What You Really Need To Know About Dense Breasts

From left: 1) a breast of normal density showing fat (white), fibrous tissue (pink) and glands within the rectangle, while a cancer is present (circle). This illustrates the fact that cancer can occur in breasts of any density; 2) an extremely dense benign breast without any fat, composed of pink fibrous tissue and minimal amounts of glands; 3) an extremely dense breast involved by cancer (infiltrating haphazard small glands), in contrast to Fig 2, but very similar in appearance, demonstrating the subtle similarities. (Courtesy Michael Misialek)

From left: 1) a breast of normal density showing fat (white), fibrous tissue (pink) and glands within the rectangle, while a cancer is present (circle). This illustrates the fact that cancer can occur in breasts of any density; 2) an extremely dense benign breast without any fat, composed of pink fibrous tissue and minimal amounts of glands; 3) an extremely dense breast involved by cancer (infiltrating haphazard small glands), in contrast to Fig 2, but very similar in appearance, demonstrating the subtle similarities. (Courtesy Michael Misialek)

By Michael Misialek, M.D.
Guest Contributor

Reading the pathology request on my next patient, I saw she was a 55-year-old with an abnormality on her mammogram. Upon further investigation I discovered she had dense breasts and a concerning “radiographic opacity.” The suspicion of cancer was high based on these findings and so, a breast biopsy had been recommended. As I placed the slide on my microscope and brought the tissues into focus, I immediately recognized the patterns of an invasive cancer. Unfortunately the suspicion had proven correct.

Just a few patients earlier, an almost identical history had prompted another breast biopsy. This time the results were far different, a benign finding and obviously a sense of relief for the woman. Every day these stories unfold; the never ending workup of abnormal mammogram findings. Both radiographically and microscopically, it can be challenging at times sorting out these diagnoses, particularly in the face of dense breasts.

But what, exactly, are dense breasts and why are they suddenly in the news?

Breast Tissue 101

Breast tissue is actually made up of three tissue types when viewed under the microscope. The percentage of each varies between patients. There is fat, fibrous tissue (the supporting framework) and glandular tissue (the functional component). This is what I actually see under the microscope. Cancer can occur in fatty or dense breasts. It can be toughest to assess when the background is dense.

Biopsy, considered the gold standard in diagnosis, may even prove difficult to interpret when in the background of dense breasts. Dense breasts can hide a cancer, making it more difficult to detect both by mammogram and under the microscope.

Breast density has taken a lot of heat recently. A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that not all women with dense breasts and a normal mammogram warranted additional screening, as was previously thought. Understandably this report has received much attention. The authors found nearly half of all women had dense breasts. This alone should not be the sole criterion by which additional imaging tests are ordered since these women do not all go on to have a cancer. Clearly other risk factors are at play.

Confusion All Around

This is confusing for patients and doctors alike, especially when it seems as if screening guidelines are a moving target. Recently, the American College of Physicians issued new cancer screening guidelines: among these was mammograms, being recommended every two years. This too is getting a lot of press.

The American College of Radiology, American Cancer Society, Society of Breast Imaging and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend yearly mammograms beginning at age 40. Continue reading

Why We Need To Talk Now About The Brave New World Of Editing Genes

Screen shot 2015-05-21 at 7.48.44 PM

(Image: NIH)

It was standing room only in the Harvard Medical School auditorium last week, the atmosphere electric as an audience of hundreds hummed with anticipation — for a highly technical talk by a visiting scientist, Dr. Jennifer Doudna of Berkeley. Near the front sat the medical school’s dean, Dr. Jeffrey Flier.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna (Vimeo screenshot)

Dr. Jennifer Doudna (Vimeo screenshot)

“I don’t believe in my years at Harvard Medical School I’ve ever seen a crowd of this magnitude for a lecture of this kind,” he said.

The draw?

“The draw is, this is one of the most exciting topics in the scene of biology today.”

That buzzworthy biology topic is a revolutionary new method to “edit” DNA that has spread to thousands of labs around the world just in the last couple of years.

Suddenly, it’s no longer purely science fiction that humankind will have the ability to tinker with its own gene pool. But should it?

Learn This Acronym: CRISPR

The hot new gene-editing tool is known by the acronym CRISPR, for “clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats.” It acts as a sort of molecular scissors that can be easily targeted to cut and modify specific genes.

(Source: NIH)

(Source: NIH)

CRISPR occurs naturally in bacteria, but scientists are now learning to harness its power to alter DNA for research across the board — cancer, HIV, brain disease — even to make better potatoes. Just this week, the journal Science published a paper on possibly using CRISPR to try to stop female mosquitoes from spreading deadly diseases.

