Guest Blog: Join FORCEs at our 2015 HBOC Conference!

by guest blogger, Jane E. Herman

May Goren PhotographyWhen I boarded the flight for my first trip to Orlando in June 2011, my goal was not to hug Mickey Mouse or visit Cinderella’s Castle. Rather, my destination was the sixth annual Joining FORCEs Conference. Not knowing anyone who would be in attendance, I was – not unexpectedly – equal parts nervous and excited.

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Me and my mom.

During the course of the previous year, I’d lost my mom to breast cancer, tested positive for a BRCA2 gene mutation, and had a laparoscopic hysterectomy. Four weeks after the conference, I was scheduled for a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and immediate reconstruction using my own abdominal tissue, which would be micro-surgically reconnected to create new breasts.

The only known mutation carrier in my family at the time, I had met a few BRCA sisters at meetings of New York City’s FORCE group, but I was hungry for more – more medical information, more quality-of-life tidbits, and, perhaps most of all, more (and deeper) connections with others who “get it.” I couldn’t wait to talk to people about my experiences – and learn about theirs – without having to start the conversation by explaining what a BRCA mutation is and how drastically it increased my lifetime risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

From the minute I climbed aboard the shuttle, I got exactly what I needed. Before we’d even left the airport, several fellow riders and I had already connected, sharing details of our BRCA and HBOC journeys for much of the trip to the hotel.

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I came alone to my first conference but soon bonded with kindred spirits.

The next two and a half days flew by in a kaleidoscope of attending large and small group sessions, networking, taking notes, sharing stories, swapping email addresses, strolling through the exhibit area (and making a purchase or two!), attending the ever-popular “show and tell” (for women only, of course), asking questions, and chatting one-on-one with doctors, genetics professionals, and many of the hundreds of BRCA sisters (and a few brothers) who joined me at the conference.

There were a few tears as well, especially when I talked with mother/daughter pairs traveling the BRCA road side-by-side. How I envied their togetherness, and, oh, how I longed for my own mother and for her to know about this thing that we shared. For every tear, however, there were a hundred hugs – and I don’t mean “air hugs.” I mean real, honest to goodness (if you’ll pardon the expression) boob-crushing hugs.

When I returned to Orlando in October 2012 for the seventh annual Joining FORCEs Conference, the hugs began as soon as I entered the hotel lobby.

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Dave Bushman provides helpful genealogy tips.

 

Words cannot begin to express my joy at seeing in person the friends with whom I’d been emailing, texting, and Facebooking for the last year. As in 2011, the days flew by in a whirlwind that was both the same and different from the previous gathering. Presentations by researchers and clinicians brought us up-to-date on the latest developments in a field that moves at lightning speed, while the exhibit hall, once again, offered fun jewelry, pretty scarves, useful products, and connections to an array of organizations whose work benefits members of the HBOC community. Perhaps most significant for me was that with my own mastectomy in the rearview mirror, I was able to “pay it forward” as a “show-er” during “show and tell,” proud of what I’d done and more than willing to share my experience – the good and the not-so-good – with those who were standing where I’d been just one year earlier.

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FORCE volunteers bonding at 2014 conference

By June 2014, when the eighth annual Joining FORCEs Conference was held in Philadelphia (in partnership with the Basser Research Center for BRCA), I’d been an Outreach Coordinator for New York City FORCE for 18 months. My co-facilitator Laura and I not only drove together to Philadelphia, but also organized a group dinner at a local restaurant on Friday night so attendees from our NYC group could spend time together. In addition to all the things I’d come to know and love at the FORCE conferences – the large and small group sessions, the exhibit hall, the networking, the sharing, and, most especially, the hugs – this time around, my days also included early morning Outreach Coordinator meetings and several sessions designed specifically for participants in FORCE’s Research Advocate Training (FRAT) program.

Conference logo with tagline jpegNeedless to say, I’m eagerly awaiting this spring’s ninth annual Joining FORCEs Conference in Philadelphia for so many reasons. Registration is open now, and I hope to see you there!


Jane E. Herman
, an Outreach Coordinator in New York City, is the executive writer and editor at the Union for Reform Judaism. She maintains a slice-of-life blog, JanetheWriter.com, where, among other things, she writes often about her experiences as a BRCA2 mutation carrier.

