Category Archives: active surveillance
I was going through some old issues of Prevention–the ones I never got around to reading–and I came upon an article entitled Your Breast Cancer Risk is in Her Hands by Sarah Klein, an article that focuses on Dr. Laura Esserman’s study that could change the way that breast cancer screenings are conducted. This is very exciting. Of course, the battle has been raging, and as you know, I reluctantly get my screenings at the urging of my doctor, even though I am not quite sure if it is necessary. Hopefully, this new five-year study will reveal some results that will put our minds at ease about skipping the mammograms.
An important tool provided in the article is a link to the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium’s calculator. I tried it. There are only like six questions but 2 are difficult to answer. If you have a lot of information on your own breasts–such as how dense they are–you might find this useful. The link is here.
When I cracked my eggs one morning last month I noticed they were stamped with pink ribbons (really), and then I caught part of the Giants game that was adorned with pink ribbons, and I thought, is there any industry that does not get on the pink ribbon bandwagon? I mean, we are aware. I think we are very aware already, and it seems silly that the Giants were wearing pink socks that day.
So what does being aware really do? We are aware of the mammography guidelines, but we aren’t aware of a lot of things, which is why there are unnecessary biopsies and unnecessary surgeries, and why there are women who do not have the treatment they need in time. So we need to be aware of our choices and what we should be doing, but not that breast cancer exists. We know about breast cancer, but we don’t really know our options.
There are two sides to this issue: one is that there is hysteria, hyperawareness, a lack of real knowledge on the subject and overtreatment, but then there is the other side. What if we really are catching it early?
Here is what I have concluded after researching the various methods of tracking microcalcifications: there is no way to know if an aggressive form of DCIS lurks without biopsy. Although the chances of having an aggressive form of DCIS is miniscule when going by the percentages, a surgical biopsy can eliminate that “what if” entirely. On some level, it seems like overkill because no one will ever know if the bits of tissue would have gone on to become a cancer, but there really aren’t any protocols in place to watch and wait.
Those who call for active surveillance have not come up with a proper method. Thermography could be a good way to montior breasts, but it is still rather controversial, and I think more research is needed–or at least more round table discussions so that all the experts can hash it out. Dr. Susan Love’s website says that microcalcifications can only be seen by mammogram. If that is the case, then following them with thermography that monitors breast changes may not see a cancer until it has gotten too big. At least, that is Dr. Love’s conclusion.
I can see why there is controversy. Some doctors see thermography as a way to monitor breast health, claiming that it can detect breast cancers years before they arise, while other doctors claim that only mammogram can detect these early cancers. I don’t know the truth. In everything I have read, I can’t figure which side is correct. The conventional doctors claim that thermography has never been proven to find cancer early, while supporters say not only can thermography find early IBC, but it is much safer than the mammograms that can actually cause DCIS to spread. Following up with mammograms is really the only option aside from biopsy, but most doctors will not condone that with a BIRADS 4 rating anyway. Plus, it’s not a great solution.
I have read that the aggressive type of DCIS can grow quickly. When doctors tell us not to wait six months, I’m thinking, maybe they know something I don’t. DCIS can change at any time, and we can’t be screened daily, weekly, or even monthly. Living with DCIS is kind of the same risk as keeping all your money in a 401K when you are very close to retirement. You just don’t know when the market will crash. You just don’t know when a noninvasive cancer will become invasive. Not finding it by not looking for it is one solution by I think we don’t yet have the data to support that position.
In the end, the decision comes down to risk and it is a valid argument that we can live with the risk, but if the risk of biopsy is not great, why not eliminate the cancer risk completely?
Now, there are risks associated with biopsy too, and pain, and time off from work, and those are things that are important to keep in mind. If there is only a slight risk that you might have DCIS, and there is a slight risk of needle track seeding with the stereotactic biopsy, why even bother? It is a valid question. With microcalcifications, some of those types of biopsies fail and plus, you have the risk of actually spreading a cancer, so why do something that can actually harm your body?
That is why I see surgical biopsy as a good option. (Here is a wonderful page that goes through all biopsy options and provides a thorough explanation. This is from a site written by a nurse and survivor).
As far as the DCIS controversy is concerned, I don’t know if they are catching a cancer early, or they are doing too many biopsies. It is one or the other, or maybe something in between. I do know that there is controversy and confusion, but we still have decisions to make. I do think we can agree that we are aware, aware of breast cancer, and aware of some treatments, but there is a lot we don’t know still.
In the end, no test can really discern what the microcalcifications are with the exception of biopsy. And with all the hysteria surrounding breast cancer, it is hard to ignore anything they find. As I have heard a number of critics say, if they find something, they have to biopsy it. So true. But I’m not sure that not looking is the answer. I am hoping current trials on DCIS/suspected DCIS will yield some real results that the mainstream medical community can live with. Until then, we really have very few options.
