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.

 

Happy New Year, Happy Birthday, Sweet 16!

shutterstock_29561851New Year’s Day is always a nostalgic time for me. Sixteen years ago today, I founded FORCE, not because I made a conscious choice to start a nonprofit organization on New Year’s Day, but because following my recovery from cancer, that day signified the tipping point between my need to rejoin my life-in-progress as a veterinarian and my desire to affect positive change—through more information, research and resource—for the HBOC community.

The last 16 years have not always been easy, especially in the early days of FORCE, when the “organization” had a staff of just one person. Some years, I was already exhausted by New Year’s Eve and I was ready for the year to end. But this year is different. With a staff of 12 and over 120 volunteers, new and exciting initiatives including our ABOUT Network Research Registry (if you haven’t joined yet, please consider it), our newly-launched XRAYS Program, and an incredible win with FDA approval of a new agent for BRCA-associated ovarian cancer, I feel excited and energized for the new year.

I hope that our community feels energized too. In the spirit of shared enthusiasm, here is a list of things that people can do to effect positive change for themselves, for the HBOC community, and for FORCE:

 

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.

 

FORCE 15: Reasons to Join FORCEs and Attend Our 8th Annual Conference

Need a reason to attend this year’s Joining FORCEs Conference? Here are 15 good ones:

  1. It’s the largest annual gathering by and for the hereditary cancer community.  Be a part of this landmark event.
  2. We make the latest science understandable and accessible. Hear experts clearly explain the science of hereditary cancer and make the latest research and medical options understandable and accessible no matter where you are in the HBOC journey.conference1
  3. We cover every aspect of HBOC. View our agenda to see a complete list of the 48 separate lectures, workshops and networking sessions.
  4. Sessions are organized to help you find the information you most need.  Our conference content is aligned into tracks that focus on different groups.  View a list of suggested sessions based on your specific situation.
  5. We bring researchers to you.  You’ll hear the latest scientific findings presented first-hand by world-class experts, and have the unprecedented opportunity to speak one-on-one with researchers about your own pressing issues.dr_levine_round_table_small
  6. Benefit from the experience of others.  Meet, chat and bond with hundreds of others who share your concerns.  Hear the poignant personal stories of people just like you who have faced hereditary cancer.  Talk face-to-face with your virtual friends who have supported you on Facebook or the FORCE message boards. Build relationships that will last a lifetime.
  7. See and hear about women’s real post-mastectomy surgical results.  If you’re considering your surgical options, visit our Show & Tell room to chat with women who have already undergone mastectomy. Every type of reconstruction and mastectomy without reconstruction is showcased.  Meet and speak with plastic surgeons who perform these surgeries, and Kathy Steligo, author of The Breast Reconstruction Guidebook. Participate in our photo shoot to help other women make decisions about surgery.
  8. Gain information and support to help make important health care decisions.  Learn the latest information, guidelines, and emerging science to help you overcome one of the biggest challenges of living with HBOC: sorting through medical options so that you can make health care decisions that are right for you. From risk-management to fertility options, from emerging tools for cancer detection to long-term survivorship issues, from hormone replacement to enrolling in a clinical trial, our conference sessions will help you make decisions with the most up-to-date information.
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  9. Enroll in research.  Make a difference.  Learn about and enroll in studies that will offer better answers for ourselves and future generations.
  10. Give back to the community by volunteering. Learn about FORCE volunteer opportunities and meet our volunteer team.
  11. Meet our Spirit of Empowerment Award winners. Every year we honor people who contribute to the HBOC community and support the work of FORCE. This year we honor annual_awards_compassionawardcancer survivor Annie Parker, whose personal struggle with hereditary cancer is the basis for the Hollywood film, Decoding Annie Parker; Kara DioGuardi, GRAMMY-nominated songwriter, previvor and former American Idol judge; Stacey Sager, Channel 7 Eyewitness News reporter and two-time cancer survivor; the sister team of Sisco Berluti Jewelry, and others.
  12. Bond with family members. Sharing the conference with family members is a unique bonding experience that will help your loved ones to better understand your choices, and empower them to make their own informed health care decisions.