 

Health Care Providers Can Help Accelerate Hereditary Cancer Research

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1 in 500 people (0.2% of the population) carries a BRCA mutation, yet we constitute about 10% of people with breast or ovarian cancer. The HBOC community shoulders a disproportionate cancer burden.

Why HBOC research is important
Hereditary cancers constitute a small subset of a larger disease state. About 7% of breast cancers and 18% of ovarian cancers are due to a BRCA mutation. The HBOC community shoulders a disproportionate cancer burden, facing lifetime cancer risks that are higher than any other known population. Our cancers tend to be younger onset and more aggressive, we are at risk for second and third primary cancer diagnoses, and our risk can be passed on to our children and shared with relatives. We are a subset of the larger cancer community, yet our cancers develop differently, more quickly, and may respond differently to treatments than sporadic cancers.

After years of advocacy, HBOC research is getting some well-deserved attention. But to continue this progress, we need to ensure that these studies enroll adequate numbers of patients. A previous blog touched on the complex, multifaceted challenges to HBOC research recruitment and the shared responsibility of all stakeholders to overcome these barriers. This blog focuses on specific barriers to HBOC research and the integral role health care professionals can play in overcoming these barriers to accelerate progress in preventing and treating hereditary cancers. 

Health care providers as partners in research recruitment
Patients trust and rely on their medical teams to provide the best care specific to their individual situations. Research shows that physicians play a key role in educating patients about research studies. Yet, the same studies also show that physicians do not always inform patients about clinical trials elsewhere due to institutional barriers and personal biases. For this reason we are asking health care providers to join FORCE in our campaign to promote awareness and participation in research among the HBOC community.  We ask that oncology health care providers consider the following for all their patients:

  • Refer patients who meet NCCN criteria for genetic evaluation as soon as possible after diagnosis.
  • Discuss the availability of clinical trials with newly diagnosed or newly relapsed patients.
  • Consider which clinical trial, including those outside the health care provider’s facility or practice, that might be the best match for a patient,
  • Inform patients if a particular treatment might impact their eligibility for a clinical trial. 
  • Refer patients to FORCE as a resource and to assist with clinical trial matching.

HBOC specific research studies
HBOC cancers develop due to the presence of a germ-line mutation in one of the BRCA genes. Scientists are researching how to exploit these deficits to better prevent or treat hereditary cancers. For example, PARP inhibitors, first studied in 2005, attack the weaknesses of BRCA-related cancer cells in repairing DNA damage. Despite promising results, delays and roadblocks have delayed the path to FDA approval; more than eight years later, we still have no FDA-approved PARP inhibitors, and people are still dying of hereditary cancers. Research of PARP inhibitors is finally progressing, with more HBOC-specific open studies urgently pursuing patient enrollment.  Failure to completely accrue these studies could derail future HBOC research by creating the perception that the HBOC community is not motivated to participate in research, and that as a cohort, we are too difficult to recruit. Health care providers can play a powerful role in surmounting enrollment obstacles by simply informing their patients about clinical trials.

Challenge: Competing clinical trials and matching patients
HBOC-specific clinical trials compete with each other for participants, and compete with larger, more numerous studies that are not limited to people with mutations. For example, a recent search of clinicaltrials.gov for U.S. treatment trials enrolling people with metastatic, BRCA-associated breast cancer returned 11 studies. A similar search for all metastatic breast cancer studies returned over 200 clinical trials with broader recruitment criteria. Of 60 advanced ovarian cancer treatment studies listed, just eight were specifically for patients with BRCA mutations. The implications are concerning for the HBOC community: a mutation carrier with advanced breast or ovarian cancer has a higher likelihood of finding and enrolling in a less-specific clinical trial than one of the few studies open to someone with their specific cancer and mutation type. 

Solution: Maintain awareness of HBOC clinical trials and refer appropriate patients to studies, even those at other institutions
We encourage all health care providers who work in oncology to stay updated on clinical trials that are recruiting HBOC patients. FORCE provides two helpful tools to do so: our Health Care Provider electronic updates (sign up here and choose the “Updates for Health Care Providers” option), and our online list of HBOC research.  Next month we will be launching an HBOC-specific clinical trials searchable database to better match patients to relevant clinical trials.