CRISPR looks particularly promising for human diseases that hinge on just one gene, like sickle-cell anemia or cystic fibrosis. Someday, the hope is, CRISPR and gene-editing tools like it will let us cure what are now lifelong diseases by simply deleting and replacing a baby’s “broken” gene. Continue reading

Q&A: A Taste Of The Looming Ethical Debate On Gene-Editing Humans

Boston University bio-ethicist George Annas discusses the ethical issues raised by new gene-editing tools that may eventually allow humankind to control its own genetic legacy. (Courtesy)

Boston University bio-ethicist George Annas discusses the ethical issues raised by new gene-editing tools that may eventually allow humankind to control its own genetic legacy. (Courtesy)

The powerful new gene-editing tool CRISPR is sparking excitement in biology labs — but also calls for a broad discussion about limits, and whether we should ever meddle with the human gene pool. I asked Boston University bio-ethicist Prof. George Annas for his take. Our conversation, edited:

CG: So scientists are saying we should start talking about using CRISPR to alter the human gene pool. What would a conversation like that even sound like?

GA: The conversation is not about CRISPR per se. It’s about: Now that we have techniques to edit the human genome, should we edit the human genome, and if so, for what purposes?

We’ve had this conversation around cloning in the mid-1990s. Most but not all scientists, and almost everyone in the public, agreed we should not try to clone a human being, use our genetic knowledge to make a genetic duplicate human being. And we’ve had very good luck: it’s turned out not to be possible to clone a human being. At least, we don’t know how to do it yet.

But with CRISPR, it seems much more likely that sometime in the not-too-distant future — though it may be decades, this gene editing technology will be dependable enough that someone is likely to try to use it on a human embryo.

This will be a big and dangerous step—dangerous for sure to the resulting child. Many people have no trouble with using genome editing on animals and plants, so long as you’re not harming the animal in a way that makes it suffer. But children do suffer. So the first question is: Should we ever try to edit the genomes of human embryos that are destined to become children? I think the answer is no.

I agree with the scientists who say that it’s definitely not safe to do it now because we can’t predict what other things CRISPR will do to the rest of the genome. We know very little about the genome, and what impact taking out one or a series of base pairs — with CRISPR, you can take a series out — is going to do to the rest of the genome, and hence to the whole organism as it develops.

And the problem with germ-line genetic engineering at the level of the embryo —

— Making genetic changes that will be passed on forever —

Potentially, yes. First they will be passed on to this baby, and this baby will become an adult. And if this “engineered” baby has children, the new traits will be passed on to the next generation, and so on.

So an initial question — and scientists agree with this — is, how many generations do you need to prove that a particular method of genome editing is safe? I would guess most scientists would say, at least four or five. Well, we can do four or five generations in zebrafish or in rats or in fruit flies pretty quickly.. In humans, however, it’s going to take you probably 100 years. So, how many children would you want to follow, and their offspring, for 100 years before you are ready to conclude that editing the human genome is safe for children?

That strikes me as a question that we can’t answer. Because we cannot prove it safe without putting human children at terrible risk of harm, we can’t subject any human child to this experiment. That’s because children can’t consent, and their consent is necessary as a matter of ethics because there are good reasons to anticipate that something will go horribly wrong.

And more broadly, there are potential implications for the whole human race, if we start engineering evolution — ? Continue reading

Why The Primary Care Problem (Lower Status, Pay) Matters

By Jeff Levin-Scherz, M.D., M.B.A.
Guest Contributor

Medscape just published its annual physician compensation survey. The survey includes almost 20,000 physicians and is given online, so it’s probably not entirely representative.

Also, the survey results are self-reported, and physicians generally under-report their income. But the comparative reported income among specialties is informative. This survey is among the largest available, and does not require an expensive paid subscription.

(Courtesy of Medscape)

(Courtesy of Medscape)

The results are no surprise. But they’re worth noting: Specialists make 45 percent more than primary care physicians, and orthopedists make 224 percent more than pediatricians.

The majority of respondent physicians were employed, and men consistently make more than women in the same specialty. Women have the largest representation in specialties with the lowest incomes.

Physician income was a bit lower in the Northeast but higher in the Northwest. Massachusetts’ physicians report that their income is 46th in the nation.

Internists are the least satisfied in their job (47 percent), and the least likely to choose their specialty if they could choose again (25 percent), but high in the rankings of specialties where the respondent would choose medicine again (71 percent).

(Courtesy of Medscape)

(Courtesy of Medscape)

Family physicians were only slightly more likely to choose the same specialty again as internists (31 percent), yet they were the most likely to say they would choose to go into medicine again (74 percent).

Pediatrician income is among the lowest of all specialties, yet they are twice as likely to say that they would choose the same specialty. Internists and family physicians would go into medicine again, but they would go into sub-specialties, and not do general primary care. The high cost of health care in the U.S. is in part due not to a shortage of primary care physicians, but also due to a surplus of specialists.

Why does all this matter?

