped her chemotherapy after less than two full courses, thus endangering her life, intervened. (It also didn’t help that I hadn’t recorded the show and the segment hadn’t shown up on Dr. Oz’s website by Sunday night last week.) I figured that I probably wouldn’t get back to Oz, but—wouldn’t you know it?—a week later I’m still annoyed at this story. So better late than never. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Science and the Media

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A Skeptical Look at Screening Tests

I’m going to follow Mark Crislip’s example and recycle my presentation from The Amazing Meeting last week, not because I’m lazy or short on time (although I am both), but because I think the information is worth sharing with a larger audience.

We’ve all had screening tests and we’re all likely to have more of them, but there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about what screening tests can and can’t do. Screening tests are done on populations of asymptomatic people and must be distinguished from diagnostic tests done on individual patients who have symptoms. Some tests are excellent for diagnostic purposes but are not appropriate for screening purposes.

We’re constantly being admonished to get tested for one thing or another. A typical example was a recent Dear Abby column. She got a letter from a woman who had been screened for kidney disease and learned that she had a mild decrease in kidney function. Abby was shocked to learn that 26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease, and she advised her readers to get their kidneys checked. This was terrible advice. It superficially seems like good advice, because if you have something wrong with your kidneys, you’d want to know about it, right? In fact, if there was anything wrong anywhere in your body, you’d want to know about it. By that logic, it might seem advisable to test everyone for everything. But that would be stupid. It would find lots of false positives, it would create anxiety by picking up harmless variants and anomalies that never would have caused problems, it would be expensive, and it would do more harm than good.
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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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Do clinical trials work? It depends on what you mean by “work”

Introduction

(Skip to the next section if you want to miss the self-referential blather about TAM.)

As I write this, I’m winging my way home from TAM, crammed uncomfortably—very uncomfortably—in a window seat in steerage—I mean, coach). I had been thinking of just rerunning a post and having done with it, sleeping the flight away, to arrive tanned, rested, and ready to continue the battle against pseudoscience and quackery at home, but this seat is just too damned uncomfortable. So I might as well use the three and a half hours or so left on this flight to write something. If this post ends abruptly, it will be because I’ve run out of time and a flight attendant is telling me to shut down my computer in those cloyingly polite but simultaneously imperious voices that they all seem to have.

I had thought of simply recounting the adventures of the SBM crew who did make it out to TAM to give talks at workshops and the main stage and to be on panels, but that seems too easy. Even easier, I could simply post my slides online. But, no, how on earth can I reasonably expect Mark Crislip to post while he’s at TAM if I’m too frikkin’ lazy to follow suit? I’m supposed to lead by example, right, even if what comes out is nearly as riddled with spelling and grammar errors (not to mention the occasional incoherent sentence) as a Mark Crislip post? Example or not, lazy or not, I would be remiss if, before delving into the topic of today’s post, I didn’t praise my fellow SBM bloggers who were with me, namely Steve Novella, Harriet Hall, and Mark Crislip, for their excellent talks and insightful analysis. Ditto Bob Blaskiewicz, with whom I tag-teamed a talk on everybody’s favorite cancer “researcher” and doctor, Stanislaw Burzynski. It’ll be fun to see the reaction of Eric Merola and all the other Burzynski sycophants, toadies, and lackeys when Bob’s and my talks finally hit YouTube. Sadly, we’ll have to wait several weeks for that. (Hmmm. Maybe I will post those slides later this week.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials

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Angelina Jolie, radical strategies for cancer prevention, and genetics denialism

I had been debating whether to blog about Angelina Jolie’s announcement last week in a New York Times editorial entitled My Medical Choice that she had undergone bilateral prophylactic mastectomy because she had been discovered to have a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that is associated with a very high risk of breast cancer. On the one hand, it is my area of expertise and was a big news story. On the other hand, it’s been nearly a week since she announced her decision, and the news story is no longer as topical as it was. Also, I’ve already written about it a couple of times on my not-so-super-secret other blog, making the division of blogging…problematic. So, if some of this is a bit repetitive to those who are also fans of my more—shall we say?—insolent persona, I apologize, but try to be patient. I will be doing more than just rehashing a couple of posts from last week (although there will unavoidably be at least a little of that), because there have been even more examples of reactions to Jolie’s announcement that provide what I like to consider “teachable moments.” I will start by asserting quite bluntly that in my medical opinion, from the information I have available, Angelina Jolie made a rational, science-based decision. How she went about the actual mechanics might have had some less than scientific glitches along the way (more about that later), but the basic decision to remove both of her breasts to prevent breast cancer associated with a BRCA1 mutation that she carried was quite reasonable and very defensible from a scientific standpoint.

