Tagged Cancer

When the Cancer Doctor Leaves

Doctors

When the Cancer Doctor Leaves

I knew how difficult it would be to tell my colleagues I was leaving for a new job. I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to tell my patients.

Credit…Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters

  • Jan. 14, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

“I’ve known you since 2003,” my patient reminded me, after I had entered the examination room and took my usual seat a few feet away from her. She was sitting next to her husband, just as she had been at her first visit 17 years earlier, and both wore winter jackets to withstand the sleet that Cleveland had decided to dump on us in late October. “That was when I first learned I had leukemia,” she added. He nodded dutifully, remembering the day.

I was freshly out of my fellowship training in hematology-oncology back then, and still nervous every time I wrote a prescription for chemotherapy on my own, without an attending’s co-signature. In her case, it was for the drug imatinib, which had been on the market only a couple of years.

At the time, a study had just reported that 95 percent of patients who had her type of leukemia and who were treated with the drug imatinib achieved a remission. But on average, patients in that study had been followed for just a year and a half, so I couldn’t predict for her how long the drug might work in her case.

Seventeen years later, she was still in a remission. During that time, she had retired from her job as a nurse, undergone a couple of knee replacements, and had a cardiac procedure to treat her atrial fibrillation.

“You had a toddler at home,” she reminded me. That son was now in college. “And then your daughter was born the next year. And you had another boy, right?”

I nodded, and in turn reminded her of the grandchildren she had welcomed into the world during the same time. We had grown older together. Then we sat quietly, staring at each other and enjoying the shared memories.

“I can’t believe you’re leaving me,” she said softly.

When I decided to take a new job in Miami, I knew how difficult it would be to tell the other doctors, nurses, pharmacists and social workers I work with, the team from whom I had learned so much and relied upon so heavily for years.

I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to tell my patients.

For some with longstanding, chronic cancers, it was like saying goodbye to a beloved friend or a comrade-in-arms, as if we were reflecting on having faced down an unforgiving foe together, and had lived to tell about it.

For others, still receiving therapy for a leukemia that had not yet receded, I felt as if I were betraying them in medias res. I spent a lot of time reviewing their treatment plans and reinforcing how I would transition their care to another doctor, probably more to reassure myself than my patients, that they would be OK.

A few were angry. Unbeknownst to me, my hospital, ever efficient, had sent out a letter informing patients of my departure and offering the option to choose any one of eight other doctors who could assume their care — even before I had a chance to tell some of them in person. How were they expected to choose, and why hadn’t I told them I was leaving, they demanded indignantly.

I felt the same way as my patients, and quickly sent out my own follow-up letter offering to select a specialist for their specific types of cancer, and telling my patients I would miss them.

I then spent weeks apologizing, in person, for the first letter.

And though I always tell my patients the best gift I could ever hope for is their good health, many brought presents or cards.

One man in his 60s had just received another round of chemotherapy for a leukemia that kept coming back. I think we both knew that the next time the leukemia returned, it would be here to stay. When I entered his examination room, he greeted me where my other patient had left off.

“I can’t believe you’re leaving me.”

Before I could even take a seat, he handed me a plain brown bag with some white tissue paper poking out of the top and urged me to remove its contents.

Inside was a drawing of the steel truss arches of Cleveland’s I-90 Innerbelt bridge, with the city skyline rising above it.

“It’s beautiful,” I told him. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You can hang this on your office wall in Miami,” he suggested, starting to cry. “So you’ll always remember Cleveland.” And then, Covid-19 precautions be damned, he walked over and gave me a huge bear hug. After a few seconds we separated.

“No,” I said, tearing up. “I’ll hang up the picture and always remember you.”

Mikkael Sekeres (@mikkaelsekeres), formerly the director of the leukemia program at the Cleveland Clinic, is the chief of the Division of Hematology, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and author of When Blood Breaks Down: Life Lessons From Leukemia.”

How Our Sex Habits May Affect Our HPV and Cancer Risk

How Our Sex Habits May Affect Our HPV and Cancer Risk

Certain sex practices, at certain ages, increased the risk of throat cancers related to human papillomavirus.

Credit…Getty Images
Nicholas Bakalar

  • Jan. 12, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a leading cause of throat cancer, and it is sexually transmitted. But how the timing, number and types of sexual behaviors affect the risk, and why some people develop cancer and others don’t, are still open questions. Researchers are beginning to suggest some possible answers.

HPV causes about 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers — tumors of the back of the throat, the base of the tongue and the tonsils. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 3,500 new cases of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed in women and 16,200 in men every year in the United States. These cancers are more common among white people than among African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, or American Indians and Native Alaskans.

There are many types of HPV, only some of which cause cancer. In addition to throat cancer, HPV is a cause of cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile and anal cancers. It can take years, even decades, after infection for cancer to develop.

To try to sort out the risk factors for HPV-associated throat cancer, researchers compared 163 patients with cancer with 345 cancer-free controls. Patients and controls ranged in age from 18 to 89, but more than 95 percent of them were over 40. At the start of the study, all of the participants provided a blood sample, and the scientists obtained tumor samples from the patients with cancer. None of the participants had had the HPV vaccine, which was introduced in the United States in 2006 and recommended primarily for preadolescents, teenagers and young adults.

Using a self-interview administered on a computer, the participants also answered detailed questions on lifetime and recent sexual behavior, including number of partners, age of sexual initiation, types of sexual acts, extramarital sex and the use of alcohol and recreational drugs during sex. The scientists also had data on income, education, sexual orientation, and any history of sexually transmitted and other diseases. The study is in the journal Cancer.

Taken together, the various cancers caused by HPV are slightly more common in women, but HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers are almost five times as common in men. Exactly why is unclear.

“There is some evidence that cunnilingus is more infective than fellatio,” said the senior author, Gypsyamber D’Souza, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins. “But that’s a surrogate for more nuanced behavior. Many patients have not engaged in high-risk sex behavior and are unlucky enough to still get this. It’s not just sexual partners, but the timing, the kind of practice, the nature of the partners and other factors, plus aspects of our own immunological response that are all involved in this.”

The cancer patients in the study were about 80 percent more likely than those without cancer to have ever performed oral sex on a partner. They were also younger when they first did so — 37 percent of patients were younger than 18 the first time they performed oral sex, compared with 23 percent of controls — and they were more likely to have performed oral sex at their sexual debut.

Why having oral sex at a first sexual encounter would raise the risk is unknown. Is there a different immune response if a person has had other forms of sex before having oral sex? Does the initial site of exposure affect your risk? “We don’t have good answers yet,” Dr. D’Souza said.

Almost 45 percent of patients had had more than 10 sexual partners during their lifetimes, compared with 19 percent of the cancer-free controls. People under 23 who had a sexual partner at least 10 years older were more likely to be infected, possibly because older people have had longer exposure to the virus.

Deep kissing was also associated with increased risk. Those who had 10 or more deep-kissing partners were more than twice as likely to have an HPV-related cancer as those who had none or one.

People who reported that their partners had extramarital affairs, and those who even suspected that their partners had had affairs, also had an increased risk of HPV-associated throat cancer. There was no association of HPV-related throat cancer with smoking, alcohol consumption or substance use.

The study had limitations. It depended on self-reports, which are not always reliable, and because more than 95 percent of the participants described themselves as heterosexual, there was not enough data to draw conclusions about the effects of sexual orientation on HPV and cancer risk. But the analysis had carefully matched controls, HPV tumor data, and a confidential questionnaire, all of which contribute to its strengths.

Dr. Jason D. Wright, an associate professor of gynecologic oncology at Columbia who was not involved in the research, believes the work could be useful in clinical practice. “This is one of the first studies to provide in-depth details for patients about how specific practices influence your long-term risk,” he said. “A higher exposure, more partners, oral sex early on — these are all risk factors. These are important things to think about in talking to patients.”

The lead author, Dr. Virginia E. Drake, a resident physician at Johns Hopkins, said that explaining the infection to patients can be difficult. “If people get this infection, they’re going to ask, ‘Why me?’” she said. “How this information will change things clinically, we don’t know. But we can give patients a better understanding of the disease process and how someone gets it.”

Still, she said, “It’s complex, more complex that just the number of sexual partners. We don’t have the exact answers on this, and we’re still figuring out the complete picture.”

The Covid Balancing Act for Doctors

Doctors

The Covid Balancing Act

At the start of the pandemic, I was “Dr. No” to my in-laws and cancer patients, but my conversations have become more nuanced.

Credit…Getty Images

  • Jan. 7, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

My wife’s parents have led a relatively monastic existence since about mid-March.

Both are in their 80s and live independently in rural Pennsylvania, maintaining a three-acre property by themselves. My father-in-law, the older of the two, has skirted major medical problems despite a decades-long indiscriminate diet, a testimony to the triumph of genetics over lifestyle choices. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, has been ravaged by lupus, which flares regularly and requires medications that suppress her immune system.

So when Covid-19 hit, we feared for their health, given their ages and her compromised immunity, and begged that they place themselves on lockdown, so we wouldn’t lose them to the pandemic.

And they did.

Where they used to buy groceries at their local Giant Eagle supermarket (which they call the “Big Bird,”) they turned instead to Instacart for home delivery, shrugging off the random items their shopper would get wrong with good humor.

Where they used to attend church in person every Sunday, they caught the video highlights online when they became available on Monday morning.

We arranged weekly Zoom calls with them, to replace our frequent visits.

We used to say that their social life rivaled ours, as they got together with friends they have known since kindergarten (kindergarten!) several times each week for dinner, drinks or shows. Instead, during the pandemic, they’ve replaced those social events with going cruising together in their blue ’55 Chevy Bel Air, satisfying themselves with the feel of a car they first drove in their teens, the beautiful countryside and a wave at their friends, who sat at a safe distance on their front porches.

Our whole family has been proud of them to the point of bursting. But in September, after six months of this, my father-in-law got antsy and did the unthinkable: He went to the hardware store, ostensibly for a tool, but really to see his friends who tend to congregate there.

He caught hell for his modest indiscretion, first from his wife, and then from mine. They explained to him that he could have ordered the piece online. They reminded him that his actions can affect my mother-in-law, and her frail health, too. Finally, he had enough.

“I’m 85 years old,” he said. “Eighty-five! I’m careful, I wore a mask. What do you expect me to do, spend the rest of my days here in prison?”

That gave me pause — my wife, too. At 85, he had done the math. Despite his lucky genetics, he probably didn’t have many years left on this earth, and he didn’t want to spend one or two of them in isolation.

Understanding the risks and consequences of his actions, shouldn’t he be allowed to see his buddies at the hardware store, and maybe buy a tool while he’s there?

I thought about it from the perspective of my patients, many of whom also don’t have much time left on this earth, and the conversations we had been having in clinic.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was “Dr. No,” prohibiting my patients, most of whom have devastated immune systems, from engaging in their usual social activities. Where much of what we had all been hearing from government authorities about Covid-19 transmission had often been contradictory, I wanted to give concrete advice.

