Education, Medical Decisions, and Regret

A recent AARP article that contained an interview with rock stars Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge brought awareness to the individual and personal nature of genetic testing, hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC), and the medical challenges that accompany inherited breast cancer. The article also led to some heated responses from members of the HBOC community. 

 

The HBOC community has had its share of celebrities. Whenever public figures disclose that they carry a BRCA mutation or have hereditary cancer in the family, it raises the profile and awareness of hereditary cancer. Christina Applegate, Sharon Osbourne, and, most prominently, Angelina Jolie, have all revealed their mutation status. Others, like René Syler, Cynthia Nixon, and Wanda Sykes have shared their family histories, and although they have not tested positive for BRCA, some other familial factor may be causing breast cancer in their families.

It’s difficult enough making medical decisions around HBOC, but celebrities have an added burden of being in the public eye. People look up to them. As individuals in the spotlight share their journeys and decisions, the public assumes they have access to top information and the best doctors. More weight is given to celebrities’ opinions and medical choices than those of the average person, and we often take for granted that celebrities’ statements are accurate.

The AARP interview quoted Ms. Etheridge as saying, “I have the BRCA2 gene but I don’t encourage women to get tested.” Although she doesn’t use the word “regret” it certainly sounds as though she has misgivings about testing. Melissa Etheridge is a member of the HBOC community, and by extension a member of FORCE’s constituency. FORCE empowers people to make informed medical decisions. We validate their feelings, and support people on the HBOC journey. I support Ms. Etheridge’s decisions, but I am saddened to think she has regrets about her choices.

Ms. Etheridge said in the AARP article that her doctor recommended testing, but she never mentions receiving genetic counseling from a qualified expert. I do think this could have changed her perception of genetic testing and highlights the value of receiving comprehensive information on which to base your medical decisions. Information can be the antidote to regret.

In the interview, Ms. Etheridge also says, “Genes can be turned on and off. I turned my gene on with my very poor diet.” FORCE wrote a letter that was co-signed by members of our scientific advisory board and sent to the editor of AARP regarding Ms. Etheridge’s statement. USA Today subsequently published an article about our letter to AARP which included interviews with members of FORCE and the HBOC community who expressed views that differed with Ms. Etheridge. Many members of our community consider the information received from genetic counseling and testing as lifesaving. In FORCE’s letter, we expressed concern that readers may think that BRCA mutations and their effects on cancer risk can be modulated solely with diet to prevent cancer, and conversely that those with mutations who become diagnosed with cancer somehow caused it with a poor diet. Although several studies have shown that eating a healthy diet can lower the risk for certain cancers, these studies have been large-scale general population studies, and the actual protection for a given individual may be small. There are many reasons to eat a varied and healthy diet, including protection from numerous diseases. But not enough evidence suggests that diet and lifestyle alone can protect people from BRCA-associated cancers.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 12.04.41 PMI do want to point out that our letter was directed to the editors at AARP and not Ms. Etheridge, who is entitled to her opinion on testing. Our issue is the lack of context and evidence-based information that surrounded her statements about cancer risk, diet, and genetic testing that could have educated AARP’s readership, and helped readers to make their own informed decisions about whether or not to undergo genetic testing.

I believe that access to a genetics expert and support via FORCE empowers people to make the medical decisions that are right for them. Ms. Etheridge’s example shows that we can do a much better job of educating and supporting people facing hereditary cancer; it highlights the critical need for FORCE to continue our efforts to help people feel empowered and live the healthiest and most fulfilled lives possible.

When HBOC is in the news, it opens a discussion, demystifies inherited cancer, and removes the stigma associated with words like cancer, mutation, and mastectomy. Medically inaccurate information about cancer, genetics, and HBOC, however, is abundant in the media and harmful to consumers. This is why FORCE is launching our XRAYS (eXamining the Relevance of 

???Articles for Young Survivors) program, which is supported by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control. The funding comes from passage of the EARLY Act, legislation that was first introduced to Congress by Representative Wasserman Schultz, who also carries a BRCA mutation, and is up for congressional renewal. The EARLY Act funds programs by organizations that focus on young women and breast cancer. FORCE’s XRAYS Program will allow us to critically review articles in the media, correct any inaccuracies, and write a lay level summaries of the research or information presented. The reviews will be accompanied by an “at-a-glance” graphic representation for readers to easily determine if they should read and believe the article and what relevance it may hold for their situation.

Regardless of her personal feelings about testing, I hope that in time, Ms. Etheridge is able to recognize that many people (not all) feel that having genetic information about cancer risk can improve their health outcomes, and that she appreciates the value of a more balanced public position on BRCA testing.

 

FDA Approval of Promising Targeted Therapy Likely Stalled Until More Research Studies are Completed

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 was a pivotal day for our community.

It began with promise and ended with disappointment. For the first time ever, a treatment targeted for BRCA-associated cancers was considered for approval by the FDA. Yesterday the FDA’s Oncologic Drug Advisory Committee (ODAC) held a hearing to consider FDA approval of the drug olaparib for BRCA-positive ovarian cancer.

FORCE has been following the development of these drugs for the last decade.

Since then, we have followed the research, educated people about these agents, generated excitement about the research focus on HBOC, and facilitated clinical trial enrollment. For the HBOC community and the almost 1 million people in the US that FORCE represents, these targeted therapies offered hope. Still, completion of PARP inhibitor studies has taken a long time and in the duration, many people who could not access PARP inhibitors and did not meet criteria for any clinical trial have died of hereditary cancers.

FORCE testified at the hearing on behalf of the HBOC community.

Lisa Schlager VP of Policy at FORCE testifies.

Lisa Schlager VP of Policy at FORCE testifies.