If your institution or practice has HBOC-related research that you would like to have included in our database, please send an overview and contact information for the study to Lisa Rezende at lisar@facingourrisk.org.

Challenge: Clinical trials are seen as a “last resort” and certain treatments may impact eligibility for studies
An erroneous perception exists that clinical trials are a “last resort” for treating patients who have progressed after several different therapies. Many patients report that they have been discouraged from participating in a trial because they haven’t exhausted all their treatment options yet. Additionally, in addition to studies for  those with advanced cancer, there are clinical trials enrolling HBOC patients for cancer prevention, earlier-stage disease, and maintenance therapy for patients who have completed treatment.

Further, certain treatments may affect a patient’s eligibility for some clinical trials. For example, newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients who undergo lumpectomy or mastectomy become ineligible for neo-adjuvant chemotherapy studies. Receiving a certain chemotherapy or a certain number of prior treatments may render patients ineligible for some PARP inhibitor studies.

Solution: Discuss clinical trials before beginning treatment
Because patients who do not receive the most up-to-date and comprehensive information about clinical trial options are less likely to make informed decisions about their care, health care providers should consider notifying patients about clinical trial options before starting treatment or resuming treatment after a recurrence. We encourage health care providers to inform hereditary cancer patients sooner rather than later about the existence of HBOC-specific research, even those at separate or competing facilities. Health care providers and patients can find relevant research studies listed on the FORCE website.

Challenge: Underutilized genetic testing
Research has shown that genetic counseling and testing are underutilized services for those who meet national guidelines. Every woman diagnosed with breast cancer at age 50 or younger, and every woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer at any age meets national consensus guidelines for referral for genetic counseling. Despite these national guidelines, a recent study showed that 57% of women diagnosed with breast cancer at age 50 or younger did not receive genetics evaluation.

Solution: Refer all patients who meet national guidelines for genetic counseling and testing

Every breast cancer patient who has a family history or who was diagnosed at or before age 50, and every ovarian cancer patient meets NCCN guidelines for referral for genetic evaluation. Although BRCA test results may affect some breast cancer surgical decisions, impact risk for future cancers, and can inform a patient’s relatives of their risk for cancer, genetic counseling and testing of newly diagnosed breast and ovarian cancer patients often does not receive high priority. Treatment clinical trials that specifically recruit people with BRCA-associated cancers provide one more reason for health care providers to recommend genetic evaluation to newly diagnosed breast and ovarian cancer patients.

Solving the problem of hereditary cancer requires a maintained, concerted effort. We hope our health care provider partners will read, consider, and share this blog with colleagues and follow these steps to accelerating research.

Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI): Research Done Differently

What is PCORI?

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) is a new government-supported agency that approaches medical research with a focus on the patient to improve health outcomes. Aiming to answer medical questions that are most important to patients and collecting data from “real world settings,” this differs from traditional research, which typically occurs at large academic medical centers where scientists determine the research questions and priorities to be studied.

PCORI 101 is an easy-to-follow short video that outlines the institute’s research approach and goals.

Why was PCORI formed?

Hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into traditional research each year in the United States—research that is important to advance our knowledge of health and disease—but isn’t always focused on providing patients with the specific information they need to make medical decisions. PCORI was formed to change that. Like all research, PCORI-funded projects must be scientifically rigorous and conducted ethically. But PCORI’s patient-centered approach to resolving medical questions is unique, involving consumer input at every step:

  • formulating research questions
  • setting priorities
  • planning studies
  • collecting information
  • interpreting results
  • sharing findings

PCORI research focuses on answering four common patient questions:

  • Given my personal characteristics, conditions, and preferences, what should I expect will happen to me?
  • What are my options, and related potential benefits and harms?
  • What can I do to improve outcomes that are most important to me?
  • How can my health care providers help me make the best decisions about my health and healthcare?

How Can PCORI Research Help the HBOC Community?