Attending a family gathering to celebrate a birthday? No.

How about a high school graduation party for a granddaughter? No.

Visiting elderly parents in another state? Not safe for you or them.

A road trip to Montana with a friend (this from a man in his 80s with leukemia): Are you kidding me?

At the risk of sounding paternalistic, I feared for my patients’ health, as I did for my in-laws’ health, and wanted to protect them.

But perhaps because our understanding of Covid-19’s epidemiology has gotten better over time; or with our recognition that we may have to live with the pandemic for many months more; or given my father-in-law’s perspective that people at the end of life should make their own risk-benefit calculations, my conversations have now become more nuanced.

I’m more open to my patients not missing important life events, when there may not be much life for them left, provided they take precautions to avoid endangering themselves or those around them, particularly amid the most recent surge in Covid-19 cases.

One woman with leukemia was receiving chemotherapy early in 2020 when her daughter had a miscarriage. Now that her daughter is eight months pregnant again, can she hold the baby when it is born? Absolutely, let’s talk about how to do it safely.

Another patient’s mother died. Can she attend the funeral? Yes, with appropriate distancing, limited numbers, and personal protective equipment. But skip the reception.

The road trip to Montana? I still wasn’t comfortable with that, but my patient and his friend went anyway, took their own food, slept in their truck, and he returned without Covid-19.

And my father-in-law? He gets out of the house a little bit more than he used to, but not as much as he’d like. The rare times that he does nowadays, he is always masked and stays outdoors, and both he and my mother-in-law remain Covid-19-free.

Which strikes me as about the right balance.

Mikkael Sekeres (@mikkaelsekeres) is the chief of the Division of Hematology, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and author of When Blood Breaks Down: Life Lessons from Leukemia.”

Oral Contraceptives Tied to Lower Risk for Certain Cancers

Oral Contraceptives Tied to Lower Risk for Certain Cancers

The drugs may increase the risk of breast cancer, but may lower the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.

Nicholas Bakalar

  • Jan. 5, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Women who have used oral contraceptives may be at lower risk for ovarian and endometrial cancer.

Oral contraceptives are known to be associated with a higher risk for breast cancer, but a new study in Cancer Research suggests the increased risk is small and of short duration. At the same time, researchers found that the lowered risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer is substantial and long-lasting.

The analysis included health data through 2019 on 256,661 women born between 1939 and 1970 in Britain. More than 80 percent of the women had used oral contraceptives.

After adjustment for many other health and behavioral characteristics, the scientists found that compared with women who had not used them, women who had used oral contraceptives had a 32 percent reduced risk for endometrial cancer and a 28 percent reduced risk for ovarian cancer. Those reduced risks persisted for life.

“Ovarian cancer is deadly and hard to treat,” said the senior author, Asa Johansson, an assistant professor at Uppsala University in Sweden. “The mortality rate for breast cancer is lower. If you have a close relative who died from ovarian cancer, you might make one decision about oral contraceptives. If you have one who died from breast cancer, you might make another.”

In any case, she said, “I don’t think we can offer advice. People should be informed about the risks and benefits and make their own decisions.”

A Wintry Tale of Deliverance

Living With Cancer

A Wintry Tale of Deliverance

The George Saunders story “Tenth of December” poses a question that absorbs many patients and caregivers: Can we save ourselves or each other from suffering?

Credit…Alexey Karamanov/Getty Images

  • Dec. 22, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

When I learn, as I did a few days ago, of a cherished member of my cancer support group going into hospice, I find myself alienated from holiday cheer, as many do this year. Rather than reading a holiday story like “A Christmas Carol,” I open instead George Saunders’ short story “Tenth of December.” In it, a man who dreads end-of-life cancer connects with a boy who has been bullied in school. Through their interaction, the tale poses a question that absorbs many patients and caregivers. Can we — how can we — save ourselves or each other from suffering?

People with late-stage disease or those loving people with late-stage disease may find this story especially heartening. It analyzes not only our anxieties about physical deterioration but also how we might lay them to rest.

Tenth of December” begins with the ostracized boy, Robin, trekking to a frozen pond to vanquish make-believe enemies who torture him with the sorts of barbs launched by his classmates: “Wow, we didn’t even know Robin could be a boy’s name.” Undaunted, Robin imagines rescuing a girl he admires from being kidnapped by his assailants, though he realizes “The twerpy thing was, you never really got to save anyone.” He had failed to save a dying raccoon and “He didn’t do well with sad. There had perchance been some pre-weeping, by him, in the woods.”

Robin’s fantasies are interrupted by the sight of a coat left on a bench and then, in the distance, of a skinny, bald man in pajamas who looked “Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.” The boy determines to deliver the coat because “had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves but are too mental, doddering, or have a disability?”

While Robin embarks on “a real rescue,” Don Eber is resolving to freeze to death in order to spare his wife and children his “future debasement.” Disease or chemotherapy has begun to scramble his words and Eber dreads the degeneration that reduced his beloved stepfather to a rail-thin, verbally abusive brute. Determined instead to do what a good father does — “Eases the burdens of those he loves” — Eber prays, “Let me do it cling. / Clean. / Cleanly.”

Both the boy and the man want to be heroic, though soon their roles reverse. After Robin falls through the ice and manages to pull himself only partly out, Eber drags him free. “The kid’s shivers made his shivers look like nothing. Kid seemed to be holding a jackhammer.” Noticing his coat on the ice, at the edge of the black water, Eber slides on his belly to snag it, strips off the boy’s freezing clothes, and then peels off his own pajamas, boots and socks to dress Robin, who slowly regains consciousness.

The exposed man and boy quaking in the killing cold bring to mind Lear and his fool on the stormy heath: unaccommodated, forked animals. With the exchange of the coat, their scene evokes William Butler Yeats’s definition of an aged man as “a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick.” On the brink of catastrophe, Robin and Eber are poised to expire, although Robin manages to gather Eber’s coat “like some sort of encumbering royal train” and high-tail it home where he will summon help.

Left alone and hallucinating, Eber remembers dressing his sleepy kids, recalls that because of insurance he has not left a note, and senses the misery he will inflict by “offing himself two weeks before Christmas,” his wife’s favorite holiday. “Tenth of December” opts for “Let me do it cling” over and against “Let me do it cleanly.” For abandoned in the snow, dying in his underwear, blue-skinned Eber comprehends the cruelty of his earlier attempt to commit suicide. Recognizing the interconnectedness of his life with others, he realizes that it is not his sole possession to give away.

Both Robin and Eber have botched their initial missions. However, they end up saving each other, not despite but because of their failures. When Eber is finally brought in from the cold, his response to Robin’s apology for fleeing the scene — “You did perfect. I’m here. Who did that?” — comforts them both: “Can’t console anyone if not around?” Eventually Eber remembers that in precious moments his dying stepfather preserved his identity through small acts of kindness: “I’ll try to be like him,” he decides.

Eber accepts the future deterioration dictated by his disease. “Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them. He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there would be many drops of happy — of good fellowship — ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not — had never been — his to withheld. / Withhold.”

Sometimes we know — or a person we love knows — that a decline toward death has become inevitable. Under these circumstances, it is an acknowledgment of our reciprocity to be lifted or lift, to be fed or feed, to be wiped or wipe. Not our strengths but our weaknesses inspire and intensify the mutuality that sustain us. When we cannot save ourselves or each other from suffering, sharing it can become a saving grace. This is a poignant insight these days when the pandemic has limited our capacity to share suffering.

Like Charles Dickens, George Saunders illuminates the mystic deliverance of our dependence on each other and celebrates the generosity to which erring people cling. Like William Butler Yeats, he suggests that we become more than “A tattered coat upon a stick” only when “Soul claps its hands” and learns to “sing and louder sing / For every tatter in our mortal dress.” By instructing us to rejoice in every drop of affection bestowed upon our torn or sore mortal bodies, his story blesses its readers, each and every one.

New Scan Finds Prostate Cancer Cells Hiding in the Body

New Scan Finds Prostate Cancer Cells Hiding in the Body

The test seems likely to improve the diagnosis and treatment of a disease that kills 33,000 American men each year.

Dr. Mark Samberg, a retired urologist in Sacramento, learned his cancer had spread beyond his prostate with a new scan that finds radioactively tagged cancer cells in the body. 
Dr. Mark Samberg, a retired urologist in Sacramento, learned his cancer had spread beyond his prostate with a new scan that finds radioactively tagged cancer cells in the body. Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times
Gina Kolata

  • Dec. 16, 2020, 2:08 p.m. ET

After doctors found cancer in Dr. Mark Samberg’s prostate last spring, the 70-year-old retired urologist prepared to have his prostate removed. He knew that the surgery would cure him, assuming the cancer was confined to the organ.

But his doctors had a nagging concern — the cancer cells seen on the biopsy were aggressive and may already have escaped from his prostate. If so, the operation would not cure him. The problem for Dr. Samberg, and for many men with aggressive prostate cancer, was this: If there are cancer cells outside the prostate, how can they be found?

Now the Food and Drug Administration has approved a test that can locate prostate cancer cells wherever they are. Exuberant cancer specialists said the test would alter treatment for patients nationwide.

“It’s the most exciting thing in prostate cancer in my lifetime,” said Dr. Kirsten Greene, chair of the urology department at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

The test relies on a radioactive tag attached to a molecule that homes in on prostate cancer cells that have spread to other locations in the body and may seed new tumors. Once tagged, the clusters of cells appear as bright spots on PET scans.

At the moment, the F.D.A.’s approval applies only to testing at the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of California, Los Angeles, which conducted clinical trials. But several companies hope to market similar tests soon.

“It’s absolutely fabulous,” said Dr. Oliver Sartor, professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine. When he learned that the test had been approved, he said, he danced in his office “and had a toast of imaginary champagne.”

Now specialists are hoping to use the technique to kill cancer cells, not just find them. The idea is to attach a radioactive drug to the molecule that seeks out prostate cancer cells. The molecule will deliver the drug directly to those cells and, it is hoped, the radiation will destroy the cancer. Experiments already have begun at U.C.S.F. and U.C.L.A.

The road to the new test has been long. Nearly 30 years ago, researchers discovered that prostate cancer cells carry a unique protein on their surfaces called prostate specific membrane antigen, or P.S.M.A. More recently, researchers found small molecules that could home in on P.S.M.A.

Scientists theorized that radioactive tracers attached to those molecules could make prostate cancer cells visible on PET scans. In 2010, researchers at the University of Heidelberg in Germany published the first images of prostate cancer cells located in this way.

Over the past four years, studies involving about 1,000 patients by Dr. Jeremie Calais, a nuclear medicine physician at U.C.L.A., and Dr. Thomas Hope, a nuclear medicine physician at U.C.S.F., showed that the scan accurately detected prostate cancer cells anywhere in the body before treatment and even after treatment, when cancer may recur.