FORCE was there to represent our community at this important hearing, as we have always been in the past. When the community needed protection against genetic discrimination, FORCE successfully lobbied for the passage of GINA laws. When laboratories began aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing of genetic testing, FORCE was there testifying to the Secretary of Health against these practices. We were at the steps of the US Supreme Court fighting for freedom from gene patents, and Wednesday we stood up in front of the ODAC hearing and urged the FDA to approve olaparib to treat hereditary ovarian cancer. You can read our full testimony here.


During the hearing, ODAC voted against olaparib approval in favor of waiting for further research results.

The FDA and ODAC recommended waiting until the completion of further studies before approving the drug, a process which could take several more years. The FDA will issue a final ruling on this application in October, however it is expected that they will not reverse their position on waiting until further studies are completed before approving this drug.

A point of contention is the issue of progression-free survival vs. overall survival.

The concept of progression-free survival (PFS) refers to the period of time that a treatment causes the cancer to improve or remain stable without getting worse. Overall survival (OS) measures the specific length of time that a person with cancer survives after receiving treatment. Scientist use these terms to measure the success or efficacy of new cancer therapies. Traditionally, the FDA has used only overall survival when considering the approval of a new drug. Other outcomes such as improved quality of life, and progression free survival are not usually considered significant enough for the FDA to approve a drug. There has debate among researchers and advocacy groups about whether or not a drug should be approved if it doesn’t demonstrate OS benefits. For patients facing advanced disease, PFS may seem like an acceptable endpoint.

In the olaparib study there was a statistically significant benefit in progression-free survival for BRCA mutation carriers who received olaparib: 6.9 months longer than those on placebo. The time until next treatment was 9.4 months longer in BRCA mutation carriers who took olaparib compared to those who received a placebo. Olaparib showed a significant effect on time to subsequent therapy in BRCA-mutation carriers, with the median time to subsequent therapy of 15.6 months in patients receiving olaparib versus 6.2 months in the placebo group.  There was a trend towards improved overall survival for women who took olaparib, with 55% of patients in the placebo arm dying compared to 50%, with a reported hazard ratio of 0.73 but this did not reach statistical significance in part because of the small number of patients in the study.

FORCE believes olaparib should receive FDA approval now. 

FORCE strongly supports the immediate approval of olaparib as a maintenance drug for BRCA-positive ovarian cancer because we believe it will improve the lives of women fighting ovarian cancer today. We will continue to do everything in our power to urge the FDA to consider the needs of our community.

In the meantime, we will continue to encourage our community to participate in and match patients to the critical research that we hope will lead to FDA approval of PARP inhibitors.

However, given the small subpopulations of women eligible for these trials, and the long timeline for completion of these studies, we are very concerned that completion of larger trials could take too long. Looking at the data on progression-free survival and time to subsequent first therapy, olaparib gives BRCA mutation carriers with ovarian cancer more time without disease and more time where they can avoid chemotherapy, translating to months or years with improved quality of life.

FORCE urged the FDA to consider the unmet needs of the HBOC community. In our testimony we asked the FDA,

“How many more women will die or suffer the effects of advanced disease and chemotherapy while we are waiting for larger trials to be completed? Women fighting hereditary ovarian cancer do not have time to wait.”

Research requires people! FORCE connects people to HBOC research.

With the FDA leaning towards delaying approval until the completion of further studies, now more than ever our efforts to enroll patients into HBOC studies is critical! Please help us create a better future for people affected by hereditary cancers by:

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Hereditary Cancer Impact Is More Than Skin Deep

Articles about Angelina Jolie’s revelation that she underwent genetic testing and prophylactic mastectomy with reconstruction often emphasize her as one of the world’s most beautiful women, who is still beautiful after all that she has endured. This message can be reassuring; by going public, Ms. Jolie put a more positive spin on the stigmatizing effect of having a “mutation” and undergoing mastectomy. Single-handedly, she started a public dialog about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) that has raised awareness beyond any that has been previously achieved by media focus. Her story provides hope for those who are just beginning to understand or confront their hereditary cancer risk. These are positive developments.

Media reports on HBOC that focus only on cosmetic outcomes, however, can be a double-edged sword, demonstrating that women can come through mastectomy and remain beautiful, but sometimes setting up unrealistic expectations. Some of these articles trivialize the challenges we face, as though cosmetic outcome is the only factor that matters. While other stories sensationalize the decision for prophylactic surgery as an extreme and shocking step. The complexity of HBOC and the accompanying emotional impact is often unreported.

Media attention notwithstanding, those of us who live with HBOC know that learning about hereditary cancer risk and making medical care decisions to stay healthy are not always easy or straightforward, and outcomes are not always positive. Aided by support, credible information, and skilled caregivers, many of us survive, but not all of us emerge totally unscathed.

Survivors and previvors of hereditary cancer are sometimes pressured to feel grateful for the knowledge of their risk. Most of us do appreciate knowing about our elevated cancer risks, and subsequent opportunities to address these risks. But we have also faced loss and grief due to hereditary cancer. We have known fear, life-changing treatments, side effects, and loss of loved ones who are dear to us. In the 16 years since I learned of my own mutation and then experienced treatment, follow-ups, and surgery, I have been there myself. After undergoing mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and surgical menopause in my thirties, I found very little focus, support, or guidance on issues such as sexuality and body image 16 years ago.

I am one of the lucky ones. After years of research, self-advocacy, trial and error, therapy and passage of time; at age 50 I am in the best physical and emotional shape of my life. But I know that so many others with HBOC struggle with the quality-of-life issues. Even after our best efforts, some of us face extended recoveries, long-term consequences, complications, side effects, or outcomes that are not always what we hoped for. For some women, surgery affects their sexual experience. Others don’t feel comfortable with how they look in or out of clothes. Menopause may have reduced or eliminated their desire for intimacy, or changed their ability to achieve sexual satisfaction. These women often do not regret their surgeries, but they are left with emotional scars as well as physical reminders from the procedures.