One advantage of waiting nearly a week to write about this story is that it provided me with the opportunity to sit back and observe the reactions that Jolie’s decision provoked. One thing that I really didn’t expect (although in retrospect maybe I should have) is the pure denialism on display that genes have any effect whatsoever on cancer. I say “in retrospect I should have” because I’ve written at least a couple of times before about how quacks use and abuse the term “epigenetics” in the same way that they abuse the word “quantum” and how they seem to believe that wishing makes it so (through epigenetics, of course!) to the point where they believe that genetics is irrelevant to cancer. Indeed, they go far beyond that, asserting that, in essence, environment is all. From what I’ve been reading thus far, the second strongest strain of reaction to Jolie’s announcement (after revulsion at the “mutilation” of women that it represented to certain quacks) is pure denial that mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes portend such a high risk of ultimately developing breast cancer. This denial is often accompanied by conspiracy mongering about BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations being a “conspiracy” on the part of the “cancer industry” and Myriad Genetics & Laboratories, the company that holds the patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2, to increase genetic testing and preventative mastectomies. Myriad happens to have a complete monopoly on BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing because of this patent and has been criticized for its high prices and stifling of competition. There is currently a case before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding whether human genes are patentable under the law. I’m not a big fan of Myriad, and I’ll tell you why later. (Not that it matters; I’m stuck with them for now.) My personal distaste for Myriad Genetics aside, this sort of conspiracy mongering is part and parcel of the quack approach to denying the significance of BRCA1 mutations.

This denial is usually coupled with confident blather that Angelina Jolie didn’t need to undergo “disfiguring” surgery to prevent BRCA1-associated breast cancer but instead could have achieved the same—or even better!—risk reduction if only she had used this magic herb or that miracle supplement and making certain “lifestyle” changes. It’s utter nonsense, of course, but it’s everywhere.

Before I get to the reactions to Jolie’s announcement, let’s first take a look at what she did, why, and the science behind it.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Medical Ethics, Science and the Media

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Once more into the screening breach: The New York Times did not kill your patient

One of the more depressing things about getting much more interested in the debate over how we should screen for common cancers, particularly breast and prostate cancer, is my increasing realization of just how little physicians themselves understand about the complexities involved in weighing the value of such tests. It’s become increasingly apparent to me that most physicians believe that early detection is always good and that it always saves lives, having little or no conception of lead time or length bias. Sadly, just last week, I saw another example of just this phenomenon in the form of an article written by Dr. George Lombardi entitled My Patient, Killed By The New York Times. The depth of Dr. Lombardi’s misunderstanding of screening tests permeates the entire article, which begins with his recounting a story about a patient of his, whose death he blames on The New York Times. After describing the funeral of this 73-year-old man who died of prostate cancer, Dr. Lombardi then makes an accusation:

This one filled me with a special discomfort as I knew a secret: He didn’t have to die. I knew it and he had known it. Had he told?

About 5 years ago he had just retired and had a lot more time on his hands. He was a careful man, lived alone, considered himself well informed. He got into the habit of clipping articles on medical issues and either mailing them to me or bringing them in. They came from a variety of sources and were on a variety of topics. He wasn’t trying to show me up. He was genuinely curious. I kidded him that maybe he’d like to go to medical school in his retirement. ‘No’ he laughed, ‘I just like to be in the know.’