The research led to changes in treatment for most patients, including decisions to recommend targeted radiation, guided by the scans, rather than chemotherapy or androgen-blocking therapy, treatments that impact the entire body.

Dr. Hope described two situations in which the PET scans can transform treatment decisions.

Most men learn they have prostate cancer when a simple blood test finds high levels of prostate specific antigen, or P.S.A. The next step is a biopsy of the prostate and removal of cancer cells for examination to see how aggressive they appear.

Men often have MRI scans to see if the capsule surrounding the prostate has been breached — a sign the cancer has gotten out. And doctors consider how high P.S.A. levels are. The higher they are, the more cancer in the body and the more likely it has spread.

The second scenario occurs after a man has had his prostate removed or destroyed by radiation. If the patient’s P.S.A. levels start to rise months or years later, the cancer that doctors thought they had cured had already seeded itself elsewhere in the man’s body.

In both situations, “we know they have disease, but we don’t know where it is,” Dr. Hope said. The new scan seems able to show doctors where to look. The researchers are now conducting studies to see if these treatment revisions ultimately prolong patients’ lives.

Dr. Samberg, who lives in Sacramento, was one of the participants in the U.C.S.F. trial. Before his scheduled prostatectomy, the scan turned up cancerous cells in his bones and lymph nodes. “That was shocking,” he said.

Without the new test, the doctors would have removed Dr. Samberg’s prostate, and they would have realized he still had cancer when his P.S.A. levels began to rise. In such a case, doctors usually irradiate the area where the prostate used to be — the prostate bed, which is the site of remaining cancers a bit more than half the time.

For Dr. Samberg, that procedure, like the prostatectomy, would not have helped. “Standard therapy for me would fail,” he said. Instead, the discovery that his cancer was in his bones and lymph nodes pointed to targeted radiation therapy, hormonal therapy and, most recently, immunotherapy.

“I am in complete remission,” Dr. Samberg said. “I hope it makes a difference long term.”

NYT Health Quiz: Coronavirus, Caregiving and Erectile Dysfunction

1 of 7

About what percentage of American adults are caregivers, providing unpaid support for an adult or child who has special needs?

8.2 percent

12.8 percent

16.3 percent

21.3 percent

2 of 7

Men tended to have lower rates of erectile dysfunction when they ate diets high in all of the following foods except:

Fruits

Vegetables

Red meat

Fish

3 of 7

To help counter the life-shortening effects of excessive sitting, researchers calculated that you’d need to do at least how many minutes of brisk walking or other moderate exercise a day?

11 minutes

35 minutes

52 minutes

74 minutes

4 of 7

Wernicke’s encephalopathy, marked by an unsteady gait, seeing double and confusion, is caused by a deficiency of this vitamin, found in whole grains, meats, nuts and beans:

Vitamin A

Vitamin B1 (thiamine)

Vitamin C

Vitamin D

5 of 7

Who will get the coronavirus vaccine first? Probably not this group, according to recommendations from a C.D.C. advisory panel:

Residents of long-term care facilities

Health care workers

Essential workers

Men and women 65 and over

6 of 7

The C.D.C. outlined ways to shorten the quarantine period for coronavirus from 14 days to as little as:

3 days

5 days

7 days

10 days

7 of 7

During the pandemic, many people are missing screenings and treatments for cancer. With a four-week delay in surgery for breast cancer, the death rate increases by:

2 percent

5 percent

8 percent

A four-week delay in surgery has little impact on overall survival

Despite Pandemic Shutdowns, Cancer Doesn’t Take a Break

While a raging pandemic continues to force shutdowns and slowdowns throughout the country, another major risk to human health is not taking a sabbatical: cancer.

In the early months of the pandemic, millions of people heeded warnings and fears about contracting the coronavirus and avoided, or couldn’t even get, in-person medical visits and cancer screenings, allowing newly developed cancers to escape detection and perhaps progress unimpeded.

During this time, there was a steep decline in screenings for cancer, as well as a reluctance of patients with cancer to participate in clinical trials for cancer treatments. Many mammography centers, dermatology offices and other venues for cancer screenings remained closed for months, and routine colonoscopies, which should be done in hospitals or surgical centers, were actively discouraged to minimize strain on medical personnel and equipment and reduce the risk of contagion.

Still, Dr. Norman E. Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, warned in June that missed routine screenings could lead to 10,000 or more excess deaths from breast and colorectal cancers within the next decade.

Cancers cannot be treated unless they’re detected, and a review of 34 studies published in October in the BMJ reported that for every four-week delay in cancer detection and treatment, the risk of death from cancer rises nearly 10 percent, on average. The study found increased mortality following delays in treatment for 13 of 17 cancer types. Following a four-week delay in surgery for breast cancer, the death rate increased by 8 percent; for colorectal cancer, it rose 6 percent.

The hazard of delayed screenings is greatest for people with known risk factors for cancer: a family or personal history of the disease, a previous abnormal Pap smear, prior findings of polyps in the colon or rectum, or, in the case of breast and certain other cancers, having genetic mutations that seriously increase cancer risk.

Most screening facilities have since put safety procedures in place that greatly reduce the chance of contracting the coronavirus, both for staff and patients. Although I had postponed my annual mammogram for four months, when I did go in September I was impressed with how well the facility was run — no one else in the waiting room, everyone masked and hand sanitizer everywhere.

Dr. Barry P. Sleckman, director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in an interview, “When it comes to screening for cancer, people should balance the possibility of contracting the virus with their potential cancer risk. People should do everything possible to keep up with cancer screenings.”

However, Dr. Sleckman added, “If a woman is young and has no family history of breast cancer, she can probably wait six months for her next screening mammogram.” He also suggested discussing the matter with one’s personal physician, who probably also knows the safest facilities for screening.

If someone is found to have cancer, he emphasized, “There’s no reason to delay treatment. If a woman has cancer in a breast, it needs to be removed, and she should go to a hospital where she can be treated safely.”

Dr. David E. Cohn, chief medical officer at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, said that in the early months of the pandemic “we experienced a significant decline in new patients. Even some patients with symptoms were afraid to come in or couldn’t even see their doctors because the offices were closed. This could result in a delayed diagnosis, more complex care and potentially a worse outcome.”

But he said his center has since returned to baseline, suggesting that, despite the fall’s surge in Covid-19 cases, few cancer patients now remain undiagnosed and untreated.

“We made creative adaptations to Covid” to maximize patient safety, Dr. Cohn said in an interview. “For certain cancers, instead of doing surgery upfront, we treated patients with radiation and chemotherapy first, then did surgery later” when there was less stress on hospital facilities and personnel and patients could be better protected against the virus.

Dr. Cohn said that certain kinds of supportive care can be delivered remotely to cancer patients and their families — even genetic counseling, if a DNA sample is sent in. However, he added, “the majority of cancer treatment has to be administered in person, and surveillance of cancer patients is best done in face-to-face visits.”

Now with the virus surging around the country, many medical centers may be forced to again limit elective procedures, those not deemed urgent. But, Dr. Sleckman said, “Cancer treatment is not elective — it’s urgent and should not be delayed.”

Learning that one has cancer, even when it is early and potentially highly curable, is likely to strain a person’s ability to cope with adversity, all the more so when the diagnosis occurs in the midst of an already highly stressful and frightening pandemic.

Kristen Carpenter, a psychologist at the Ohio cancer center, said the constraints of the pandemic are “using up a lot of people’s reserve for dealing with adversity.” Adding a cancer diagnosis on top of that may initially cause people to fear they can’t deal with it, she said in an interview.

But it is nearly always possible to make more room in a person’s “bucket of reserve,” she said, for example, by identifying things that bring joy or a sense of accomplishment. Even though the pandemic may preclude great joys, Dr. Carpenter said, “people can create a constellation of smaller joys, for example, by reading a book, taking a walk or even a long shower. A little goes a long way to relieve the stresses of the day and build up the reserve needed to help you deal with the cancer.”

Noting that many people have found new ways to interact with others during the pandemic, “this is all the more important to do in the face of cancer,” Dr. Carpenter said. “Remember, you’re not just your cancer. You’re a whole person experiencing something. Take time to identify your needs and tell people what they are — don’t wait for them to ask.”

This advice is especially critical to cancer patients whose disease or treatment has compromised their immunity, leaving them especially vulnerable to infection by the coronavirus. A friend with chronic lymphoma who must avoid in-person contact with her five young grandchildren visits them through a glass door and observes their delight in retrieving the little treats she leaves for them on her porch.

Think, too, of how you’ve faced difficulties in the past, “how you’ve adapted to things you previously believed to be unimaginably difficult,” Dr. Carpenter suggested. Resiliency in the face of cancer during Covid need not have a limit, she said.

Cancer in the Family: Compliments on Being Thin

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Credit The author with her daughter, Devon.

“I’m so jealous. You’ve lost so much weight, you look amazing,” a friend says to me. “I’d love to catch the stomach bug this year and lose a few pounds myself.”

I smile. I don’t know what to say.

Since January, one of my 12-year-old twin daughters, Devon, has been in isolation in a Boise, Idaho, pediatric oncology unit receiving chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia. Her sister, Gracie, remains behind, in a little town south of Sun Valley. To cope, she has assigned herself as captain of Devo’s Fight Club, a band of peer supporters started with a sweatshirt she designed in the first 36 hours of her sister’s diagnosis.

Their dad and I have been driving the two and a half hours between home and hospital, splitting the week between our daughters, our jobs, middle school’s demands, puberty’s capriciousness, sports, music and running a household that includes cats, dogs, horses, cows and fish.

Devon’s cancer was as random as a dice roll. She had swollen gums for a week and then, a simple blood test to rule out mono instead declared that this sleek, athletic, freckle-faced cowgirl had a rare and often fatal leukemia.

My husband says he has gained weight since Devon’s diagnosis. I have lost weight. A lot. Neither one of us notices the other because we relate over phone or email mostly, and offer a country-style, four-finger half wave from the steering wheel as we blow past each other on the highway between towns.

Over the next 120-mile drive I am perplexed and obsessive.

“I’m so jealous. You look amazing.”

I’m nearly 51 years old and was prepared for the idea that menopause would keep me round despite my best efforts. How much weight have I lost? Was I really that fat before? Should I eat before I get to the hospital or after? The smell of food makes Devon sick. Eating in front of her seems torturous and unfair.

After I arrived at the hospital, a friend stopped by to visit. Before acknowledging Devon, she looked at me. With purrs of envy, she commented on how thin I looked. Again, I was at a loss for words. My daughter was not.

“My mom is not skinny because she worked at it,” Devon told our visitor. “It’s because I’m sick.”

The friend waved it off in the way that one deflects praise of a nice outfit with “this old thing,” and we all moved on. But every time someone notices my weight loss with a tinge of envy it makes me cringe.

Please, I want to tell them, do not admire how thin I have become since my daughter’s diagnosis — unless you are suggesting I look undernourished and want to give me a cupcake. My weight loss is not a goal you should aspire to, nor should it be confused with health and well-being. I was perfectly happy and fit in my pre-cancer-kid size, and a little hurt to hear that this shrinkage that could cost me a lot more than new pants makes me more beautiful than ever.