Whether we struggle with decision- making, are unhappy with our outcomes, or feel satisfied but are trying to adjust to a “new normal,” all of us have a right to process our experiences and grieve our losses. Acceptance and gratitude are not always immediate or easy to attain. Sometimes we have to work at it. Sometimes we need the guidance of experts. And sometimes we just need the support and understanding of those who have been there before us.

In our 2012 survey (unpublished) on long-term follow-up care and medical issues for survivors and previvors, 77% of 900 respondents indicated that they were “somewhat concerned” or “very concerned” about libido and sexuality, and 55% indicated that they had ongoing problems with libido or sexuality. Even when distinguishing responses from survivors and previvors, although more survivors (62%) experienced problems with sexuality and libido, a high percentage of previvors (48%) did as well. These numbers are unacceptable and speak to an unmet need among our community.

Fortunately, organizations like Livestrong are focusing on long-term issues of survivorship. Earlier this year, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), which establishes consensus guidelines for standard-of-care practice in cancer medicine, released its first guidelines on survivorship issues, including sexuality. But clearly, gaps remain in resources and health care services addressing these concerns, for both survivors and previvors.

FORCE programs are also designed to provide this support and guidance. For those who have difficulties accepting their bodies and changes in sexuality from treatment, mastectomy, reconstruction, or surgical menopause, our upcoming free webinar on body image and sexuality may help. Sharon Bober, PhD, Director of the Sexual Health Program in Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, will explain how women can manage the after-effects of these mind- and body-altering interventions.

Until more attention is given to the complex nature of HBOC and the long-term consequences of our choices, public perception of the HBOC experience will be limited to what is presented by the media. Sexuality and intimacy is a personal and private topic, making it challenging to discuss with health care providers. But if we don’t bring the subject up, most doctors won’t ask us about it. We must continue to advocate for ourselves in order to improve our long-term physical and emotional wellbeing. The health care community needs to pay attention to these concerns and invest in more resources and research on sexuality and intimacy for survivors and previvors as important quality-of-life outcomes. Every woman facing HBOC, regardless of her situation and choices, has a right to feel desirable, emotionally fulfilled, and beautiful inside and out.

Fear, Bravery and HBOC

Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 8.30.20 PMRecently the topics of BRCA and bravery have been in the news. Previvor Angelina Jolie made headlines when she announced that she carries a BRCA1 mutation and underwent prophylactic bilateral mastectomies. Singer Melissa Etheridge, a BRCA2 mutation carrier and a breast cancer survivor, labeled Jolie’s choice of BPM as “fearful” rather than “brave.” Personally, I don’t think that bravery and fear are mutually exclusive.

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Fear is a powerful motivator. It is an adaptive and natural reaction to threats to our lives and well-being that can lead us to make choices that improve our survival or quality-of-life. Fear of cancer may not be the only fear on which we base decisions. Fear comes in many varieties: fear of chemotherapy or radiation, fear of life-altering or image-altering surgeries, fear of leaving our children parentless, fear of passing on a mutation, fear of medical debt, fear of a recurrence, etc.  Each of these fears are valid and may impact our personal health care decisions. Fear does not make our actions any less brave and it doesn’t mean these decisions are rash or uninformed. Fear can be balanced with information, empowerment, action, and even competing fears.

Bravery evokes images of heroic people sacrificing their lives for others, but there are other examples of bravery. Like so many women in our community, Angelina Jolie cites concern for her children as a reason for being proactive with her medical care. Putting the needs of others above our own requires courage. Several members have expressed that they didn’t feel particularly brave in facing their cancer risk. Although I can relate to their feelings, I would argue that the HBOC community includes some of the bravest role models I have ever met.

Most of my life I have never felt that brave, and bravery was never a description that I ever used to define myself. I was bullied in school, and I didn’t stand up for myself. Instead I shrank from confrontation.

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and later when it recurred at age 34, I was terrified. I thought the rest of my life would be short, and given my prognosis I was afraid my 2-year-old son would grow up without a mom, like I did. So I did what I felt was necessary to improve my chances of survival: I left my busy veterinary practice to move to Houston for treatment at MD Anderson, one of the top cancer centers. My husband called me brave as he dropped me off for my appointment for a second opinion. I may have appeared resolute, but inside I was trembling. He confessed later when he picked me up that he would have fainted from terror walking through the imposing doors of the cancer center.

While on sabbatical for treatment, many of my clients called or wrote to wish me well. They sent their prayers and good wishes, and many told me they thought I was brave. I didn’t feel I had earned any badges for valor. I was simply doing what my doctors recommended. From the time of my recurrence until I finished treatment, on any given day it was a struggle between getting up and facing the day or hiding under the covers paralyzed with fear. I didn’t feel brave, but hearing the word from others was like a shot of courage, a mantra that sustained me.

As members of the HBOC community, we face many difficult challenges and decisions. Courage comes in many forms. Whether it’s proceeding with genetic counseling and testing, telling relatives about the mutation in the family, going to a high-risk clinic for an MRI, facing cancer treatment, entering a clinical trial for an investigational drug, waiting for test results, receiving that first chemotherapy, undergoing the last fill, or sharing with the world in a very public manner about personal medical choices in order to raise awareness; every circumstance we face requires grit and determination. Even the recommendations for which we feel we have no reasonable alternative still require us to move forward, schedule the appointment, and show up. Why shouldn’t we accept the positive labels? We might not feel we have earned them, but maybe we can gain strength from them.

Life is hard enough. And for people with inherited cancer risk, it is even more so. It is already difficult to face the criticism and lack of understanding from uninformed people. It is even harder when criticism comes from public figures and receives wide media attention. Uniting our community through FORCE demonstrates how much lighter our burden can be when we share and support one another.

We shouldn’t be ashamed of our feelings. Bravery is not the absence of fear. Acknowledging our fears and adding them into the medical equation is a reasonable approach to decision making. You don’t have to feel brave to be brave. Sometimes courage means just putting one foot in front of the other to meet your destiny. Your example of fortitude may be the inspiration others need to continue their own journey in a positive direction.