The American College of Physicians reported on the impending “collapse” of primary care in 2006. There have been efforts to change this situation since, including “patient centered medical homes,” and short-term enhanced Medicaid primary care fee schedules built into the Affordable Care Act.

The continued relatively lower pay of primary care physicians and the lack of job satisfaction of general internists and family physicians means that our historic way of delivering primary care is about to change. Much future primary care is likely to be delivered by nurse practitioners or physician assistants, and some office-based primary care will be supplanted by telehealth or by apps with underlying algorithms.

The Medscape survey suggests that we will continue to face serious challenges to continue to deliver the highly personalized primary care which many of us value, and the highly coordinated care needed by the frail elderly and those with serious chronic illnesses.

Continue reading

Your Doctor, Always Available, For A Monthly Fee

For 10 years, Jeff Gold showed up to a job he wanted to love: being a family doctor.

“I was busy as a bee,” says Gold, 39, with up to 2,500 patients, seeing 20 or so a day.

Dr. Jeff Gold runs a direct primary care office in Marblehead. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Dr. Jeff Gold runs a direct primary care office in Marblehead. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Rushing from one patient to the next, calling insurers who wouldn’t approve prescriptions, filling out paperwork that didn’t seem relevant to his patients, Gold kept asking himself, is this what I signed up for?

“I thought I was gonna help everybody and spend time with everybody and it’s impossible to do,” Gold says.

So Gold quit, wrote a business plan to be a doctor who does not take insurance, hired one staff member (a nurse), and borrowed almost $400,000 to outfit a two-exam-room office next to a candy shop and café in Marblehead.

Gold may be the first physician in Massachusetts practicing under a model called direct primary care. For a flat monthly fee, Gold offers patients one-hour same-day appointments, no wait. The doctor is available 24/7 in person, at the office, at the patient’s home, via text, email or Skype. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Researcher Says It May Slow Tumors

(MilitaryHealth/Flickr)

(MilitaryHealth/Flickr)

This just in from Runner’s World: “Exercise Fights Cancer Tumors Directly.”

A heartening headline, no? A great many caveats are surely in order — the eternal “rats are not humans,” in particular — but the piece describes interesting research suggesting that, to anthropomorphize a bit, tumors don’t like it when we exercise. From Runner’s World:

Kansas State University exercise physiologist Brad Behnke has been studying prostate-cancer tumor growth in rats that either exercise or are sedentary. As with humans, rats divert blood flow to the muscles when exercising. The result, in Behnke’s research to date, is a 200 percent increase in tumor blood flow during exercise.

That sounds like it could be a bad thing, at least if more blood flow “fed” tumor growth, and accelerated metastasis (spread of the disease to other organs). However, the opposite is what occurs, according to Behnke.

“When a tumor lacks oxygen, it releases just about every growth factor you can think of, which often results in metastasis,” he explained to Runner’s World Newswire by email. “Simply speaking, the tumor says, ‘I can’t breathe here, so let’s pick up and move somewhere else in the body.’”

When a tumor is bathed in oxygen, on the other hand, its activity tends to slow. In an earlier paper, Behnke demonstrated a 90 percent decrease in “tumor hypoxia” (low oxygen) among rats that engaged in long-term, moderate-intensity treadmill exercise. “As far as I know, this is the largest reduction in tumor hypoxia of any intervention, including drugs,” he said. Continue reading

Financial Relief Finally On Its Way For Meningitis Outbreak Victims

A vial of injectable steroids from the New England Compounding Center is displayed in the Tennessee Department of Health back in 2012. (Kristin M. Hall/AP)

A vial of injectable steroids from the New England Compounding Center is displayed in the Tennessee Department of Health back in 2012. (Kristin M. Hall/AP)

Lyn Laperriere, a retired automobile industry worker living in Michigan, was having back pain in the fall of 2012 when he received a dose of steroids produced at the former New England Compounding Center in Framingham.

Lapperiere was a drag racer and was looking forward to the winter bowling season. But a week after receiving the shot he checked into a hospital. Forty-two days later, his wife Penny Laperriere agreed to take him off life support. He was 61.

“We did everything together,” Penny Laperriere recalled. “So when he passed away, life for me came to a screeching halt too.”

Lyn Laperriere was one of 64 people who died after receiving a dose of steroids produced at the former New England Compounding Center in Framingham. (Courtesy Penny Laperriere)

Lyn Laperriere was one of 64 people who died after receiving a dose of steroids produced at the former New England Compounding Center in Framingham. (Courtesy Penny Laperriere)

More than two and a half years after NECC recalled all of its products after steroids the compounding pharmacy produced were linked to a nationwide meningitis outbreak, some financial relief may finally be on its way for the relatives of the 64 who died and the 750 who were sickened as a result of receiving injections of the tainted drugs.