I listened to Dr. Christiane Northrup‘s Hay House broadcast on October 5th . The subject was breast health. Her guest was thermographer, Dr. Phllip Getson. The discussion centered on breast health in general, but there was a focus on thermography as not only an alternative to mammogram, but also as a way to monitor DCIS!
According to Drs. Northrup and Getson, thermography is a better way to monitor breast changes. It can pick up changes seven to ten years sooner than mammography. It is also very safe. Dr. Getson emphasizes the safety aspect as he explains that it can be performed every day, it can be done on pregnant and lactating women, and children will not be harmed by it. Dr. Northrup adds that many doctors do not recognize the value of thermography. Dr. Northrup has referenced the DCIS controversy in several of her published books, including Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom.
Dr. Northrup did talk about DCIS quite a bit, noting that a study of corpses of women in their forties suggested that 40% of the women studied had DCIS. Yet, these were undiagnosed cases. In other words, when they were alive, the women did not know they had it. Northrup concludes that DCIS is something you die with, and not something you die from. Also reported was a 1995 Lancet study noting that DCIS increased 328% in 12 years, and 200% of the increase was due to the use of mammography.
Dr. Northrup talked about the issue of microcalcifications, and that most doctors feel the need to test them further, often with a biopsy, but that 80% of the time they are benign and goes on to explain further: microcalcifications are present as a result of chronic inflammation in the breast; this is one of the big issues related to mammography; once a doctor finds something, he or she is required to look further; reported data shows that the result of treatment of microcalcifications created more trauma for women; microcalcifications can sit there and be harmless, and you can leave them alone.
Northrup says that DCIS is not harmful. Yet, it must be monitored. Suggested is thermography of the breasts to make sure nothing is growing. If diagnosed DCIS is not generating heat and not changing, it was explained that you can be less aggressive with it. Northrup remarked that many experts believe that DCIS is not a cancer at all, and so many women are being terrified into surgeries that they do not need.
The doctors agreed that DCIS does have to be watched, but it can be watched with the use of thermography. The thermographer looks for inflammation. If there is inflammation,it was explained, then treat the inflammation. Northrup says we have created a nation that is terrified where every single one of us is a sitting duck, but this is a manmade idea. She implores the listener to stop the insanity.
I totally agree. Dr. Northrup has vocalized these sentiments before and where she stands on DCIS is no secret. It is the minority position, but it needs to be heard. Further, much of the information in the broadcast can be corroborated with other sources. While I have heard much of it before–and I even know a bit about thermography, the detailed information provided about the technique and its usefulness in montoring DCIS is something new to me. Thermography in fact can be an avenue that women may take who do not want to be endlessly monitored by mammograms that are potentially harmful and not as accurate. I will certainly do more research on thermography.
Both doctors talked about prevention in the form of supplements to enhance breast health, as well as changes in diet; there was an emphasis on avoidance of sugar. There was a sense that changes in the breasts are not designated to become cancer and lifestyle changes can help to prevent this from happening.
The most important thing I got from this broadcast is that if you are diagnosed with DCIS, you can use thermography as a method of active surveillance. I think there is a lot of wisdom there. First, do no harm, but do follow up. Thermography is not harmful and it provides a lot of information. The only drawback is that while it is an excellent tool, the insurance companies–well, they love the mammogram so they may not pay for the thermogram. It is controversial, but I’ll take something that is completely not harmful over radiation, biopsy, or surgery. Still, I do feel the need to research this controversy further. I am hopeful that thermography or some other alternative will provide help for the millions of women who endure countless mammograms and derive so little information from them.
While most doctors do treat DCIS with surgery, there are some who see watchful waiting as an option.
Thanks to this month’s issue of More Magazine, an article by Nancy Smith entitled “A Breast Cancer You May Not Need to Treat” provides the latest information on DCIS. In it, a handful of doctors who advocate for the watchful waiting approach are interviewed and that part of the piece appears on page 4.
It should be said that while some doctors believe that not taking drastic measures, or even having a biopsy, is possible, it does not seem to be typical. That is, most doctors who see something awry on the mammo will probably advocate for biopsy, and if something turns up there, well, the protocol says to treat it like invasive breast cancer.
It should be emphasized that when a doctor says that one should watch and wait, it should not be construed as “do nothing” and one should not get the impression that everything is fine. Monitoring is key to watchful waiting. It means that you have your mammograms or sonograms or whatever is recommended to make sure that everything is under control. In other words, what the doctors call active surveillance in the Smith article means that you take an active role in watching the cells. You don’t run the other way, terrified of getting the next mammogram. You wait with optimism, and reverence for the process. You listen to your doctors. It seems to be a non-invasive way of potentially saving your life.