Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jolie news highlights changing nature of mastectomy

Breast cancer cells
The world pays extra attention to diseases when celebrities have them, so it dominated the news this week when actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she recently had a double mastectomy. Tests had revealed she has the BRCA1 genetic variation known to drastically increase breast cancer risk. A sad detail in her case was her mother's death from the disease, which points to the interplay between genetic tests and family history when assessing risk.

The media did a good job of explaining that each case is different, and that women should make decisions with respect to breast cancer surgery in partnership with their doctors and genetic counselors. Included in the coverage was a fine piece by The Associated Press that described how women who make the same decision as Ms. Jolie now benefit from new approaches and technologies.

The nature of mastectomies has changed in recent years to save more of the breast, reduce scarring and pain and, in some cases, to enable breast reconstruction during the same surgery that removes the cancer. About 220,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States, and 40,000 die.

We asked Helen Krontiras, M.D., co-director of UAB Breast Health Center and scientist at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, for her take on the news and emerging trends in breast cancer surgery, which is her specialty.

Making it easier

Women who had double mastectomies in years past likely faced the removal of their entire breasts, including nipples and good deal of skin. They then faced a series of surgeries required to rebuild the breast with skin taken from the belly, construct a nipple and tattoo a ring around it.

Today, most women chose to have some degree of reconstruction done during the same surgery as their mastectomy, said Dr. Krontiras. For reconstruction requiring implant, surgeons must still, in many cases, put in expanders to stretch the skin for a time before a second surgery to put the implant in. Some patients go straight to implant at the time of mastectomy. According to the AP article, about 25 to 30 percent of women nationally get immediate reconstruction.

Despite a growing focus on the cosmetic aspects of breast reconstruction, Dr. Krontiras emphasized that the first goal is obviously to remove all the cancer. Second to that, but still important, is the effort to preserve cosmetic outcome. In some patients, she starts with chemotherapy first to try to shrink the tumor to the point that patients become candidates for skin saving techniques. One factor making this possible is the increasing sophistication of chemotherapy against breast cancer based on the realization that breast cancer can be one of several cancers, with treatment now tailored for each patient's genetic make-up.

In addition, new approaches to mastectomy that save original nipples are gaining in popularity. Many studies now show that the rate of local breast cancer recurrence in patients that retain their nipple and areola are low and on par with older procedures that remove them, Dr. Krontiras said. Injections of body fat are used in some cases to fill in defects that may occur as a results of removing breast tissue.

Looking forward, women may one day benefit from an experimental out-patient technique called cryoablation. A liquid-nitrogen-cooled probe freezes bits of cancer to death, with the dead cancer tissue removed by normal bodily processes. The technique is currently being tested in clinical trials.

Talk it over

Jolie made the decision to have the double mastectomy because counseling revealed she had the BRCA1 gene, and because her mother had died of breast cancer. It has been reported that her health team told her she had an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer.  Of course, such numbers are the opposite of universal, and vary greatly form patient to patient.

Dr. Krontiras recommends that women diagnosed with the BRCA 1 or 2 gene start with a discussion of options with their doctor and genetic counselor. Each patient’s risk for cancer will be managed by varying combinations of surveillance, chemoprevention and prophylactic surgery of breasts and/or the ovary. There is no once-size-fits-all approach.

She added that she hopes the widespread attention generated by Jolie’s announcement does not lead to a whole-sale increase in requests for mastectomy. Genetic predisposition for breast cancer affects less than 10 percent of all women diagnosed with breast cancer.

However, women who do carry such a gene can have an up to 85 percent lifetime risk for breast cancer. Therefore, asking questions about family history are important, and patients need to learn about risk on both their mother’s and father’s sides of the family.

While the BRCA genes are important predictors of breast cancer risk, they are likely to be the first of many as yet undiscovered genetic and familial factors that contribute to risk, Dr. Krontiras said. Even those with negative BRCA tests should be watched closely if family members have developed breast cancer.
Women and family members interested in genetic counseling with respect to breast cancer can visit the UAB Cancer Genetics Clinic site. There is a website offered by The National Society of Genetic Counselors that has information about family history, as well as another by the National Cancer Institute on preventive mastectomies.  More commentary is available in this UAB news story and in this article and video from Medpage Today.

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