When he came in for his physical in 2008 he told me he’d agree to the DRE but not the PSA (his medical sophistication extended to the use of acronyms: DRE stands for digital rectal exam where I feel the prostate with my gloved finger for any abnormality and PSA for prostatic [sic] specific antigen which is a blood protein unique to the prostate and often elevated in prostate cancer). He had read that the use of PSA as a screening test was controversial. This was the year that the United States Preventive Services Task Force, a government panel that issues screening guidelines, recommended against routine PSA screens for older men. It was often a false positive (the PSA was elevated but there was no cancer), led to unnecessary biopsies, and besides most prostate cancers at his age were indolent and didn’t need to be treated. I countered that prostate cancer was the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men and that it was better to know than not to know. This way it would be our decision. The patient with his doctor deciding what was best. But no, he wanted to stick to his guns and since the DRE was normal no PSA blood test was sent.

After describing a conversation with the man’s daughter, who said, “My father was killed by The New York Times,” Dr. Lombardi then goes on to anecdotal evidence and a cherry-picked publication to support his view, quoting an oncologist who says he’s “seeing more men presenting with advanced prostate cancer” and then referring to a single paper in the current Annals of Internal Medicine about PSA screening. Before I look at the article and a recently published paper on screening mammography that made the news, I can’t help but point out that I (mostly) agree with Dr. Lombardi when he says:

Public health doctors, policy experts and journalists tend to look at the population as a whole. It is a better story if it is one story. It makes a better headline. Their statistics are people I sit across from everyday trying to figure out what the future holds. We each have our job to do.

The problem is, of course, that Dr. Lombardi takes that observation and draws the wrong conclusion, namely that his patient died because of lack of screening. He attacks a straw man, sidestepping the true argument, namely that evidence shows that PSA screening probably causes more harm than good for men at average risk of prostate cancer. Unfortunately, Dr. Lombardi obviously does not understand some very basic concepts behind cancer screening, nor does he apparently recognize that doctors who deal with the population-level data that we have regarding screening tests and try to apply them to individual patients are actually looking in a very systematic way about what the benefits of screening are to the individual patient. More on that later. In the meantime, although I wouldn’t go quite as far as Dr. John Schumann did in criticizing Dr. Lombardi, I do view his lament as a jumping off point to look at some recent data on screening for the two most common cancers, breast and prostate.

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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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A holiday round in the mammography debate

There are times when the best-laid blogging plans of mice and men often go awry, and this isn’t always a bad thing. As the day on which so many Americans indulge in mass consumption of tryptophan-laden meat in order to give thanks approached, I had tentatively planned on doing an update on Stanislaw Burzynski, given that he appears to have slithered away from justice yet again. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear in my e-mail in box but news of a study that practically grabbed me by my collars, shook me, and demanded that I blog about it. As if to emphasize the point, suddenly e-mails started appearing by people who had seen stories about the study and, for reasons that I still can’t figure out after all these years, were interested on my take on the study. Yes, I realize that I’m a breast cancer surgeon and therefore considered an expert on the topic of the study, mammography. I also realize that I’ve written about it a few times before. Even so, it never ceases to amaze me, even after all these years, that anyone gives a rodential posterior about what I think. Then I started getting a couple of e-mails from people at work, and I knew that Burzynski had to wait or that he would be relegated to my not-so-secret other blog (I haven’t decided yet).

As is my usual habit, I’ll set the study up by citing how it’s being spun in the press. My local home town paper seems as good a place to begin as any, even though the story was reprinted from USA Today. The title of its coverage was Many women receiving unnecessary breast cancer treatment, study shows, with the article released the day before the study came out in the New England Journal of Medicine:
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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health

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Alternative medicine use and breast cancer (2012 update)

[Editor's note: It's a holiday here in the U.S.; consequently, here is a "rerun" from my other super not-so-secret other blog. It's not a complete rerun. I've tweaked it a bit. If you don't read my other blog, it's new to you. If you do, it's partially new to you. See you all next week with brand spankin' new material. It also (Ih hope) complement's Scott's excellent post from Thursday discussing the same issue and the same paper, but from a different perspective.]