Patient-Centered Outcomes Research (PCOR) is very important for the Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) community. Individuals with BRCA mutations or other risk factors must make many important and difficult medical decisions. In the last two decades research has discovered important information about hereditary cancer risk and outcomes, but our message boards and forums are still filled with lingering questions for which we have no definitive answers, including:

  • What is the ideal age to remove my ovaries/tubes?
  • Is removing my uterus along with my ovaries and tubes beneficial, and if so, how?
  • What medical outcomes might I face after undergoing surgical menopause?
  • Will my health and quality of life be improved or harmed by taking hormone replacement after surgical menopause?
  • Is increased surveillance likely to find a cancer early enough to avoid chemotherapy?
  • Are certain treatments better for people with hereditary cancers? Is it in my best interest to avoid certain treatments?

Answers to questions like these can help people facing HBOC make informed decisions about their health care based on their personal health goals and priorities.

Government agencies such as the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) have a strong influence on insurance coverage and patient access to preventive services. The USPSTF reviews traditional research evidence to set screening and prevention guidelines. It also considers Patient-Centered Outcomes Research information that includes people’s attitudes towards preventive medicine such as:

  • Does an increased chance of abnormal findings affect a person’s willingness to undergo more sensitive cancer screening tests such as MRI? Does the risk of increased biopsies outweigh the benefit of detecting cancer earlier and if so, for which patients?
  • Which prevention outcomes are most important to patients?
    • survival
    • avoiding chemotherapy or other debilitating treatment
    • quality of life
  • Are answers to these questions different for high-risk patients than average-risk patients?

Research on the HBOC community’s perspectives on medical services can guide agencies in setting policies that affect access to care.

How is FORCE Involved in Patient-Centered Outcomes Research?

Over the past 15 years, FORCE has organized and united the HBOC community to identify, highlight, and promote research on the health concerns and outcomes that matter to people affected by HBOC. As we have compiled the research that is known about these issues, we have also identified the limits of our knowledge. Through our forums, programs, and surveys we have collected public input on the concerns and information gaps that most impact access to care and medical decision-making. Through our collaborations and participation on task forces and guidelines panels we continue to advance research and promote policies that benefit our community.

Recently FORCE’s collaboration with researchers from the University of South Florida and the Michigan Department of Community Health received a funding award from PCORI that will enable a “patient-powered research network” called the American BRCA Outcomes and Utilization of Testing (ABOUT) Network. Our collaboration is one of 29 networks that were recently approved to participate in a new national resource through PCORI known as the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network (PCORnet). We were chosen primarily due to our commitment to gathering patient input and identifying important concerns, our work to unite the community, our dedication to sharing important research results back to the community, and our efforts to train and prepare community members who have no scientific background to provide input into research.

Over the next 18 months we will be engaging our members in the following ways:

  • recruiting members who are interested in completing advocacy training and participating in leadership roles to help us build the governance of the ABOUT Network.
  • soliciting community input to identify and prioritize important unanswered research questions
  • offering opportunities for people to enroll in the ABOUT Network to help accelerate Patient-Centered Outcomes Research
  • training people with no scientific background to participate in research advocacy through our FORCE Research Advocacy Training (FRAT) program. FRAT helps to prepare members of our community to become involved in all levels of research planning and implementation.

FORCE’s participation in the ABOUT Network will allow HBOC stakeholders a place at the table and an unprecedented voice in guiding PCOR research over the coming years. Stay tuned for more details soon.

Meeting the Challenges to Hereditary Cancer Research

This week is National HBOC week and today is National Previvor Day; personally this season is marked by equal doses of reflection, recollection, gratitude, and action.

Much progress has been made in cancer research in the 15 years since I learned about my mutation and founded FORCE. Perhaps most exciting are the advances in “personalized medicine,” which looks at unique genetics traits of a subset of the general population to develop more tailored medical care. Personalized medicine research has given us new tools in the cancer fight, for example tumor tests like OncotypeDX, which looks at the unique biology of tumors to help predict which ones are most likely to recur and which patients would benefit most or least from additional treatment. New “targeted therapies” work by interacting with receptors and molecules found in certain cancer cells. They interfere with cell function causing the cancer cell to die. An example is Perjeta, which was just approved by the FDA to treat breast cancers that overexpress a marker called Her2neu.