A federal bankruptcy judge on Tuesday indicated he would approve a $200 million settlement to compensate NECC’s creditors, including victims of the outbreak.

‘There’s Been No Financial Help’

Penny Laperriere, who’s now 58, couldn’t afford to keep the house she’d shared with her husband. She had an auction to sell off the couple’s things and moved close to her sister. She’s received lots of bills, but no money to help with what became the deadliest case of contaminated medicine in the country’s history.

“That’s the hard part, there’s been no financial help for me or any of the patients who are still living with this,” she said.

Laperriere started a support group for victims of fungal meningitis who’ve had to cash in retirement funds, file bankruptcy and still face mounting medical bills. Patients and those who lost loved ones will file claims for a share of the $200 million settlement beginning next month.

Laperriere has no idea what to expect. “Anything I get will be a gift,” she said. “I’m not expecting much because there are so many hands in the pot.” Continue reading

Related:

Report: Judge Approves $200M Settlement Plan For New England Compounding Center Victims

A Massachusetts bankruptcy judge gave verbal approval for a $200 million settlement plan for victims of a national meningitis outbreak linked to the New England Compounding Center, the Boston Business Journal reports. Continue reading

Related:

Ending ‘The War’ And Giving Up ‘The Fight': How Not To Talk About Cancer

Not a good analogy for cancer: "A Battle Scene" by Luca Giordano, late 17th century, Norton Simon Museum. (Wikimedia Commons)

Not a good analogy for cancer: “A Battle Scene” by Luca Giordano, late 17th century, Norton Simon Museum. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Dr. Isaac Chan
Guest contributor

Hers was the face of someone defeated by cancer. Our conversation was grim. She wanted to “fight,” to continue treatment. But there were no more options.

I vaguely remember speaking, feeling hopelessly ill-equipped. I, too, felt defeated. As a young physician and aspiring oncologist, I wondered: How do we prepare ourselves and our patients for these conversations?

Thankfully, I am not alone in struggling with this question. A new theme in medicine has emerged: how to talk about dying. As a field, oncology has been at the forefront of this movement. Some suggest making exposure to end-of-life encounters mandatory during medical school. Others stress creating systems and providing more resources for patients and doctors to encourage earlier planning for death.

But in order to facilitate and advance this difficult conversation, we must first change the very words we use to discuss cancer.

When the National Cancer Act was signed in 1971, our nation’s political and social will was focused on a “war on cancer.” Our widespread use of this language is rooted in a propagandist history promoting the belief that, with enough resources, this is a conflict we will win. Consequently, victory became defined only by “defeating cancer,” or finding a cure.

A visit to the American Cancer Society website asks you to join the “fight against cancer;” and a majority of public cancer-related media is packed with more war imagery. While the war description of cancer has resulted in unprecedented attention and fundraising for cancer care, research and survivorship, a balance should be reached between these successful efforts and language that is a realistic assessment of what can be accomplished today, for the patient, right now.

Cancer is a unique disease. To take the war analogy further, cancer is not a foreign agent infiltrating our bodies, such as an infection — cancer is a coup d’état, a tumorous growth from within us. One of the great paradoxes of cancer treatment is that targeting cancer inevitably means targeting our own bodies. Continue reading

‘Only A Game’ Questions NFL Medical Advisor On Football Safety

(Kevin Domingue/Flickr Creative Commons)

(Kevin Domingue/Flickr Creative Commons)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: A child of mine will play tackle football over my dead body. A young brain is too precious a thing to risk. And though the data are not all in, we know plenty about the potential brain damage of repeated head hits, including recent findings that linked youth football to cognitive impairment. Oh, and let’s not forget the 2013 study that found that a single season of contact-sports head blows could affect learning and memory.

So I was surprised to learn from an excellent commentary this morning by WBUR’s Bill Littlefield of Only a Game fame that a prominent Boston medical leader was touting football’s safety. From the Boston Globe here:

Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel, the president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the National Football League’s new adviser, said Tuesday that football is safer than it has ever been, but she called on the NFL to commit more money to medical research and better educate the public about sports injuries.

Nabel, 63, in her first public comments as the NFL’s chief health and medical adviser, said that if her children were still young, she would allow them to play football. She noted that her son, now 29, played football in the eighth grade.

“I think football is getting safer all the time,” Nabel told reporters at the NFL’s offices in New York.

Really, Dr. Nabel? You’ll understand if I want to seek a second opinion — maybe from a former NFL player who can’t remember his own kids’ names.

Bill Littlefield’s commentary – As Concussion Crisis Mounts, NFL Turns To … Cardiology Specialist? — points out that Dr. Nabel’s impressive CV does not seem to include any expertise in brain trauma. He writes:

Experience as a hospital administrator would not seem to be the key qualification for a person charged with advising the heads of an industry where the most significant problem is a 30 percent rate of brain damage among the workforce.

He concludes: Continue reading