  13. Enjoy the new venue
    . Located in the heart of Philadelphia, our conference site  offers many amenities and is within walking distance to downtown dining, shop
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    ping and attractions, including Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.  The clbcbellhonference offers great food, relaxation, opportunities to decompress, express yourself and play.
  14. Get fit, reclaim your health and well-being. Learn how you can make choices for a happier, healthier life. Sessions about exercise, nutrition, and integrative medicine provide information on living a healthy lifestyle. Improve your flexibility with yoga or try a heart-pumping Zumba workout. Attend the sexuality session or one of our “GirlsNight In” parties and reclaim your mojo.
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  15. Celebrate FORCE’s 15th Anniversary.  Help us blow out the candles and share birthday cake as we celebrate 15 years of fighting on behalf of the HBOC community.

A limited number of scholarships are available for those who would most benefit from attending but require financial support in order to participate. Visit our scholarship page to donate or apply.

See you in Philadelphia!

Preventive Guidelines Discriminate Against Cancer Survivors

FORCE has created a change.org petition to ask the United States Preventive Services Task Force to change their guidelines to include cancer survivors. You can read more about the issue and the petition below.

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The United States Preventive Services Task Force (US

The panel wields considerable power over consumer access to preventive health care services—primary care clinicians and health systems follow its guidelines. And importantly, the guidelines are incorporated into 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.”PSTF) is a government-supported independent panel of experts that reviews and develops recommendations on select preventive health services. In the panel’s own words: “The USPSTF is committed to improving the health of all Americans. To achieve this, the USPSTF assesses evidence on specific populations and makes specific evidence-based recommendations for specific populations.

The USPSTF has reviewed several, but not all preventive services available to keep us healthy, so some gaps are unavoidable. (Read a list of USPSTF-reviewed services here.)

The panel does have guidelines for risk assessment and BRCA testing, which are now being updated. Revisions have been improved based on feedback and suggestions from many groups and health care professionals; the proposed update supports genetic counseling and testing with a “Grade B” in women who have a family history consistent with a mutation, requiring insurance companies to cover these preventive services without a co-pay or deductible. But as we have previously reported, serious gaps remain, including omission of:

  • men
  • risk assessment and Lynch Syndrome testing
  • letter grade assignment for screening and prevention for high-risk women

We will continue to post about these gaps in policy that affect our community’s access to care. This blog post highlights one particular aspect of the USPSTF draft guidelines on risk assessment and BRCA testing: the discrimination against cancer survivors.

Regarding its draft guidelines, the USPSTF states: “These recommendations apply to women who have not received a diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer but who have family members with breast or ovarian cancer whose BRCA status is unknown. Women presenting to their primary care providers who have a relative with a known potentially harmful mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes should receive genetic counseling and consideration for testing.

FORCE response to the USPSTF draft guidelines

In October of this year FORCE sent a letter to the USPSTF which included four key points about this gap:

  • We pointed out that cancer survivors with a BRCA mutation are at high risk for an unrelated second primary cancer, and could benefit from preventive aspects of BRCA testing.
  • We requested that the task force review the strong research evidence supporting genetic risk assessment for preventive purposes in women who have been already been diagnosed with breast cancer and meet national guidelines.
  • We emphasized how omission of survivors from these guidelines will negatively impact their access to care and coverage for preventive services under the PPACA.
  • We requested that women with a cancer diagnosis be included in the definition of “population under consideration.”

USPSTF response to FORCE

The USPSTF responded to our letter with this statement, “Although the Task Force recognizes the importance of the further evaluation women who have the diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer, that assessment is part of disease management and is beyond the scope of this recommendation. The Task Force recognizes that genetic counseling and testing may be an important part of disease management for women who have been diagnosed. However, the Task Force’s mission is to determine the evidence-base for preventive services in the general population who have no signs or symptoms of disease.