Personalized medicine research has great potential for improving treatment, prevention and detection of hereditary cancers. HBOC cancers develop differently and behave differently than other cancers: they are younger-onset and more aggressive, there is a very high lifetime risk for one or more cancer diagnoses. And HBOC risk can be passed on to our children. Researchers are looking at the genes that make our cancers different to provide better ways to treat or prevent them. After years of advocacy, HBOC research is getting well-deserved attention. The observation by researchers that many hereditary ovarian cancers may actually develop in the fallopian tubes has led to the opening of a study looking at whether fallopian tube removal may be a safe and effective strategy for lowering risk in women with BRCA mutations who are not ready to remove their ovaries. Another notable example, PARP inhibitors are targeted drugs designed to treat cancers caused by BRCA mutations.

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FORCE featured research highlights studies of particular interest to the HBOC community.

Clinical trials such as the BROCADE Study and ARIEL Studies and others are looking at whether PARP inhibitors may work better than standard care for breast, ovarian and other cancers. We need these studies to be completed before these agents can be made widely available, but researchers report that study participants are still desperately needed.

Over the years our research surveys have shown that our community:

  • wants better, less invasive, more effective options for detecting, preventing and treating hereditary cancers.
  • understands that these options require clinical trial research in order to advance.
  • is very motivated and willing to participate in the studies that can benefit us now and in the future.

So what is delaying progress? I recently gave a presentation about the challenges of recruiting the HBOC community for clinical trials, which gave me the opportunity to explore and define some of the barriers to filling these studies.

  • There is still a limited awareness about HBOC. Many people who meet expert guidelines are not being referred for genetics evaluation and testing.
  • Many more cancer clinical trials are open to people regardless of mutation status than clinical trials specifically for people with mutations. For that reason, HBOC studies compete for patients with larger, more numerous, less specific research studies.
  • Health care providers are often unaware of HBOC-specific research studies at different institutions or hospitals, or are hesitant to refer patients to them.
  • Some clinical trials require patients to meet certain conditions, including limiting the type or number of prior treatments a patient can receive before enrolling. Patients who are not aware of clinical trial options before starting treatment or resuming treatment after a recurrence may be ineligible for study participation.
  • Many individuals’ interest in clinical trial participation is limited by their concerns about safety, medical care, use of placebos, cost, and their ability to withdraw from a study.
  • Finding open research studies, figuring out eligibility, and determining how to enroll can be challenging and time-consuming. Even websites that are created to simplify the process can be difficult to navigate.
  • Some studies require travel to another hospital, city, or state to participate, and require patients to consult with a new team of doctors, creating additional costs and time away from work and home.

Despite the challenges, these studies are essential and the investment in HBOC research is clearly worthwhile. The good news is that identifying these challenges can help us begin to address them and move the needle in favor of study enrollment and completion. FORCE is focusing efforts on overcoming these barriers. Below are some of the ways we are already tackling these issues. 

  • Raising public awareness about national expert guidelines on cancer risk assessment and genetic testing
  • Uniting and educating stakeholders to advocate for more resources and research specific to HBOC
  • Educating the community about the importance of participating in HBOC-specific research
  • Empowering patients to proactively seek out or ask their oncologist about clinical trials
  • Providing training to consumers affected by HBOC to participate in panels, research peer review and advisory boards to represent community perspective in setting research priorities and developing and conducting research studies
  • Informing people about new and promising targeted agents and HBOC-specific research opportunities
  • Working with researchers and industry partners to develop and distribute patient-friendly websites and materials that can be shared with the HBOC community
  • Educating health care providers about the challenges facing the HBOC community; our urgent need for new and better treatment, detection, and prevention options; and how they can help us with our efforts to improve HBOC research enrollment
  • Educating health care providers about open clinical trials enrolling people with HBOC
  • Educating policymakers and regulatory agencies about the challenges facing the HBOC community, and our need for expedited drug development, research, and approval

Over the next few months, I will be blogging in more depth about each of these barriers and strategies for addressing them. FORCE will be working to better assess the issues and create new programs so that we can make a positive impact on HBOC research participation. To learn more about how you can help advance HBOC research, visit the FORCE website for updates. To find research on cancer prevention, detection, treatment, quality-of-life and other studies visit the featured studies section and other studies section of our website or visit the clinicaltrials.gov website.