As a cancer surgeon specializing in breast cancer, I have a particularly intense dislike reserved for cancer quacks, which I have a hard time containing at times when I see instances of such quackery applied to women with breast cancer. I make no apologies. These women are, after all, the type of patients I spend all my clinical time taking care of and to whose disease my research has been directed for the last 13 years or so. That’s why I keep revisiting the topic time and time again. Unfortunately, over the years, when it comes to this topic there’s been a depressing amount of blogging material. Indeed, Scott Gavura took a bite out of this particularly rotten apple just a few days ago. Even though he handled the discussion quite well, I thought it would be worthwhile for a breast cancer clinician to take a look. Our perspectives are, after all, different, and this is an issue that, from my perpective, almost can’t be discussed too often.

One question that comes up again and again is, “What’s the harm?” Basically, this question boils down to asking what, specifically, is the downside of choosing quackery over science-based medicine. In the case of breast cancer, the answer is: plenty. The price of foregoing effective therapy can be death; that almost goes without saying. In fact, it can be a horrific and painful death. It is, after all, cancer that we’re talking about. Aside from that, however, the question frequently comes up just how much a woman decreases her odds of survival by avoiding conventional therapy and choosing quackery. It’s actually a pretty hard question to answer. The reason is simple. It’s a very difficult topic to study because we as physicians have ethics. We can’t do a randomized trial assigning women to treatment or no treatment, treatment or quacke treatment, and then see which group lives longer and by how much. If a person can’t see how unethical that would be without my having to explain it, that person is probably beyond explanations. (As an aside, I can’t help but point out that a randomized trial of not vaccinating versus vaccinating is unethical for exactly the same reason; physicians can’t knowingly assign subjects to a group where he knows they will suffer harm. There has to be clinical equipoise.) There’s no doubt that foregoing effective treatment causes great harm.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Health Fraud

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Rejecting cancer treatment: What are the consequences?

One of the points I’ve tried to emphasize through my contributions to Science-Based Medicine is that every treatment decision requires an evaluation of risks and benefits. No treatment is without some sort of risk. And a decision to decline treatment has its own risks. One of the challenges that I confront regularly as a pharmacist is helping patients understand a medication’s expected long-term benefits against the risks and side effects of treatment. This dialogue is most challenging with symptomless conditions like high blood pressure, where patients face the prospect of immediate side effects against the potential for long-term benefit. One’s willingness to accept side effects is influenced, in part, by and understanding of, and belief in, the overall goals of therapy. Side effects from blood-pressure medications can be unpleasant. But weighed against the reduced risk of catastrophic events like strokes, drug therapy may be more acceptable. Willingness to accept these tradeoffs varies dramatically by disease, and are strongly influenced by patient-specific factors. In general, the more serious the illness, the greater the willingness to accept the risks of treatment.

As I’ve described before, consumers may have completely different risk perspectives when it comes to drug therapies and (so-called) complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). For some, there is a clear delineation between the two: drugs are artificial, harsh, and dangerous. Supplements, herbs and anything deemed “alternative”, however, are natural, safe, and effective. When we talk about drugs, we use scientific terms – discussing the probability of effectiveness or harm, and describing both. With CAM, no tentativeness or balance may be used. Specific treatment claims may not be backed up by any supporting evidence at all. On several occasions patients with serious medical conditions have told me that they are refusing all drug treatments, describing them as ineffective or too toxic. Many are attracted to the the simple promises of CAM, instead. Now I’m not arguing that drug treatment is always necessary for ever illness. For some conditions where lifestyle changes can obviate the need for drug treatments, declining treatment this may be a reasonable approach – it’s a kick in the pants to improve one’s lifestyle. Saying “no” may also be reasonable where the benefits from treatment are expected to be modest, yet the adverse effects from treatments are substantial. These scenarios are not uncommon in the palliative care setting. But in some circumstances, there’s a clear medical requirement for drug treatment – yet treatment is declined. This approach is particularly frustrating in situations where patients face very serious illnesses that are potentially curable.  This week is the World Cancer Congress in Montreal and on Monday there were calls for patients to beware of fake cancer cures, ranging from laetrile, to coffee enemas, to juicing, and mistletoe. What are the consequences of using alternative treatments, instead of science-based care, for cancer? There are several studies and a recent publication that can help answer that question. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements

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