But what is most painful for me is the collateral damage to my daughters. When they hear that Mom is enviably thin, they hear that this is a reward, a take away for the suffering. That thin is best no matter the circumstances.

Gracie, a minute ahead of her twin, but always an inch and a pound behind, is now getting stretch marks from growing so fast. When her peers note how she “swims” in her choir dress, her mind begins the dance with body consciousness. Weight fluctuations are somewhat inevitable in adolescence and during menopause, but certainly magnified under the circumstances.

Devon’s physical changes are pushed to the bottom of most people’s thoughts now, because in this setting of a hospital room, she’s supposed to look wan and pale. Instead, her inner beauty and sense of humor are noted.

I’ve been sick and thin enough times to know I don’t want to be either. But my girls are facing this for the first time, and the ripple effects of this entire traumatic episode will surface the farther we get from the cancer. Hospital social workers are preparing us to watch for anxiety, regression, depression, eating disorders, apathy and sleeping issues. And signs of cancer returning, of course. And survivor’s guilt in Gracie, which could carve out a whole new emotional journey.

Devon, thankfully, is home now. But I’ve just been told that five months in the hospital have cost Devon nearly a third of her body mass. That her overall strength is that of a 90-year-old, and that after the chemo, her heart, which once pounded fearlessly, is in danger of failing. Her brain is wobbly from the lack of nutrition and her skin is translucent and cold where it once was earthy and warm.

When she returns to school next year, navigating the social riddle of middle school — now half a year behind her peers — and still mostly bald, and undoubtedly still thin, she will return with a self-consciousness she has never known.

Do not covet her thinness. Admire her resilience, and tenacity, and sheer will to live.

And, if you look into her eyes and you can see they are dim from the struggle, a happy-to-see-you smile or just saying nothing at all will do more than you know to help her find her way to loving herself as life has created her in this moment.

If you want to know how someone is, look in their eyes, because their size is not where the information is.

Keeping the Disruption of a Move in Perspective

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Credit Camilla Engman

At midnight, the ice cube dispenser on the refrigerator is not merely dripping. Water pours onto the floor. I drop down towels, empty the accumulated cubes from their plastic container and pop it back inside the freezer.

“Was that the right thing to do?” I ask my husband, who is trying to sleep. “For goodness sakes,” Don says, getting out of bed. We must leave for my monthly cancer blood test at 8 a.m. tomorrow.

Don pulls out the tray, puts it in the sink, and props up a little stick in the freezer, pushing up the ice maker’s metal wand in an attempt to stop the leak. Might work, might not… I’ll stay awake to see whether the deluge stops. When an unexpected disaster arises, I diminish its significance by comparing it to the worst of my cancer treatments a few years ago. I can do this because my current condition remains stable with an experimental drug.

Yet as I contemplate all the chairs and sofas and rugs that have to be donated to Goodwill, the mattresses and box springs to be given to the St. Vincent de Paul society, my late mother’s files and cabinets, Don’s late wife’s luggage and papers, his massive collection of 78 r.p.m. records, the yards of books on the shelves in the studies, our daughters’ stored memorabilia and their children’s baby equipment, the sheer volume of stuff seems daunting.

We are moving from a house of 4,000 square feet to an apartment less than half that size. One reason for our relocation: Don and I want to release our girls from the responsibility of dealing with the detritus accumulated over decades. We also have to leave because he cannot negotiate the stairs and both of us together cannot manage the upkeep.

Throughout the weeks and then the months when our beloved but aging house has to be repaired so we can sell it, workers arrive to shore up the porch, to fix the bowed ceiling supports in the garage, the cracks over the foyer doorway, a foundation that needs to be anchored to keep the structure from shifting, broken screen doors, mold in basement closets, chipped kitchen cabinets, and (oh!) a tree appears to be growing out of the chimney, and (yup!) an inspector found clogged drains — which suggest there might be trouble with the septic tank.

People tell me that moving ranks high up there on the stress index. But the commotion comes nowhere close to the terrifying havoc of cancer and its traditional treatments. Throughout the weeks and then the months of removals and renovations, the rhythms seem downright soothing, if measured against the ghastly tempos of surgeries, radiological interventions and chemotherapies.

The magnitude of cancer provides a scale against which everything else falls happily short. Cancer can be so bad that it imparts a sense of proportion. The poet Jane Kenyon once said that leukemia and a bone marrow transplant dispelled her fear of flying.

In the midst of all this chaos, I will postpone treating my recently diagnosed osteoporosis — I’m not clear yet about the efficacy of various remedies — but what about the cataract surgery? With or without glasses, I cannot see clearly and I have become the designated driver. Given the boxes mounting everywhere as well as the appointments of various people who are coming to take away the piano and the records and some paintings we won’t have room for, should I cancel? No way, I decide: a piece of cake, in contrast to cancer.

Ever shifting, the cancer terrain is treacherous to negotiate, its perilous landscape always unstable. There are roadmaps, but they often seem indecipherable. With surgeons, radiologists, and oncologists, I advance without a clear sense of how I will end up where and when.

As a cancer patient, I feel like an immigrant in a strange land. The customs of the country bewilder me. Dazed by unfamiliar sounds, sights, tastes, and touches, I had to learn a whole new language quite distinct from the idioms of every day discourse. I will never master it.

I speak of genetic mutations, chemicals and my anatomy in a grammar so simple that it resembles a 2-year-old’s. Terms must be adopted — debulking, PICC, port, PARP inhibitor — for processes I cannot really conceptualize. Frequently, physicians and nurses have to write down or spell out their prescriptions or directions. I mispronounce or stumble over words — anastomosis, extravasation, Gastrografin — that seem foreign.

So even this unsettling removal from a country house to an apartment strikes me as a change I can take in stride. After all, I know the address of my destination, the date of my prospective arrival, the route the truck will take and the neighbors speak my native tongue.

I’m staying up very late and can attest to the fact that the kitchen floor has remained dry. Don and I will travel to the hospital tomorrow and return. I will have cataract surgery and we will reside in a town whose byways may be easier to navigate with improved vision.

When you have cancer, you don’t just have cancer: You might have a broken refrigerator and cataracts and osteoporosis and loads of other issues. But you also have a unique perspective which, in a curious way, helps me keep on moving on.

Susan Gubar is the author of the new book “Reading and Writing Cancer: How Words Heal.”

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Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

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Parenting Our Children After We Die

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Credit

Accounts of the grief children suffer after the deaths of their mothers or fathers reinforced my desire to use the time granted by treatment to help my adult children cope with my demise. We always parent our offspring to survive us, but cancer intensifies the urgency to do so.

I am not a fan of “anticipatory grieving,” the term psychologists use to describe how some people with chronic disease mourn their expected death with their partners and kids. While I am alive, I do not want to subject my daughters to a long sojourn in the stony valley of the shadow. The idea of converting our present into a prelude of my absence distresses me.

Nor am I thinking of the medical and legal forms — advance directives, living wills, medical powers of attorney — that too many of us leave to the last minute, for those papers are in my husband’s keeping. I am also not considering the words dying people are advised to speak to their beloveds. On my deathbed, I hope I will express my gratitude and love. Given the drugs I will probably need for pain management, however, I cannot count on being coherent then.

Following the lead of other patients with cancer, I have composed two different documents to buffer my girls from the misery that ensues when a parent dies: letters my daughters will receive before and probably after my demise. Though I may never find out if these words ease their loneliness, I like to think they will. And they have certainly afforded me a respite from anxiety.

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A page from “When David Lost His Voice.” <a href="https://static01.nyt.com/images/2016/06/30/health/well_gubar1/well_gubar1-articleLarge.jpg">See a larger version.</a>

A page from “When David Lost His Voice.” See a larger version.Credit

The first is called “What’s Where.” In it, I provide the locations of my lawyer, financial adviser, bank account, will, computer passwords, the girls’ juvenilia, and my personal effects. This one-page sheet of paper concludes with the name of the funeral home that will oversee the cremation of my remains and the site of the cemetery plot for the ashes. If nothing else, I hope that the existence of such a document demonstrates to my kids that I have reconciled myself to my fate.

The second, “Letters to My Daughters,” I began a year after diagnosis and extend periodically. Here, I relate specific memories I have of my two daughters and two step-daughters and more recently of their families. Each time I write a new section, I date it. It has the look of a journal, but consists of a succession of missives, some addressed to all of them, others to one of them.

In this computer file, I recount jokes, recall musical or sports performances during their school years, thank them for material and nonmaterial gifts, characterize their temperaments at birth or what I made of them when I first met them, embarrass them with stories about gaffes they and I have committed, regale them with cooking adventures and vacation misadventures, remind them of celebrations we relished together. Periodically thickening “Letters to My Daughters” inspires me to treasure our shared past. At some point I will print it out and put it in addressed envelopes.

Recently I encountered a short story and a graphic novel that crystalized my obligations and clarified what a terminal patient with younger children can do to help them.

In “Pretending the Bed Is a Raft,” a story by Nanci Kincaid that was made into the movie “My Life Without Me,” 23-year-old Belinda realizes that she will soon die from a gynecological cancer. In a list of things to do before death, she jots down: “tape-record birthday messages for my kids up until they turn 21. Tell them I love you every day.” For her 6-, 4-, and almost 2-year-old, she spends weeks recording instructions and assurances “until she had them all legally grown.”

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A page from “When David Lost His Voice.” <a href="https://static01.nyt.com/images/2016/06/30/health/well_gubar2/well_gubar2-articleLarge.jpg">See a larger version.</a>

A page from “When David Lost His Voice.” See a larger version.Credit

Belinda suspects that if she gave the tapes to her husband, “he would listen to all of them the first night and after that he might lose them altogether.” So she determines to give them to a lawyer “who could dole them out one message at a time on the proper dates.”

About a father with larynx cancer, the graphic novel “When David Lost His Voice” considers what happens to a family when a reticent man becomes more silent during treatments for larynx cancer. In especially poignant pictorial sequences, the Belgian author and illustrator Judith Vanistendael focuses on David’s 9-year-old daughter, Tamar.

Pictures abound of Tamar’s last boat trip with her father, her swimming with the mermaid friend she encounters in the sea and sending a letter to a real friend via a balloon, her later conversations with this boy about how to preserve her father’s soul in a jar, her lying with David in his sickbed. These beautiful images convey the young girl’s fear of abandonment and her imaginative means of sustaining her attachment.

In the hospital, when Tamar hugs David’s emaciated body after his larynx has been removed, she wants her father to stay with her. Unable to speak, he writes her a note: “My darling, I am with you.”

Amid Ms. Vanistendael’s experiments with all sorts of visual forms — anatomical diagrams and scans, traditional comics, impressionist watercolors, pen and ink sketches, children’s book illustrations, surrealistic dreamscapes — I am especially moved by the small frames of David penning his note and of Tamar putting it into a vial she then strings around her neck, to remind herself that her dying father’s undying love will sustain her for as long as needed.