Increased Awareness Leads to Accelerated Research

About a million people in the United States carry a BRCA mutation; less than 10% of them are aware of their elevated cancer threat. Recent media coverage of Angelina Jolie’s BRCA status and risk-reducing double mastectomy has brought unprecedented attention to these issues. These reports will narrow the awareness gap while erasing stigmas that are associated with inherited mutations and mastectomy.

One topic that has not been highlighted, described or even discussed is what this publicity could do for hereditary cancer research and clinical trials. Despite all this attention, many people have been quick to point out that BRCA mutations are not common in the general population, and the majority of breast and ovarian cancers are not hereditary. Most cancer clinical trials focus on women with average risk or sporadic cancer; only a handful of research studies are specifically designed for people with BRCA mutations or other inherited cancer syndromes. Recruiting enough qualified research participants – especially for clinical studies that focus on smaller populations – is a critical research challenge. But it is a crucial priority, because clinical trials are required to advance medical care.

As an advocate, I have witnessed the difference that research can make for specific populations. Just 15 years ago, the outlook was bleak for women who developed aggressive breast cancers that overexpress the Her2neu protein. These cancers were known to be aggressive, with high rates of recurrence and mortality. But researchers recognized that some features of these tumors made them vulnerable to therapies that  targeted the Her2neu protein. This led to the development of a targeted therapy known as Herceptin, which received FDA approval in 1998 and revolutionized treatment for women with this type of breast cancer. Herceptin paved the way for development of several newer targeted drugs to treat these tumors. Today, many more women diagnosed with Her2neu positive breast tumors survive their cancer and never develop a recurrence. We can learn from the story of Herceptin (which has been chronicled in books and movies); the role that advocacy and awareness played in its development, and the challenges that had to be surmounted for eventual FDA approval of the life-saving drug.

That is precisely the type of focused effort (and results) we need for hereditary cancers, which tend to act more aggressively than other cancers, and to occur at a younger age. There are special features in the cancers of people with BRCA mutations that open up opportunities to develop new and better agents. Right now, we are teetering on the cusp of exciting research that could revolutionize treatment and prevention of hereditary cancers. PARP inhibitors, for example, are medications that were specifically designed to combat BRCA-associated cancers. Clinical trials are open and enrolling participants to determine if these agents improve survival in people with mutations. For example, the BROCADE Study is a large, phase II PARP inhibitor study enrolling people with advanced, BRCA-associated breast cancer. Large studies enrolling mutation carriers with ovarian cancer will be opening soon.

As PARP inhibitor research progresses, newer agents are also being studied to see if they may work particularly well for hereditary cancers. At the recent American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) meeting, results were presented on a combination of sapacitabine and seliciclib, two new drugs that may work particularly well for BRCA-associated cancers. Another new agent called PM01183 is in early clinical trials for people with advanced, BRCA-associated breast cancer. Might these new drugs hold the key to improved survival and better quality-of-life? Could PARP inhibitors or newer agents revolutionize treatment for hereditary cancers, and turn out to be our community’s Herceptin? These studies fill me with hope! But the only way to know is through clinical trial research, which requires recruiting a sufficient number of volunteers.

The most significant hurdle facing us is completing these research studies so that we can prove whether or not these new drugs work. Last year, a major study on hereditary ovarian and fallopian tube prevention and detection closed due in part to lack of participants. The study closure was a tragic loss for our community; and more so, could send an unfortunate and untrue message to researchers and funding agencies that the BRCA population is too small and too hard to recruit. While we continue to fight hard to get more hereditary cancer research funded, we must also devote resources to raising awareness and spreading the word about current research opportunities open to people with BRCA mutations or hereditary cancer.

One huge benefit of celebrities coming forward with their stories is that more people are motivated to learn about their inherited risk, and consider genetic counseling and testing. Our community will continue to grow as more people learn they carry an inherited mutation. FORCE will continue to lead the way; uniting all people facing hereditary cancer and providing support, education, and access to the latest research studies. Progress may feel slow and incremental, but an increasing attention to hereditary cancer may be just what we need to propel research and outcomes to the next level.

For more information on participating in hereditary cancer research, visit our website’s Clinical Trials and Research section. Over the next few weeks we will be updating the prevention, detection, and treatment studies section of our website, so stop back frequently. Our next Be Empowered webinar on PARP inhibitor research will be held June 27.

Maximizing Access to BRCA Testing by Involving Genetics Experts

Note: The below is an updated version of a post in 2008 right after the documentary In the Family was released, and actress Christina Applegate announced she had a BRCA 1 mutation. Five years later, this post is more relevant than ever. 

As the dust clears since Angelina Jolie went public with her BRCA status, the impact of her revelation has been mixed. On the positive side, the increased awareness of HBOC has opened up a public dialogue on genetic counseling, testing, cancer prevention, and access to care and has encouraged people to educate themselves about these topics. More people are considering their family history of cancer, pursuing genetic counseling and testing, and learning their options to prevent or to detect cancer earlier. Following these steps will save lives. Unfortunately, people’s initial inquiries about testing are not always met with credible information. We know from experience that where people go for additional information, resources, and support matters for their outcomes. FORCE has documented cases where people received inaccurate information about genetic testing which led to negative health consequences.

Fortunately, many people are finding their way to the expert-reviewed information and resources from FORCE and are being referred to genetics professionals. Calls to our toll free helpline have increased in direct proportion to media reports about BRCA. One of the frequent requests we receive is about financial assistance for genetic testing. Many of these calls are from individuals who have a family history of cancer and health insurance, but their insurance has denied covering genetic testing.