I recognize that the USPSTF is focused on prevention only, and that any service that may come under the category of treatment is beyond their scope. And it is true that under some circumstances—particularly in women newly diagnosed with breast cancer—BRCA testing can affect treatment decisions, including the decision to have lumpectomy or unilateral mastectomy vs. bilateral mastectomy. However, the USPSTF response is missing a critical point: BRCA testing has preventive value beyond “disease management” and can help survivors prevent a new, completely unrelated second diagnosis of breast cancer. Experts still recommend genetic risk assessment for women whose personal and/or family medical history indicates a possible mutation even after they have completed their treatment for cancer and have no evidence of disease. These women meet the task force’s criteria of having no signs or symptoms of disease.

The USPSTF guidelines discriminate against cancer survivors

The USPSTF’s insistence to exclude survivors from these guidelines, despite research evidence to show the preventive value in testing people after cancer, amounts to discrimination against cancer survivors. The panel implies that once a person is diagnosed with cancer, all further health efforts fall under the category of treatment of the disease. By dismissing the preventive value of BRCA testing in this population they also dismiss the value of preventive services in cancer survivors in general, many of whom will go on to live long healthy lives if they are given access to appropriate preventive services.

My personal history is a perfect illustration. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, my health care providers failed to recognize that I had several red flags for a mutation. It wasn’t until after my unilateral mastectomy—when I read an article about BRCA testing—that I recognized I fit the guidelines for BRCA testing. I learned after my treatment that I had a BRCA 2 mutation; I was fortunate because a prophylactic mastectomy of my so-called healthy breast found early-stage cancer. During my BSO, abnormal cells were found in my abdominal wash, indicating that dangerous changes that could develop into cancer if left unaddressed were already underway. These surgeries were preventive in every sense of the word. The fact that I had already been diagnosed with breast cancer did not take away from the preventive benefit of BRCA testing for me. Now 15 years out from my preventive surgeries, I remain healthy and cancer-free. I am confident that the preventive steps I took have kept me from developing a second primary cancer.

Thousands of women like me who have completed treatment for cancer meet expert guidelines for risk assessment and BRCA testing, and also fit the USPSTF’s criteria of having “no signs or symptoms of disease.” Research evidence shows that genetic risk assessment and preventive action can lower their risk for a new primary cancer, detect it early, and lower their mortality. In many cases these women are the key to identifying a family mutation. As U.S. citizens, they are entitled to similar preventive services as people in the general population. Continued exclusion of this population discriminates against breast and ovarian cancer survivors and jeopardizes not just them, but also their healthy relatives.

The guidelines run counter to the spirit of the PPACA

As of January 2014—due to provisions in the PPACA – U.S. citizens with a pre-existing condition can no longer be denied or dropped from their health insurance plans. The stated goals of the PPACA are: “The most prevalent goal, however, and the one concept that is nearly universally accepted is the desire to improve the quality of care across the United States (U.S.) for all citizens until it meets the highest of standards.” It is ironic that at a time when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is being implemented to eliminate pre-existing condition exclusions by insurance companies, the USPSTF task force is in effect adding back pre-existing status, and therefore barriers to cancer survivors’ access to preventive care.

What you can do

After several letters to the USPSTF, we have decided to appeal to the task force once more, focusing on the issues with the most supportive research evidence. We ask that you read and sign on to our counter-response letter, which we plan to submit by December 12. (Read more about the issues here). We ask you to share this letter with any cancer survivors, previvors, health care providers, caregivers, and everyone you know and ask them to sign on to the letter as well. This issue and the USPSTF actions to assure access to preventive services for all citizens effects us all. We will request a written response from the USPSTF and will share it with our community. We will continue to post about the gaps in policy that affect our community’s access to care.

To sign on to the letter, send an email to suefriedman@facingourrisk.org and include your full name, city, and state.

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.

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.