Susan Gubar is the author of the new book “Reading and Writing Cancer: How Words Heal.”

Putting Breast Cancer on a Diet

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Linda Guinee, 60, a survivor of breast cancer, particpated in an earlier trial to see if weight-loss could improve her outcome. She lost 15 pounds and increase her physical activity.

Linda Guinee, 60, a survivor of breast cancer, particpated in an earlier trial to see if weight-loss could improve her outcome. She lost 15 pounds and increase her physical activity.Credit Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

Should weight loss be prescribed as a treatment for breast cancer?

Scientists are recruiting thousands of women for a large clinical trial to find out. The plan is to put heavy women age 18 and older who were recently given diagnoses of breast cancer on diets to see if losing weight will keep their cancer from coming back.

“We have been telling women to do this for years, but we don’t really have definitive proof,” said Dr. Jennifer Ligibel, the principal investigator of the Breast Cancer Weight Loss study, who is a breast oncologist in the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

“If it shows that losing weight by increasing physical activity and reducing calories improves survival, weight loss and physical activity could become a standard part of treatment for millions of breast cancer patients around the world,” Dr. Ligibel said.

In a sense, the clinical trial is long overdue. Once a woman is given a breast cancer diagnosis, obesity is associated with a higher risk for recurrence and lower likelihood of survival in women of all ages, Dr. Ligibel said.

Studies showing that obese and overweight women are more likely to die of their breast cancer date back decades. Just two years ago, a meta-analysis crunched the numbers from more than 80 studies involving more than 200,000 women with breast cancer, and reported that women who were obese when diagnosed had a 41 percent greater risk of death, while women who were overweight but whose body mass index was under 30 had a 7 percent greater risk.

But while those studies showed an association between weight and breast cancer mortality, they weren’t designed to find out if weight loss after diagnosis improves survival or reduces the chance of a recurrence.

“Nobody understands biologically why that is,” Dr. Ligibel said, adding that researchers will be collecting blood samples throughout the trial to track metabolic changes that occur with weight loss. Exercise is also part of the program, and participants will work with health coaches. Fitbit is donating all the products that will be used to track their activity and weight.

The researchers will look at markers of inflammation and metabolism, including levels of insulin, insulinlike growth factor and hormones that regulate fat storage.

“There’s a physiology of obesity that happens in everybody, but many of the changes we see in obesity actually are factors that influence the growth of cancer,” said Dr. Pamela Goodwin, one of the study’s investigators and a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

These changes include higher insulin and glucose levels, inflammation and an increase in certain proteins, all of which appear to fuel cancer growth, Dr. Goodwin said.

Obesity “makes a great environment for cancer to get a foothold and progress,” said Barbara Gower, a professor of nutrition at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who is running a small short-term trial to see what happens when women with ovarian cancer remove all sugar and starches from their diet. “The hormonal messages getting through to cancer cells are that it’s a good time to grow, and the nutrition they need is there, too.”

While a drug may target one of the factors, Dr. Ligibel said, weight loss and exercise may be a more powerful intervention because they lead to a combination of changes. “You have something that can potentially change all of them to a metabolically healthy low inflammatory state,” Dr. Ligibel said.

The trial, which will get underway this summer, will cost an estimated $15 million to $20 million. It’s sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology.

Researchers are recruiting 3,200 women from across the United States and Canada who have a recent diagnosis of Stage 2 or Stage 3 breast cancer. Participants must be overweight, with a body mass index of at least 27, and have hormone receptor positive or triple negative tumors. (Women with another type of breast cancer, known as HER2-positive, will not be included because their prognosis does not appear to be associated with weight, researchers said.)

Participants must be 18 but there is no upper age limit, though they must be able to walk “a couple of city blocks and have a life expectancy of at least five years for other causes,” Dr. Ligibel said.

Volunteers will be randomly assigned to either a telephone-based weight loss program or to a control group for comparison. The goal for those in the intervention is to lose 10 percent of their body weight over two years. Participants will continue to be followed for 10 years to see whether their cancer progresses or not.

Weight loss is challenging, and some cancer treatments cause weight gain. But an earlier trial that tested a similar telephone-based weight loss intervention on a smaller scale found that women with breast cancer lost 4 to 5 percent of their body weight, Dr. Goodwin said.

“Breast cancer is a teachable moment,” she added.

The new trial might help doctors identify which patients will benefit most from losing weight, and whether even moderate weight loss is helpful, said Dr. Clifford Hudis, the new chief executive officer of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and former chief of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s breast medicine service, who was involved in the design of the Breast Cancer Weight Loss trial.

“If I tell patients they need to lose 20 pounds, they just roll their eyes and say it’s impossible,” Dr. Hudis said. “But if we could say they only need to lose 3 percent of their body weight, that wouldn’t be so scary. That’s more manageable.”

No Such Thing as a Healthy Smoker

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Credit Paul Rogers

Smokers who think they are escaping the lung-damaging effects of inhaled tobacco smoke may have to think again, according to the findings of two major new studies, one of which the author originally titled “Myth of the Healthy Smoker.”

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or C.O.P.D., may be among the best known dangers of smoking, and current and former smokers can be checked for that with a test called spirometry that measures how much air they can inhale and how much and how quickly they can exhale. Unfortunately, this simple test is often skipped during routine medical checkups of people with a history of smoking. But more important, even when spirometry is done, the new studies prove that the test often fails to detect serious lung abnormalities that cause chronic cough and sputum production and compromise a person’s breathing, energy level, risk of serious infections and quality of life.

“Current or former smokers without airflow obstruction may assume that they are disease-free,” but that’s not necessarily the case, one of the research teams pointed out. These researchers projected that there are 35 million current or former smokers older than 55 in the United States with unrecognized smoking-caused lung disease or impairments. Many, if not most, of these people could get worse with time, even if they have quit smoking. They are also unlikely to be referred for pulmonary rehabilitation, a treatment that can head off encroaching disability.

Perhaps most important, those currently smoking may be inclined to think they’ve dodged the bullet and so can continue to smoke with impunity. Doctors, who are often reluctant to urge patients with symptoms to quit smoking, may be even less likely to recommend smoking cessation to those with normal spirometry results.

Referring to C.O.P.D., one of the researchers, Dr. Elizabeth A. Regan, said, “Smoking is really taking a terrible toll on our society.” Dr. Regan, a clinical researcher at National Jewish Health in Denver, is the lead author of one of the new studies, published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine. “We live happily in the world thinking that only a small percentage of people who smoke get this devastating disease,” she said. “However, the lungs of millions of people in the United States are negatively impacted by smoking, and our methods for identifying their lung disease are relatively insensitive.”

Even when the results of spirometry are normal, Dr. Regan added, “a lot of smokers have respiratory symptoms. They get sick often, are more likely to be hospitalized with bronchitis or pneumonia, and have evidence on CT scans of thickened airway walls or emphysema that impair breathing.”

Dr. Prescott G. Woodruff, lead author of the other study, published May 12 in The New England Journal of Medicine, said in an interview, “Smokers have much more lung disease than we previously thought. The 15 to 20 percent who get C.O.P.D. is a gross underestimate.” Too often, Dr. Regan’s team pointed out, symptoms like shortness of breath and limits on exercise are “dismissed as normal aging.”

The multicenter study headed by Dr. Woodruff, a pulmonologist at the University of California, San Francisco, found that smokers with normal findings on spirometry nonetheless are likely to have chronic respiratory symptoms like cough, phlegm, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness; lower than normal exercise tolerance; and evidence on a CT scan of chronically inflamed airways in the lungs. They also use more antibiotics to control respiratory infections and drugs called glucocorticoids to alleviate breathing difficulty. They pay more visits to doctors and emergency rooms and have more hospital admissions because of a flare-up of respiratory symptoms.

In other words, they are far more prone than nonsmokers to experiencing terrifying episodes of troubled breathing.

Of course, while lung disease is most prevalent, it is hardly the only adverse health effect of smoking, a source of noxious substances that can damage almost every organ system in the body. The list of smoking-related diseases has grown exponentially since smoking was labeled a probable cause of lung cancer 52 years ago in the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health. The decades since have added many other deadly cancers, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, blood clots, peripheral artery disease, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cataracts and macular degeneration, as well as C.O.P.D.

The new findings by the two investigative teams prompted Dr. Leonardo M. Fabbri of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy to write an editorial accompanying the New England Journal study titled “Smoking, Not C.O.P.D., as the Disease.” He explained that the results of the two studies “suggest that smoking itself should be considered the disease and should be approached in all its complexity.”

The challenge ahead, Dr. Fabbri wrote, is to identify patients with smoking-related lung damage who do not yet have obstructive disease and devise ways to treat them to reduce their symptoms and prevent flare-ups.

A clinical trial to begin later this year, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, will examine whether treatments like use of a bronchodilator will help to alleviate symptoms in those without obstructive disease. Unfortunately, “the cost of bronchodilator medication has gone through the roof,” Dr. Woodruff said. Decades ago, people with breathing problems like asthma used aerosol bronchodilators that included chemicals called fluorocarbons. But these were banned for environmental reasons in the mid-1970s, and the replacements that drug manufacturers came up with are still not available in generic form, keeping prices high.

Dr. Woodruff said that rehabilitative exercise, one of the best treatments for C.O.P.D., should also help people with lung damage short of obstruction because it improves the ability of muscles to use available oxygen more efficiently.

To improve exercise tolerance, patients are encouraged to walk as fast as they can for as long as they can, rest, then walk some more. Most patients find this easiest to do on a treadmill, where speed and incline can be precisely regulated and the results measured. But if such equipment is unavailable or too costly to access, walking indoors or outdoors can be helpful if geared to a specific distance and speed that are gradually increased.

Most critical, of course, is for smokers with or without symptoms of lung disease to quit smoking, which can reduce the severity of respiratory symptoms and slow the decline in lung function, Dr. Regan’s team wrote. However, the team added, quitting smoking “does not eliminate the risk of progressive lung disease,” which means that the lungs of former smokers may need to be examined periodically.

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Churchgoers May Live Longer

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Going to church may lower the risk for premature death, a new study suggests.

Researchers used data from a long-term study of 75,534 women that tracked their health and lifestyle, including their attendance at religious services, over 16 years through 2012. The report is in JAMA Internal Medicine.

After controlling for more than two dozen factors, they found that compared with those who never went to church, going more than once a week was associated with a 33 percent lower risk for death from any cause, attending once a week with a 26 percent lower risk, and going less than once a week a 13 percent lowered risk. Risks for mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer followed a similar pattern.

The researchers statistically eliminated the possibility of reverse causation — that is, that healthy people go to church more than unhealthy ones. And they found that some variables, such as social support and a tendency not to smoke, contributed to the effect. But no matter how they analyzed the data, the effect of church attendance alone seemed to have benefits.