Many of these insurance denials and high out-of-pocket costs related to testing occur because people have not first met with a qualified expert in cancer genetics. When you consider the $3,000+ cost for “full-sequencing” BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 testing, where the entire gene is evaluated, it’s easy to understand why genetic testing is beyond the means of many people. However, under certain circumstances, a less extensive test may be more appropriate and can lower the price of testing by thousands of dollars. In other cases the choice of which member of the family receives genetic testing first can also affect cost and insurance coverage and risk assessment for the entire family. Some of these insurance denials stem from an uninformed health care provider ordering the wrong test or not identifying the best first person in a family to receive testing.

The high cost of genetic testing for BRCA is due to the fact that only one company—Myriad Genetics—can perform the gene test in the United States. They were granted exclusive patents on the BRCA genes and consequently control everything about BRCA testing, including the price. Even as the cost of genetic technology has decreased, Myriad keeps raising the price of their BRCA test.

A specially trained genetics expert will first assess an individual’s family medical history, determine which test is most appropriate, and identify which family member should be tested first. Seeing a genetic counselor prior to genetic testing can make the difference between having a test denied or covered by insurance. In fact, for people who meet specific National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) standard-of-care guidelines, many insurance companies, will pay for both genetic counseling and testing. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act also outlines that people who meet certain guidelines qualify for genetic counseling and testing which must be covered by their insurance without copay or deductible. A team of genetics and cancer experts can be good advocates for insurance coverage of genetic testing.

When genetic testing proceeds without counseling there is a higher likelihood of inappropriate or costlier testing. Myriad is the only entity who stands to benefits from inappropriate BRCA testing. In 2009, FORCE presented testimony to the Secretary of Health’s Advisory Committee on Genetics outlining our concerns about the aggressive marketing that was leading to increased cost and harm to our community. These concerns still remain true.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit to invalidate Myriad’s patents. FORCE has filed an Amicus Brief in support of the ACLU’s case. The Supreme Court has heard the case and they are expected to rule by this summer. Until the cost of genetic testing goes down, genetic testing will remain out of reach for too many people, even for those who meet standard-of-care guidelines. On a national level, financial support is limited. People who meet certain criteria and have annual income below the poverty level may qualify for testing under Myriad Genetics Laboratories financial assistance program. For people whose insurance does not cover the full cost of testing, co-pay assistance is available through the Cancer Resource Foundation. Regionally, FORCE has been able to navigate many people who contact us for assistance to programs in their area but there are still many gaps in access to care.

For the uninsured or underinsured women who receive assistance for genetic counseling and testing, what then? Experts recommend annual mammograms and MRI for BRCA-positive women ideally beginning at age 25. Patient Services Incorporated (PSI) has a program funded by Right Action for Women which covers the cost for MRI for eligible young high-risk women. The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, provides free mammograms for women over 40. Gaps still remain for financial assistance for breast MRI for high-risk women over age 40 and for mammograms for women younger than age 40. Financial resources for women who choose to undergo  prophylactic surgery is even more limited. Like most disparity issues in health care, the needs are many and existing resources are few.

With the media spotlight on hereditary cancer, and demand for BRCA testing increasing, FORCE has continued to emphasize the importance of referral to appropriate experts for genetic counseling before and after genetic testing. Until the disparity and cost of testing issues are resolved, given that genetic testing is expensive, financial resources are limited, and not everyone has equal access to care, the best way to maximize the number of appropriate tests, is to include genetic counseling with experts prior to the ordering of genetic tests.

Every Story Matters

Since Angelina Jolie recently shared her personal experience with genetic testing and prophylactic surgery in the New York Times, public awareness of hereditary cancer is at an all-time high. The media surrounding Ms. Jolie’s revelations has also provided unparalleled opportunities for members of the HBOC community to share their personal accounts as well.

How did you learn about hereditary cancer? Was it a chance meeting with someone who was high risk? A brochure? A TV health show? For me, it was a magazine article I read back in 1997. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33, my doctors recommended a single mastectomy on one side, but they never told me about genetic counseling or testing, despite my having several red flags for a hereditary syndrome: young onset breast cancer, Jewish background, and a paternal grandmother who died young of abdominal cancer. I certainly would have made different surgical choices if I had known I carried a mutation. The article motivated me to pursue genetic counseling and testing, and ultimately, I chose prophylactic surgery, which discovered early cancer in my healthy breast.

All of our stories are important. Each story we share and every article about HBOC raises awareness and provides an opportunity for someone to recognize himself or herself in the writing and to pursue genetic counseling, testing, and risk-management options.

In a brilliant example of how awareness can save lives, reporter Stacey Sager first shared her hereditary cancer story on WABC-TV in New York in October 2011. Stacey was on a campaign to raise awareness and save lives. A 13-year breast cancer survivor at the time, Stacey had undergone testing for BRCA and found that she carried a BRCA1 mutation. Testing and BSO saved her life. As Stacey bravely allowed cameras to document her BSO, early precancerous changes were found in her fallopian tubes. (Ovarian cancer is rarely found early, other than during prophylactic surgery.) When Stacey wrote a guest blog for Thoughts from FORCE, a reader responded with the following comment, “For years my doctors have been trying to get me to take the BRCA testing because of my family cancer history, but I simply was not ready. After watching your televised story I went to the doctor the next week for my BRCA test.”

Stacey’s story resonated with and motivated more than one person. Celebrity singer/songwriter Kara DioGuardi happened to catch Stacey’s story while in New York City while she was appearing in the Broadway production of Chicago. Kara, who was interviewed by People magazine, shared that a chance viewing of Stacey’s story changed her life. Kara knew about her family history of cancer, but she didn’t know about BRCA testing until that crystalizing moment. When she returned to L.A., she immediately sought care for genetic testing, and then underwent BSO. A dear friend who agreed to be a surrogate for Kara and her husband was implanted with Kara’s last remaining embryo from prior IVF and carried their baby to term; little Greyson is now 3 months old. Kara shares more of her story in a moving interview where she gets to meet Stacey in person and thanks her for publicly sharing her story and possibly saving her life.