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.

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.

Thoughts on Turning 50: Transformations

For many people, turning 50 is an unappreciated milestone that they would rather not acknowledge, but I feel differently. Some people find themselves going through a midlife crisis; me, I’m facing 50 by signing up and training for my first marathon!

Like most of us I’ve undergone many transformations in my life. Some have been intentional while others resulted from circumstances beyond my control. Recently while

at 26 I was neither fit nor happy

at 26 I was neither fit nor happy

looking for old photos, I ran across some pictures of myself when I was in my 20s and 30s. I was not fit then, and I didn’t resemble the person I am now. At 50 I am the healthiest, most physically active, and most content that I have ever been in my life. Many people who have known me only in the last few years have commented that they can’t imagine me when I was not active, energetic, and happy. So running across photos of a younger me was a sobering reminder of the effort and motivation that it took for me to be where I am today.

Much of my motivation for becoming more fit was my breast cancer diagnosis at age 33 and a recurrence the following year. Both prompted me to advocate for myself and do everything I could to improve my chances of survival (increasingly, research validates the benefit of a healthy diet and active lifestyle for surviving cancer). My other motivation was my family. I lost my mother at a young age. Her weight and lack of fitness contributed to her young demise. I was determined not to repeat the same mistake; I wanted to be around as long as possible for my son!

Transforming myself to a marathon runner won’t be easy, but I’ve faced harder challenges and become stronger because of them. My most difficult transition came when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33. All my life cancer had been a subject avoided or treated with dread. As I went through treatment I felt the stigma and isolation of cancer. Strangers approached me when I was out with my son, my face without eyebrows or lashes, my head without hair wrapped with a scarf that tipped them off that I was someone with cancer.  Some people offered advice or encouragement, but others treated me with pity. I didn’t like this negative attention, which left me feeling uncomfortable and devalued.

Almost as difficult was the transition to my post-cancer life. Even after treatment ended, I felt different from my friends and peers. Dealing with uncertainty about my future and post-treatment depression, I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer them. The transformation that allowed me to re-enter life, find a “new normal,” and make new friends post-cancer didn’t happen overnight. It was almost a decade before I was emotionally ready to make friends outside of the cancer survivor and previvor community.

I loved being a veterinarian,  but were many great veterinarians and there was only one organization advocating for the HBOC community.

Advocating for the HBOC community became more important and rewarding than being a vet.

My transformation from veterinarian to patient advocate was also gradual and not entirely voluntary. I wanted to be a veterinarian for as long as I can remember. Once I achieved my dream, I loved my practice and the work. I loved helping animals and people. But my motivation for founding FORCE and transitioning to director was more powerful than my love of veterinary medicine. There were many great practicing veterinarians but there was only one organization devoted to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. My own isolation, confusion, and loneliness during my hereditary cancer journey led me to found FORCE so no one else would have to face the hereditary cancer journey alone.

Now at age 50 I'm in the best shape of my life and ready to take on a new challenge!

Now at age 50 I’m in the best shape of my life and ready to take on a new challenge!

Now, as a 50-year-old—an age I never thought I would reach—I am ready to face a new challenge: entering the Marine Corps Marathon. My motivation is two-fold. Although I now love exercise and being fit, the demands of a marathon reach beyond fitness. It also requires commitment, discipline, perseverance, endurance, and focus. Training to run a marathon at age 50 is my way of choosing how I transition to middle age and being able to face the next half-century on my own terms. My other motivation is to benefit the community and organization that I have dedicated my life to serving. I hope that my marathon quest motivates others to try to achieve their goals. And importantly, I hope to raise funds for FORCE and encourage others to sign up for Team FORCE for the Marine Corps Marathon.

I am not a natural athlete; the photo of a younger me confirms this. If after a half-century this formerly sedentary survivor can transform herself into an athlete, anyone can do the same. I hope my efforts inspire others to pick their own goals, find their personal motivation, and pursue their own transformation.

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.