“This suggests that there is something powerful about the communal religious experience,” said the senior author, Tyler J. VanderWeele, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard. “These are systems of thought and practice shaped over millennia, and they are powerful.”

An Artist Takes On Cancer

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Susan Gubar

Susan GubarCredit Vivienne Flesher

In 2010, at age 29, the songwriter and performer Benjamin Scheuer was given a diagnosis of stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. He recounted his experience, along with other family perplexities, when he played himself in his one-man autobiographical musical, “The Lion,” which opened Off Broadway last year. In the new video “Cure,” directed by Peter Baynton and premiered here on Well, Mr. Scheuer conveys the dread that brands cancer patients, whether or not their type of disease is treatable.

As sung by a self-proclaimed optimist who has been given the good odds of an 85 percent chance of full remission, “Cure” begins with a defenseless Mr. Scheuer, supine on a bed. The camera fragments him into body parts: a mouth, a limb, a trembling torso. From an area near his heart, where a port would have been implanted, rivulets of ink streak down his arms to the tip of his fingers, down his legs to cover the soles of his feet, branching over his quivering or convulsing midriff.

The chemotherapy Mr. Scheuer received was called A-B-V-D: Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine and Dacarbazine. “Cure” depicts the chemicals striking like lightning, as if to shock the body or map it with bombed roadways, tracking a jagged terrain. The speed of the tattooing brings to mind the words “invasive” and “systemic.” We are looking at a representation of cancer treatment, but the video evokes terror at the disease’s malevolent capacity to spread quickly.

For viewers familiar with Franz Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” the calligraphy on Mr. Scheuer’s skin may recall the sentences, etched by torture machinery, on a condemned prisoner’s body during the 12 hours it takes for him to die. Remarkably, though, the tone of the singer remains less shocked or shocking, more ruefully contemplative.

In a quiet voice, Mr. Scheuer sings about learning the results of testing done after 12 treatments. Although throughout the ordeal he has been fighting panic and fear, they threaten to engulf him as he worries about ending up like his father, with cancer in his brain and his spinal cord. Clothing starts to grow over him, covering his marked body. Does his being passively clothed mean that he is being costumed for a coffin?

After the doctor informs him that the treatment has worked, after his jacket is buttoned, Mr. Scheuer finally sits up, hearing the words “You’re cured.” But the sad final tones of his voice and guitar reflect his isolation in a room with bed sheets that remain indelibly imprinted with the sinister designs.

Although “Cure” seems quite distinct from the more amiable and upbeat folk tunes in his album, “Songs from the Lion,” its hermetic room with its isolated inmate raises issues that Mr. Scheuer addressed with the photographer Riya Lerner in their book, “Between Two Spaces,” namely the alienating landscapes of treatment. (Some of their collaborative work will be on exhibit at the Leslie-Lohman Prince Street Project Space on June 7.)

Cancer patients, who must shuttle between their homes and hospitals, frequently experience the clash between familiar, comfortable environments and strange, anxiety-producing settings. Mr. Lerner explores the disparity but also the blurring of these worlds in a book composed of portraits of Mr. Scheuer interspersed with snippets of texts from his journals. For me, as for Mr. Lerner and Mr. Scheuer, the contrast involves clothing: One of the humiliations of the hospital entails my flesh being exposed in cubicles where doctors, nurses and technicians are fully clothed.

“Between Two Spaces” opens with a picture of a suited but barefooted Mr. Scheuer bending over to choose between two pairs of shoes. It concludes with him sporting a coat and hat in a snowy park. Inside his recording studio or at home he appears blanketed or costumed: “I could control, to the tiniest detail, what I wore,” he explains in a reprinted journal entry, “so the worse I felt the more care I put into the shine of my shoes, the knot of my tie.” But in a PET scan or undergoing chemotherapy, he is only partly robed or completely undressed beneath or entering massive machinery.

The cover of “Between Two Spaces” features what looks to be a soothing picture of a naked Mr. Scheuer partly submerged in a bathtub. At least in my experience, bathing in a tub occurs only in the security of home, not in the hospital. Yet the journal entry, appended to this image within the book, mentions his watching a frightening video of Japan’s tsunami: “The land is now the sea, the churning, angry ocean. Black, filled with unwilling passengers, debris, creating clouds of mist, blindness, dust dirt smoke all grey and brown, all the houses and their red roofs are squeaking clean of their foundations like boats unmoored.”

What had at first seemed a serene portrait of the artist with his eyes closed, floating on the surface of the water, now portends drowning and death. Out of the hospital, as inside it, the patient endures an inexplicable natural disaster.

To my aging eyes, the youthful vulnerability of Benjamin Scheuer makes both the video and the photographs moving. Although, unlike me, he deals with a curable disease, he resembles all cancer patients who must come to terms with the term remission. The poignancy of Mr. Scheuer’s and Mr. Lerner’s images arises from the implacable effect that estranging clinical spaces impose on previously secure domestic places.

Even the cured must take their cancer experiences home with them where, paradoxically, remission — untrustworthy as a safe haven — continues to unmoor us.

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How Much Do You Want to Know About Your Cancer?

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Credit Stuart Bradford

Your appointment is at 2:00 on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s your first visit to the cancer center. You’re probably wondering what we are going to say to you. A tumor was recently detected in your left lung and has spread to your bones and liver. A biopsy was performed.

We’re meeting you for the first time, soon after your primary care doctor, or surgeon, has sat down with you, or called, to tell you some terrible news: You have cancer.

We are the oncologists, and we want to help. We want to discuss your diagnosis, what it means and what the options are for treatment. We’d like to give you a clear map of what your life might look like over the next few months as we fight along with you to minimize the amount of this awfulness, even if temporarily, from your body. We want to answer all of your questions.

But one of the biggest problems we face is that we often can’t figure out what our patients would like to know about their prognosis.

Even when we ask.

Spoiler alert: Despite all the exciting stories about progress against cancer that you’ve heard about in the news, there is no cure for most types of cancer once they have spread to other organs. On average, people with lung cancer like yours that has metastasized live another 18 months.

How much of this do you want to know?

It’s a lot to take in. Two months ago you felt fine, and now you have a life expectancy of one to two years. It’s probably the worst news you’ve ever been told. Next year is your 20th wedding anniversary, and your two teenage children don’t even know yet that you are sick. So in many ways, our lament is completely unfair – it’s on us to determine the right time to discuss prognosis.

What can we do to help?

We have all the facts at our fingertips: average survival; likelihood of being alive in five or 10 years; likelihood that chemotherapy will work; and even how long it might work. We will try to put the information in context, adjusting it for your particular situation, and be sure to emphasize that the data were developed in a specific population of patients and may not apply to you as an individual.

Oh, did you not want to hear numbers?

We can roll with that.

We can speak in generalities. We can use phrases such as “likely to be effective” or “most of the time.” We can say, “some people” or “live for years.” Or months.

If that’s what you’d like. But what we don’t want is to be one of “those” doctors.

You know what we mean. The doctors who never talk to their patients about likely outcomes, or life expectancy, and who don’t prepare them for the inevitable. One of us conducted a study in 348 patients with bone marrow cancers in which 35 percent of those patients reported never having discussed prognosis with their doctors. In another study, 74 percent of a similar group of patients estimated their chance for cure to be greater than 50 percent, while their doctors estimated the chance for cure in that same set of patients to be less than 10 percent.

We will do anything to avoid your returning to us with the regret, “I didn’t have time to plan.” Or your widow writing a letter to castigate us with “You never warned me.”

We want to give you time. We want to warn you. Sometimes we advise you to talk to your children’s teachers so that they know there is a crisis at home. Or to put your affairs in order. But often, we just can’t figure out what you want to hear.

And we get it. We would be just as blown away at a cancer diagnosis, and would have just as much difficulty processing all of the information. When we look into your face and really try to connect with you, to read your emotions, we often see fear. And sadness. And regret. And disbelief. And sometimes hopelessness.

We want to give you hope.

At the very least, we don’t want to dash your hopes. We’ll focus on the positives, the best-case scenarios. We’ll tell stories about some of our superstar patients, the poster children for cancer survival, the ones who ignored the statistics and have lived to brag about it.

But we need to place that hope in the staid court of likelihoods. After all, we aren’t hucksters. This balance, between hope and honesty, remains an uneasy truce in medicine. We want you to believe us, to trust us. We recognize that, in some ways, you are placing that most precious of possessions, your own life, in our hands. And we view this as a sacred bond: We will earn your trust by always speaking the truth, though not necessarily all of it.

The inescapable fact is that a tragedy is unfolding and we’re the bearer of the news. A life will be cut down prematurely, young children will be left without one of their parents, a spouse will be left on his or her own. It’s unfair and we can’t stop it. We wish we had more to offer and believe us, the enormity of the tragedy often makes us weep. And yet, our sadness probably doesn’t help you.

So please tell us. How much would you like to know?

Dr. Mikkael Sekeres is director of the leukemia program at the Cleveland Clinic. Follow him on Twitter @MikkaelSekeres.

Dr. Timothy Gilligan is the director of coaching, Center for Excellence in Healthcare Communication, at the Cleveland Clinic.

After a Cancer Diagnosis, Reversing Roles With My Mother

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Steven Petrow (left) with his siblings, Jay and Julie, and mother, Margot Petrow, on her 84th birthday in February.

Steven Petrow (left) with his siblings, Jay and Julie, and mother, Margot Petrow, on her 84th birthday in February.Credit Caroline Petrow-Cohen

If anything about my mother was conventional, it was the smoking. Like many of her generation she smoked early and often, and I swear she waited to light up until we were hermetically sealed in our family’s Ford Country Squire. My brother, sister and I hated it — we tried over and over to get her to quit. She made some attempts: Patches and gum, even hypnosis by a Russian. She had some short-term successes, but soon enough I could smell the smoke on her breath or see the burnt-out butts hidden in her desk drawer ashtray.

The last time I begged Mom to quit, she shot back with a stern rebuke: “I very much appreciate your concern,” followed by an expletive. The message was clear: Mind my own business. Indeed, Mom has always been “spirited.”

From both ends, ours was not an easy relationship.

Four years ago, at 80, Mom wound up in the emergency room after she passed out in bed; her carotid artery was 90 percent blocked. The doctor ordered a routine pre-op chest X-ray and found a mass that turned out to be lung cancer. “Did my smoking have anything to do with this?” Mom asked the handsome cancer surgeon, almost flirtatiously. “Yes,” he told her. “Then I’ll quit,” she said. And that, finally, made her stop, once and for all.

A few weeks later “Dr. Handsome,” as the family began referring to him, took out part of her left lung at the very same New York cancer hospital where I’d had cancer surgery three decades before. I’d wound up there only because Mom had insisted that I get a second opinion after my first operation, an orchiectomy to remove my cancerous testicle, at a hospital on the opposite coast. While I’d been overjoyed when the oncologist told me I was a candidate for “watchful waiting” and that he’d “never lost a patient,” Mom thought the latter comment quite odd for a doctor who treated cancer patients. I caved, flew east, and learned I needed more treatment, stat. Score one for Mom.