Experts estimate that less than 10% of the almost 1 million people in the United States with a mutation are aware of their high-risk status. We know that risk assessment and intervention can improve survival for high-risk individuals. But people cannot take action if they are unaware of their risk. It is up to us to raise the profile of HBOC until every person has access to the tools, information, and health care experts to assess their risk, and every high-risk person has the education, support, and resources they need to make informed decisions about their risk.

In her Voices of FORCE account for our Joining FORCEs newsletter, member Lita Poehlman shared how a chance meeting with a FORCE member led her to genetic counseling and testing, and subsequent prophylactic surgery discovered precancerous changes. She credits that chance meeting with saving her life. These personal anecdotes remind us that every act of sharing is significant and every story matters!

Other publications share accounts from the HBOC community, including several  memoirs: Previvors, Pretty Is What Changes, What We Have, Apron Strings, Beyond the Pink Moon, and Pink Moon Lovelies. The documentary In the Family (which is available for free viewing online until May 26) follows the intimate story of filmmaker Joanna Rudnick and several families facing hereditary cancer. Our community blog page has links to the HBOC  blogosphere, and the Voices of FORCE section of the website is filled with your stories. You can add your story and voice to our pages. Writing and sharing your accounts raises awareness about the impact that hereditary cancer has on everyday people, inspires others to learn more, engenders compassion and understanding for our community, and saves lives.

Proposed Guidelines on BRCA Testing Leave Many Gaps

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) is a government-supported independent panel of experts that reviews and develops recommendations on select preventive health services. The panel assigns letter grades to preventive services based on their opinion of strength of the research evidence. The task force just released a draft of their guidelines on genetic counseling and testing for BRCA. Despite some strengths of the updated guidelines; important gaps remain that will directly affect patient access to genetic counseling, genetic testing, and preventive services.

Significance of These Guidelines
The USPSTF published guidelines are important to consumers for two main reasons:

  1. Primary care clinicians and health systems follow these guidelines. The content of the guidelines can affect what information doctors convey to patients about disease risk, screening, and prevention.
  2. The panel’s guidelines must be implemented based on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), which states that health plans must provide benefits without imposing cost-sharing (i.e., without a deductible or co-pay) for services that have a rating from the task force of “A” or “B.” 

USPSTF Guidelines on BRCA Testing
In 2005, the USPSTF first issued guidelines for primary care providers on “Genetic Risk Assessment and BRCA Mutation Testing for Breast and Ovarian Cancer Susceptibility.” The task force assigned a grade “B” (recommended health care providers offer this to patients) to genetic counseling and testing for women with a family history suggestive of a possible BRCA mutation. It issued a grade “D” (recommended health care providers discourage patients from using these services) to genetic testing in women without a family history suggestive of a mutation. In 2005 this guidance was greatly needed, as many primary care providers were either unaware of BRCA testing or had received most of their information from Myriad Genetics, the laboratory that sells the test. At the time, the USPSTF did not request public or expert commentary on their guidelines.

In 2011, the USPSTF announced its plan to update these guidelines, and asked for public commentary. FORCE (and other health care experts) submitted written recommendations to the USPSTF on its plan to review the research on BRCA genetic counseling and testing and update the guidelines. Despite receiving extensive suggestions for strengthening and improving the guidelines, last month the USPSTF released new draft guidelines that essentially restate the 2005 guidelines and grades with few changes. In general, I agree with the letter grades that were assigned, but I’m disappointed that this opportunity for guideline revision was not used to address critical gaps. With the recent passage of the PPACA—which references USPSTF guidelines to determine insurance coverage of some preventive services—it is more important than ever that the USPSTF guidelines on genetic counseling and testing are practical, comprehensive and evidence-based. Gaps in the guidelines will now directly affect patient access to genetic counseling, testing, and preventive services as outlined by this new legislation.

An overview of our comments is available on our advocacy page, and our full written comments as submitted to the USPSTF can be viewed here.

FORCE Concerns with the Draft Guidelines

  • The patient population covered by the guidelines is too narrow. Important groups are not specifically included in the USPSTF guideline “B” letter grade:
    • Women who have been diagnosed with cancer
    • Women with a known BRCA mutation in the family
    • Women with a family history of cancers other than breast or ovarian cancer that puts them at high risk for inherited cancer
    • Men
  • No letter grade is assigned to any risk-management options.
    The task force mentions risk-management interventions but does not assign letter grades to specific prevention and screening options. With no letter grade assigned, these preventive services are not guaranteed coverage under the PPACA, nor will health plans be directed to provide the services without out-of-pocket costs to patients.
  • The current guidelines take a single-syndrome approach to family history and genetics. The task force states: “…primary care providers should ask about specific types of cancer, which family members were affected, and the age and sex of affected family members…For women who have positive family histories of breast or ovarian cancer, primary care providers may use one of several brief familial risk stratification tools to determine the need for in-depth genetic counseling.”

Encouraging doctors to take a patient’s family history of breast and ovarian cancer is a positive step. However, the guidelines only provide instructions for referring women with a positive family history of these two cancers. Other cancers (such as pancreatic cancer) can be associated with a BRCA mutation in a family. Further, a family history of different cancers may indicate other hereditary syndromes associated with different mutations than BRCA. Lynch Syndrome, for example, is associated with a family history of ovarian, colon, and/or endometrial cancers and Cowden Syndrome is associated with breast, thyroid, and uterine cancers.

FORCE Recommendations to the USPSTF
FORCE’s submitted recommendations for addressing these gaps, focusing on issues that we felt had the most supportive research evidence:

  • Extend the evaluation and letter grade to women with a known mutation in the family
  • Extend the evaluation and letter grade to women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and who meet criteria based on personal and family history of cancer 
  • Assign a letter grade to the following risk-management options
    • Breast MRI 
    • Risk-reducing  bilateral mastectomy
    • Risk-reducing bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy
    • Oral contraceptives
  • Review the evidence and develop one set of integrated practice guidelines for collecting family history and referral of appropriate individuals for genetic counseling, testing, and related preventive services. These guidelines should include Lynch Syndrome and other relevant hereditary cancer syndromes.

