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Fighting Cancer by Knowing the Enemy

Tuesday, Feb 10, 2015

A recent study shows that many women diagnosed with breast cancer do not know much about their tumors. Our breast cancer expert weighs in with her thoughts on the importance of patient education and the relationship between patient and physician.

By Donna Angotti, MD

It's a fundamental in sports. Every team scouts out information about an opponent, and that can help give them an edge in competition.

Similarly, when facing an opponent like breast cancer, we would think we'd be just motivated to find as much information as possible about the cancer.

However, a recent study from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston revealed a surprising truth: many women with breast cancer often don't know the details of their tumors.

This revelation is not necessarily a bad thing, since the physicians who treat these patients certainly have identified the important characteristics of their tumors and treated them accordingly. But the findings about how much the patients know are interesting.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, clinicians perform a variety of tests to help determine the type of cancer, if it is likely to spread, and the stage (the extent that cancer spread in the body). All of these characteristics are important factors in determining treatment options.

A patient who is diagnosed with breast cancer is encouraged to learn about the disease. Better knowledge might help women understand their treatment options, motivate them to take their medications properly, and help them with future discussions with their physicians when there are advances in cancer treatment.

Breast cancer patients lack knowledge of their tumors, an article by Reuters, provides the summary and results of the recent study, but overall, only 8% of women correctly answered all four questions about the basic characteristics of their tumors, namely:

  • Grade (a system used to classify cancer cells in terms of how abnormal they look under a microscope and how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread)
  • Stage (how far the tumor has spread at the time of diagnosis)
  • Hormone receptor status (whether or not the cancer feeds off the hormone estrogen and/or progesterone)
  • Her 2-neu status (whether or not the cancer feeds off a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2))

Also, the study found that the lack of knowledge was more pronounced among minority women. This particular finding requires further understanding.

To be sure, when someone is diagnosed with cancer, their feelings are not at all like those generated by a sports victory. They are likely to feel confused, upset, even mad. That could explain why many patients do not remember the details about their tumors.

Patients might remember more if clinicians realized the importance of talking to each patient as an individual and making sure each patient understands his or her particular case, just like they treat each case of cancer individually.

My advice for patients?

Make sure you receive detailed treatment histories and information about your tumor for future medical care. As part of the comprehensive, individualized care that a patient receives through Doylestown Health, patients will participate in a survivorship plan that includes important information they need to know to fight their cancer – and win.

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