During Mom’s first hospitalization for her cancer our roles flipped. I became her caregiver, and she became my charge. With nurses busy elsewhere, I made sure her bedpan got changed, or contacted the surgeon to boost her pain medications when needed. On a no less important matter, I made sure she got a chocolate, not vanilla, milkshake daily. After my own stays in the hospital, I had learned how to “work” the hospital staff, using genuine praise, patience and small gifts of candy.

I also had that firsthand knowledge of what it meant to suddenly become a cancer patient, dependent on the kindness of strangers and family alike. I knew what it was like to face the mechanical roar of the CT scanners, not to mention the anxiety and fear that your book of life may be coming to an end sooner than you’d expected.

Some days I held Mom’s hand, her Jungle Red manicure always perfect, as the nurses pricked her repeatedly to get a good line. Other times I’d just sit with Mom and let her talk. About my father. My sibs. And herself.

Increasingly, she asked me about my cancer travails, which included multiple surgeries and four rounds of chemo. “I can’t believe you went through all this,” she said time and again. Still, I’d been in my 20s; mom was now in her 80s. As different as our cancers were, not to mention our ages, I’d become her travel guide in this new country of illness.

Then one day she piped up, her voice an octave or two higher than usual: “I’m afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” I asked.

“Of the pain of dying. And leaving you kids.”

I told her we’d make sure she didn’t suffer. And as for the three kids, I told her not to worry about us. “We’re all in our 50s now,” I reminded her.

As I had decades ago, Mom recovered from her first operation. And also like me, she moved into a netherworld I knew all too well: The “after” stage, during which you struggle to believe it’s over, all the while dreading its return.

Last year I moved her semi-annual scan from late December to mid-January. With bad news always a possibility, why risk ruining the holiday? I was glad I’d done that when the scan showed a new mass. Although the doctor was the official bearer of the bad news, it was left to my brother, sister and me to explain what that meant, all the while reassuring her we’d be there to help.

As it turned out, one of the most important decisions she’d have to make was what treatment, if any, she should soldier through to combat this new malignancy. Dr. Handsome recommended radiation, but he didn’t sound very optimistic. I decided Mom needed a second opinion, maybe even a third, and with some cajoling — just as she had urged me on so many years before — she sat down with a radiation oncologist. He was much more encouraging about what to expect, and she took his advice.

And so it was not too many months ago, after helping her back into her street clothes and into the Uber after her daily radiation, that we were headed home from the hospital. She grasped my hand tightly and told me how glad she was that I was with her. “Whatever our problems were,” she said, “I’m happy they’re behind us.” I squeezed her hand back.

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Lawsuits Over Baby Powder Raise Questions About Cancer Risk

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Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Deane Berg thought she was going to die, and she wanted to know why. She was 49, way too young, she thought, to have advanced cancer in her ovaries.

As she scrolled through websites that listed possible causes of ovarian cancer, one jumped out at her: talcum powder. She did not have risk factors like infertility or endometriosis, but she had dusted baby powder between her legs every day for 30 years.

“I went into the bathroom, I grabbed my Johnson’s Baby Powder and threw it in the wastebasket,” recalled Ms. Berg, now 59, a physician assistant in Sioux Falls, S.D. “I said, ‘What else could it be?’”

Ms. Berg was the first of thousands of women with ovarian cancer to file a lawsuit against the consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson, claiming that Baby Powder caused their disease and pointing to a long trail of studies linking talc to the cancer. The research dates to 1971, when scientists in Wales discovered particles of talc embedded in ovarian and cervical tumors.

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Deane Berg with her husband, Jim. She blamed Johnson’s Baby Powder for her ovarian cancer.

Deane Berg with her husband, Jim. She blamed Johnson’s Baby Powder for her ovarian cancer.Credit David Eggen for The New York Times

Since then, numerous studies have linked genital talc use to ovarian cancer, including a report earlier this month that among African-American women, genital use of powder is linked with a 44 percent increased risk for invasive epithelial ovarian cancer.

Johnson & Johnson says its trademark Baby Powder is safe, and it plans to appeal two multimillion dollar jury awards, including $55 million in damages awarded to a cancer survivor earlier this month and a $72 million award in February.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2006 classified talcum powder as a possible human carcinogen if used in the female genital area. But the agency, part of the World Health Organization, has also said pickled vegetables and coffee are possible carcinogens and that hot dogs cause cancer.

Johnson & Johnson says research implicating talcum powder is flawed and points to studies that absolve talc of any cancer risk.

“We have children ourselves,” said Tara Glasgow, the research and development lead for the company’s baby products franchise worldwide. “We would never sell a product we didn’t believe was safe.”

So did the juries get it right or wrong? Is it plausible that Johnson’s Baby Powder — that clean-smelling soft stuff that’s a medicine cabinet staple, packaged in milky-white containers and supposedly mild enough for babies’ bottom — can cause cancer?

It’s not an easy question to answer.

“There is no way we’re ever going to know for certain that any exposure is necessarily causal to a disease,” said Dr. Shelley Tworoger, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard. “We might be 99 percent sure,” in some cases, she said, “but there’s usually no way to guarantee that what you see is actually the truth.”

Cancer is hard to study because it develops over a long period of time and is influenced by many factors, including genes, behaviors and environmental exposures. The best we can do, Dr. Tworoger said, “is look at the preponderance of the evidence.”

Talc is a naturally occurring clay mineral composed of magnesium and silicon. Known for its softness, it is used in cosmetic products like blush because it absorbs moisture and prevents caking. It is also an additive in tablets, chewing gum and some rice. It’s often mined in proximity to asbestos, a known carcinogen, and manufacturers have to take steps to avoid contamination. Many women use the powder on their inner thighs to prevent chafing, while others sprinkle it on their perineum, sanitary pads or underwear to stay “fresh” and dry. A 1980s ad campaign for a once-popular powder promised with a catchy jingle that “a sprinkle a day helps keep odor away.”

There has never been an experiment to see what happens when you deliberately expose women to talcum powder — for practical and ethical reasons, there never will be — so scientists must rely on observational studies that can link an exposure to a disease but cannot determine a cause-and-effect relationship.

In 1982, a Harvard professor, Dr. Daniel W. Cramer, and his colleagues compared 215 women with ovarian cancer and 215 healthy women who served as a control group. Compared with nonusers, women who used talcum powder were at nearly twice the risk for having ovarian cancer, and those who used it regularly on their genitals and sanitary pads were at more than three times the relative risk.

At least 10 subsequent studies echoed the results, with varying degrees of increased risk. But a small number of studies did not find a heightened risk for talc users.

When researchers pooled the results of similar studies involving nearly 20,000 women, they found powder use was associated with a 24 percent increased risk for ovarian cancer, an uncommon disease but one that is often fatal. If the finding is true, it means that for every five or six talcum powder users who develop ovarian cancer, one may be a result of talcum powder use, Dr. Steven A. Narod, an expert in cancer genetics from Toronto, said.

But critics say such studies can get it wrong, because they quiz women about their risk factors after a cancer diagnosis, and people, by nature, have selective memories.

“A patient is looking for reasons, and wondering, Why did this happen to me?” said Dr. Larry Copeland, a gynecologic oncologist from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and paid expert for Johnson & Johnson. If a researcher asks a patient about talc use, he said, “The answer is going to be ‘Aha, yeah — maybe that was it.’”

Dr. Copeland points to a large government-funded study, the Women’s Health Initiative. Researchers asked 61,576 women at the beginning of the study whether they had ever used perineal powder (although they did not specify talcum powder) and tracked their health over time. After 12 years, the study investigators found no relationship between powder use and cancer.

But that paper has critics, too. Dr. Narod said that the Women’s Health Initiative cohort was not large enough and did not track women long enough to find differences in ovarian cancer. The findings, he said, do not invalidate the earlier observational research that showed a link between talc and cancer.

Why talc use might lead to cancer is not clear. Studies have shown that talc crystals can move up the urinary tract into the peritoneal cavity, where the ovaries are. Indeed, a pathology report on Ms. Berg’s tumor found talc particles embedded in the tissue.

There is also a plausible mechanism, Dr. Tworoger said, because talc particles can set off inflammation, and inflammation is believed to play an important role in the development of ovarian cancer

Since the research began showing a link between talc and cancer in the 1990s, federal officials have not acted to remove the powders or add warning labels. The nonprofit Cancer Prevention Coalition petitioned the Food and Drug Administration in 1994 and again in 2008 for talc warning labels. In a 2014 denial letter, the agency said there was “no conclusive evidence” to establish causality, though it is plausible that talc “may elicit a foreign-body-type reaction and inflammatory response that, in some exposed women, may progress to epithelial cancers.”

Nevertheless, Johnson & Johnson made plans to “grow the franchise” by targeting African-American and Hispanic customers, according to internal company documents obtained by the plaintiff’s lawyer, Allen Smith. “Negative publicity from the health community on talc (inhalation, dust, negative doctor endorsement, cancer linkage) continues,” a 1992 memo said.

Although Johnson & Johnson’s talc supplier added warning labels in 2006, J&J did not add similar warnings to its products, according to litigation documents. Baby powder does carry a warning to keep it out of the reach of children and many pediatricians discourage its use on babies, who can become ill or die after breathing in the particles. Inhalation studies in female rats demonstrated carcinogenicity, according to the National Toxicology Program. Condom and surgical glove makers have stopped dusting their products with talc.

“Talcum powder is an interesting case, because it’s not something that’s necessary,” said Dr. Anne McTiernan, an epidemiologist with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “If there’s any doubt, why should anyone use it?”

As for Ms. Berg — the Sioux Falls woman with advanced ovarian cancer — she won her lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, but the jury did not award damages. She hopes other talc lawsuits will raise awareness.

“I knew nothing about this before,” she said. “I figured baby powder is for babies, it must be safe.”

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Bad News Delivered Badly

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Susan Gubar

Susan GubarCredit Vivienne Flesher

My friend Dana had become alarmed at a canker sore under her tongue: “a white patch, the size of my pinkie fingernail.” Canker might be cancer, she immediately suspected, possibly signaling a recurrence of her endometrial disease. She called an ear, nose and throat practice and made an appointment for what turned out to be a biopsy.

A week later, a nurse phoned to read the pathology report: “Superficial fragment of moderate to severe dysplastic squamous epithelium, cannot rule out invasive squamous cell carcinoma.” Although Dana urged her to define these terms or explain their significance in this particular case, the nurse resisted, stating that the doctor would explain them in a follow-up appointment the next week.

Needless to say, Dana immediately went online where the definitions did not comfort her. At bedtime, she wept herself to sleep, worrying that she would again lose 15 pounds in radiation, imagining her tongue cut out, brooding over a recurrence and her father’s earlier vocal cord cancer, grieving over putting her children and husband through yet another round of treatment. Finally at the appointed consultation, the doctor said the patch was “probably not cancer.” The pathologists were just “covering themselves” by saying they could not it rule out. She was incensed at having been put through unnecessary distress.