Guidelines Are Important, But A New Approach Is Needed
Focusing public health efforts on disease preventive is lifesaving. Applying risk assessment allows us to better tailor prevention and screening for those in the highest risk categories; this approach is both lifesaving and cost saving. Developing expert guidelines based on  the strength of research on preventive care is worthwhile. But we must do a better job in guiding primary care doctors specifically on topics of genetics, risk assessment, screening, and prevention of hereditary disease in order to save more lives.

The USPSTF consists primarily of public health experts rather than clinical experts in disease and genetics. This may not be the best approach for reviewing topics in the realm of personalized medicine and genetics. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Office of Public Health Genomics organizes a panel – the Evaluation of Genomic Applications in Practice and Prevention (EGAPP) Working Group – which includes both public health experts and clinicians. EGAPP provides an example of a more inclusive panel for reviewing the application of genetics to public health.

The narrow approach of reviewing research for only one hereditary cancer syndrome and only specific portions of the community while ignoring other hereditary syndromes and populations at risk does not serve the public well. Using this approach, the USPSTF is missing the opportunity to help practitioners identify people at very high risk for many preventable diseases with a goal of saving lives. Health care professionals and the public would be better served by having a single set of evidence-based guidelines that address the collection and evaluation of personal and family medical history to identify people who would benefit from genetic counseling and testing for many hereditary diseases. These guidelines should include all hereditary disease syndromes and conditions that have associated genetics tests with clinical utility.

FORCE plans to work with policy-makers and other advocacy groups to outline and propose a new approach to systematic review of preventive services such as collection of family history, genetic counseling, genetic testing, and screening and prevention options. Our goal will be to address important issues including:

  • Determining which experts should be included on preventive services task force panels
  • Prioritizing the diseases and preventive services to be evaluated
  • Integrating the guidelines for different diseases and services into a single set of easy-to-follow recommendations on risk-assessment, screening, and prevention
  • Expanding coverage under the PPACA, Medicare, and Medicaid for preventive services for more diseases, populations, and medical interventions

The new USPSTF draft guidelines highlight gaps in education resources, research and access to care. There is a continued need for FORCE to take action and unite our community to advocate for more HBOC-specific research and more access to credible information, genetic counseling and testing, and risk-management options. At the same time, FORCE will be working with groups representing other hereditary diseases to address the global issue of how to better incorporate personalized medicine and genomics into public health. Stay tuned for updates.

Gene Discovery, Patents, and the Community

Recently a dear friend sent me a link to an article in the February 1996 issue of Nature Medicine. The article by journalist Adam Marcus covered a media event and panel of women’s rights advocates expressing concern about Myriad’s impending patenting of the BRCA1 gene. Panelists declared unregulated genetic testing to be the coming century’s foremost threat to individual liberty. Incredibly, 17 years after the publication of Adam Marcus’ article, the debate is still ongoing—the issue of gene patenting and the consequences of lacking regulation regarding gene patents are still present and as relevant as they were then.

Admittedly, I missed this article the first time around. In 1996, I was more likely to be reading the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association than a human medical journal. With a toddler, a budding veterinary career, and no significant family history of breast cancer, my focus was not on hereditary cancer. In fact, genetic testing and gene patents were furthest from my mind. But my diagnosis with breast cancer eight months later and subsequent revelation that I have a BRCA2 mutation changed that.

When I was first tested for a BRCA mutation in 1998, I was fortunate; my testing costs were covered by my health insurance. I was very grateful to have access to the test; my gratitude extended to the laboratory that made the test available to me. Although I was initially tested without genetic counseling, I went to MD Anderson Cancer Center for a second opinion and eventually found my way to a genetics expert and had access to up-to-date and credible information from experts. It wasn’t until I became immersed in my work with FORCE that I became aware of deeper issues that were the consequence of Myriad holding patents on the BRCA genes.

In 2009, Joanna Rudnick released her documentary In the Family, which shined a spotlight on Myriad’s gene patents and some of these consequences. The documentary included an eye-opening interview with Dr. Mark Skolnick, founder of Myriad Genetics. Joanna questions how a gene—a product of nature—can be patented, saying “It’s like patenting your thumb.” Skolnick compares Myriad’s patents on the BRCA genes to patents for ipods, telephones, and computers, and cavalierly asserts “there’s no controversial patent. It’s all very easy to understand if you take the time.”

In the film, Joanna brilliantly follows the Myriad interview with an interview of Dr. Mary-Claire King, who was credited with identifying the location of the BRCA gene when she was a researcher at University of California at Berkeley. Dr. King has dedicated herself to the research that proved the existence of hereditary breast cancer gene mutations. Her research laid groundwork that sent many laboratories racing to be the first to isolate and clone the gene for genetic testing.

In Rudnick’s film, Dr. Skolnick says, “I think the single greatest inventive thing I did was to create Myriad. We did it to win the race…and we won.” Asked point-blank why the cost of the test is increasing, Dr. Skolnick replies, “that’s a good question, and I think there’s a point at which we have to start looking at decreasing the cost of the test.” Yet, four years after the documentary was released, the cost of testing has gone up—BRCA testing is more expensive, even though the technology for sequencing DNA has become less expensive.

The gist of Dr. King’s interview starkly contrasts with Dr. Skolnick’s statements. Dr. King speaks about genes for which she holds patents, saying, “The critical thing about the patents we hold is that none of them are exclusively licensed. So they are completely open for anyone to use for research purposes and any company that wishes to license them can license them for a trivial amount of money.” King mentions that her last royalty check amounted to $2.73. In contrast, the February 6 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune reports Myriad’s earnings: “Myriad projects full-year 2013 revenue will fall between $575 million and $585 million. That would be a 16 percent to 18 percent increase over fiscal 2012.” The contrast is apparent and appalling.

Over the years, FORCE has appealed to government agencies and spoken to the health care community and the public regarding Myriad’s exclusive patent, and explained how the corporation’s marketing strategies and policies have increased the burden on the hereditary cancer community that we serve. In 2008 and again in 2009 we testified to the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics Health and Society, expressing our concerns with direct-to-consumer marketing of genetic tests, and specifically Myriad’s marketing practices, which we feel encourages BRCA testing without first receiving genetic counseling from qualified experts trained in cancer genetics. In our opinion, their aggressive marketing strategies have been harmful to members of our community.

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging Myriad’s patents on the BRCA genes. On April 15, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on gene patenting. This hearing will represent the culmination of four years of the legal tug-of-war between Myriad Genetics and the plaintiffs, which included the ACLU and a long list of individual, advocacy, and health care professional groups. FORCE agrees with the ACLU that exclusive gene patents negatively affect access to care and research and we have filed an Amicus (Friend of the Court) brief on behalf of plaintiffs. You can read our testimony to the United States Patent and Trademark Office on the topic of how exclusive gene patenting impacts research and access to care. The Supreme Court oral arguments will be open to public participation.

For those who wish to learn more about Dr. King’s work, Decoding Annie Parker is a new  movie that follows the parallel lives of Dr. King and Annie Parker, a Canadian woman whose family was impacted by hereditary cancer. Based on a true story, the film raises the profile of Dr. King’s contribution to the discovery of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome and the BRCA1 gene mutation. It is sure to resonate with many in our community. FORCE is a proud charity partner of the movie, which stars Helen Hunt as Dr. King. A special screening will be held April 2 in New York City. FORCE will hold  screenings of the film in other cities. Stay tuned for updates.

Drawing Attention To High-risk Screening

Reports are everywhere in the media about which celebrities underwent prophylactic mastectomy, the difficulty of their decision, and why these women made the choice. These media reports can be helpful to our community as they raise awareness of hereditary cancer risk and risk-management and remove the stigma of mastectomy. However, given the media focus on mastectomy, it would be easy to assume that surgery is the only option for high-risk women, when in fact, there are several options available to women who are at increased risk for breast cancer. When the media focuses solely on surgical risk-management, they may inadvertently send a message that this the only way to manage increased risk for breast cancer. Some women may avoid seeking information about their risk for fear that their only recourse will be surgery.

Risk is a spectrum. We know how to identify individuals in the highest risk category for breast cancer—women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation face some of the highest known lifetime risks for cancer, as high as 85% compared to 12.5% for women of average risk. Other gene mutations are also linked with a high risk for breast cancer, including Cowden Syndrome that is associated with a mutation in the PTEN gene, and Li Fraumeni that is associated with a mutation in the P53 gene. Like women with BRCA mutations, women with these other mutations face a high lifetime risk that is usually younger at onset and can be associated with a more aggressive cancer.  Continued media attention highlighting genetic counseling and appropriate use of genetic testing can be life-saving. For example, a recent publication estimated that less than 10% of women with a BRCA mutation are aware of their risk.

Current expert guidelines recommend several risk-management strategies for high-risk women with these mutations. National guidelines for breast screening in women with BRCA mutation include annual MRI and mammogram beginning at age 25 or 10 years earlier than the youngest cancer in the family. Surveillance may also be coupled with pharmacoprevention; usually tamoxifen, which has FDA approval for use to lower risk of breast cancer in high-risk women. High-risk surveillance has been shown by research to find cancers earlier when they are more treatable. But surveillance is not infallible, and we know that for some women, the cancer will not be found until it has spread outside the breast and lymph nodes. Therefore, the national guidelines also support the discussion of prophylactic or risk-reducing surgery. Although drastic, it is the most effective means for lowering the risk for breast cancer in high-risk women. Surgery is not for everyone, and surveillance is considered by health care experts to be a viable option for high-risk women to manage their breast cancer risk. Research has shown that risk-reducing mastectomy does not improve overall survival – even in women who are at very high risk – although other outcomes may be more important to women, including avoiding a cancer diagnosis or the consequences of treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and axillary dissection.

Genetics research is improving our ability to pinpoint risk along the risk spectrum. We can now better identify women who are of moderately increased risk. Emerging panels are looking for changes in multiple genes beyond BRCA, PTEN, and P53 that may increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer that confer an “intermediate-risk” of about 20% or higher lifetime risk for breast cancer. Women with a strong family history of breast cancer with no identified cancer mutation also fit this category. Experts have guidelines for women of intermediate breast cancer risk. The American Cancer Society recommends that women with a 20% or higher lifetime risk for breast cancer undergo annual breast MRI in addition to mammograms, starting at a younger age. Other known risk factors may influence women’s risk management decisions, including having very dense breasts that are hard to image or prior abnormal changes on a biopsy, such as atypia or LCIS.

Most women with higher-than-average risk for breast cancer begin with surveillance. Some may ultimately choose to undergo risk-reducing surgery later based on new information, abnormal biopsies, or other factors.

A lot of misinformation and misunderstanding still surrounds breast cancer screening, and women undergoing breast surveillance need credible information and peer support. Some health care providers continue to tell women that they are too young or do not need mammograms or MRI. And research is ongoing with new studies looking at ways to improve breast cancer detection in high-risk women. Medications such as metformin are being investigated for lowering risk of breast cancer. Like all aspects of living with increased cancer risk, some aspects of surveillance differentiate and isolate women from their average-risk peers.  By building a strong and unified community, educating women, providing peer support, and advocating for more research and better options, FORCE will continue to provide needed resources for this portion of our community. The stories may not be as exciting or as compelling to the media as those about prophylactic mastectomy, but we must also continue to remind the media that many options are available for women who are at increased risk for breast cancer, and emphasize the importance of consulting with genetics experts to receive credible, personalized information prior to making any risk-management decisions.