As any medical practitioner knows, uttering the words “severe,” “invasive” and “carcinoma” to a patient in remission cannot but escalate terror. Why couldn’t the nurse or the doctor find the ways and means immediately — in a brief phone call or email — to put those fears in perspective?

Given the paperwork, the patient load, and the long hours of medical professionals, we all understand the constraints within which physicians and nurses operate. Surely neither the nurse nor the doctor was willfully unfeeling. However, their tardy and cryptic announcements resulted in callous care. Whether a medical judgment is optimistic or pessimistic, its inept conveyance can upset or infuriate already anxious patients.

Some of the women in my support group were alone, groggy from anesthesia, and in pain when a poorly articulated diagnosis of gynecological cancer unhinged them. After a debulking operation, Julia recalls, a resident involved in the surgery stood near the door, avoided eye contact, and declared, “Stage 3 — we’re not talking cure now, we’re talking treatment.” When I heard similar words, I was in a crowded emergency room with only a privacy curtain between me and other patients.

Julia, a practicing therapist, believes that “these events are so traumatic that medical professionals need to look out for our emotional welfare . . . to reduce the possibility of PTSD. The person in a life-threatening emergency needs specialized mental health care.” Upon hearing a diagnosis of cancer, patients can plummet into the depressing supposition that their life is effectively over and their rapidly impending death will be painful.

Another very private member of our group — I will use her initials, I.M. — suffered through a delay between intimations of bad news and a diagnosis. After a CT scan, a hospital technician warned I.M. that she might have cancer, but he did not have the authority to discuss the matter with her. She would have to wait until her gynecologist could meet with her — the longest and most harrowing period in her life, she said with a shiver.

None of us were eased by communication strategies that have evolved since 2000 when Dr. Walter F. Baile and his associates published their paradigm for delivering bad news in The Oncologist. This article advocates a program called Spikes: S stands for finding the appropriate setting; P for gauging the perceptions of the patient; I for obtaining the patient’s invitation to hear bad news; K for providing the knowledge that the patient needs to receive; E for dealing with the emotional reactions of the patient with empathy; S for concluding with a needed summary.

Despite such a thoughtful template, miscommunication does not taint only diagnosis, as I.M. realized when she went on to confide about a more recent exchange. At her last meeting with her oncologist, they had discussed the sorry fact that the current cycle of chemotherapy had not inhibited tumor growth. The doctor gave her three choices: returning to the drug used in her first cycle, trying a clinical trial or “opting to do nothing.” Alarmed and shaken by this last proposal, she felt as if he were throwing up his hands or she had somehow been fired.

Because the members of our group had visited a hospice facility, we could assure her that she need never choose “opting to do nothing.” Even when patients decide that the struggle to combat cancer will be ineffective, they can gain access to palliative specialists who will alleviate pain and anxiety while rescuing them from pointlessly aggressive, time-consuming, expensive and debilitating treatments.

It cannot be easy for oncologists to deliver bad news so frequently, but it must be worse for them when they deliver bad news badly. The manners of patients erode as we become maddened by confusion and dread. Injurious words should never add insult to the injuries medical professionals witness and patients suffer daily.

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Diet High in Saturated Fats May Be Linked to Dense Breasts

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Teenage girls who eat a diet high in saturated fat are at increased risk of developing dense breasts, a study concludes. Dense breasts contain more fibrous and connective tissue than normal and are a risk factor for breast cancer.

Researchers studied 177 girls, ages 10 to 18 at the start of the study, who periodically filled out dietary recall questionnaires. The scientists measured breast density by M.R.I. when the members of the group were 25 to 29 years old. The study is in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

Average dense breast volume in those in the lowest quarter for saturated fat intake was 16.4 percent, compared with 21.5 percent for those in the highest quarter.

Consumption of unsaturated fats had the opposite associations — the higher the consumption of unsaturated fats, the lower the average dense breast volume.

“We looked only at the associations of breast density with fat intake,” said the senior author, Joanne F. Dorgan, an epidemiologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Whether this will then be related to an increase in breast cancer later in life, we don’t know. But breast density itself is associated with increased risk.”

The authors controlled for many health factors, but they acknowledge that unknown variables could have affected their results.

“This is all observational data,” Dr. Dorgan said, “and needs to be confirmed before we can make health recommendations.”

Exercise Tied to Lower Risk for 13 Types of Cancer

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Credit Getty Images

Anyone who still needs motivation to move more may find it in a new study showing that, in addition to its other health benefits, exercise appears to substantially reduce the risk of developing 13 different varieties of cancer. That is far more types than scientists previously thought might be impacted by exercise. The comprehensive study also suggests that the potential cancer-fighting benefits of exercise seem to hold true even if someone is overweight.

The idea that exercise might change someone’s susceptibility to cancer is, of course, not new. Many studies have found that people who are physically active, either through exercise or while on the job, tend to be less likely to develop certain types of cancer than people who are sedentary.

But those studies primarily looked at associations between exercise and a few common malignancies, such as breast cancer in women, and colon and lung cancers in both women and men.

Whether physical activity, and more precisely, regular exercise, would also lower our risk for other cancers has remained an open question.

So for the new study, which was published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine, scientists with the division of cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute, as well as Harvard Medical School, and a number of other institutions around the world turned to a large trove of epidemiological health studies conducted in the United States or Europe.

In these earlier studies, researchers directly measured volunteers’ body mass and other health markers and also asked about their diets and exercise habits. The researchers then tracked the participants for a decade or more, noting disease diagnoses or, in some instances, deaths.

Such studies help to establish links between lifestyles and disease risk. But the number of people involved must be hefty if the associations are to be persuasive.

To gain sufficient numbers now, the Cancer Institute researchers gathered data from 12 large-scale studies that, pooled together, involved 1.44 million men and women.

The researchers focused on specific information for each of those 1.44 million people about whether they exercised, and how vigorously and how often. They also zeroed in on whether and when, after each study’s start, the participant had been diagnosed with any type of cancer.

Then, using elaborate statistical methods, they computed the role that exercise, and in particular, moderate or vigorous exercise such as brisk walking or jogging, seemed to be playing in people’s risks for cancer.

It turned out to be considerable. For most cancers, people who reported exercising moderately, even if the time that they spent exercising was slight, had significantly less risk of developing 13 different types of cancer than people who were sedentary.

The researchers found a reduced risk of breast, lung and colon cancers, which had been reported in earlier research. But they also found a lower risk of tumors in the liver, esophagus, kidney, stomach, endometrium, blood, bone marrow, head and neck, rectum and bladder.

And the reductions in risk for any of these 13 cancers rose steeply as people exercised more. When the researchers compared the top 10 percent of exercisers, meaning those who spent the most time each week engaging in moderate or vigorous workouts, to the 10 percent who were the least active, the exercisers were as much as 20 percent less likely to develop most of the cancers in the study.

On the other hand, they found an increased risk of two types of malignancies — melanoma and slow-growing prostate tumors — among people who exercised the most. Those findings can most likely be explained, in large part, by certain characteristics of active people, said Steven Moore, an investigator at the National Cancer Institute who led the study.

“People who exercise generally go in for more checkups” than sedentary people, he said, resulting in more screenings for conditions such as so-called indolent prostate cancers. (There was no discernible association, positive or negative, between exercise and aggressive prostate tumors.) “They also often exercise outside,” he continued, “and are more prone to sunburns” than people who rarely work out, potentially contributing to a greater risk for melanoma.

Encouragingly, the associations between exercise and reduced cancer risks held true even when the researchers factored in body mass. People who were overweight or obese but exercised had a much lower risk of developing most cancers than overweight people who did not move much.

Just how physical activity may be undercutting the risk for so many disparate types of cancers is not yet fully understood, Dr. Moore said, although he and his colleagues suspect that changes in exercisers’ hormone levels, degree of inflammation, digestion and overall energy balance most likely contribute.

Bear in mind, though, that this was an observational study, so it cannot directly prove that exercise reduces cancer risks, only that there is an association between more exercise and less disease. It also relied on participants’ memories of exercise, which can be unreliable.

But even with those limitations, the findings sturdily suggest that exercise may help to reduce the risk of many types of cancer, “and it has few side effects and doesn’t cost much,” said Dr. Moore, who runs almost every day.

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Pricing a Year of Life

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Credit Stuart Bradford

A radio producer investigating cancer costs once asked me, “What is another year of your life worth?” During my flummoxed silence, she informed me that experts mention the figure $50,000. Can patients like me — older people with recurrent disease — estimate the expense of a future year of cancer treatment to decide whether it’s worth it?

I began to understand the origin of the number when my nephew sent me an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, “Updating Cost Effectiveness.” Its authors explain: “For more than two decades, the ratio of $50,000 per quality-adjusted life-year (QALY) gained by using a given health care intervention has played an important if enigmatic role in health policy circles as a benchmark for the value of care.”

Used by economists, the QALY calculates quality and quantity of life to judge the monetary worth of medical inventions. Since my cancer was diagnosed in 2008, I have wondered how to make this reckoning within our for-profit health system. So with misgivings I set aside the plight of the uninsured and began considering not generic measurements of cost-effectiveness but how much I — as an insured patient — had paid for one year of cancer treatment.

It turned out to be impossible. Never — during four years of operations, radiological interventions, and cycles of chemotherapy — had I been informed beforehand about the cost of any consultation, procedure, equipment or drug. Nor did I understand what would be covered by insurers and (when I got older) Medicare or what would have to be paid out-of-pocket.

After the consultation or procedure, I received impenetrable statements from providers, stamped in large letters, “This Is Not a Bill.” They were followed by cryptic printouts from the hospital that clearly were bills, although next to many entries the word “pending” appeared.

Now, given my erratic bookkeeping, I cannot calculate what I ended up spending.

The camouflaging of cancer costs poses an unprecedented problem. There is no analogue in life — including the approach of death — in which I remain so ignorant of expenditures. Although I have ascertained what cremation, a grave site, and a marker cost, I have no idea what the costs of my treatments amounted to.

During those same years, I could not predict treatment complications that required subsequent procedures and outlays. When an operation necessitated another, the bills multiplied. Humbled by my own unknowingness, I took to heart Kierkegaard’s insight that we must live life forward, even though it can only be understood backward.

Obviously, I was in neither the physical nor the psychological state needed to adjudicate the paperwork. Dazed, frightened and depleted by the alarming threat to my mortality and the debilitation of treatment, I demoted the bills to a nasty irritant. An excellent job with good benefits buffeted me from facing what less lucky people confront: a financial crisis triggered by cancer treatment.

Stints in the hospital enlighten many patients about prohibitive co-pays and costs above coverage ceilings for the large sums charged by surgeons, anesthesiologists, radiologists and oncologists; for operating and hospital rooms, tests and scans, medicine and equipment as well as a box of tissues. The title of an article in The Oncologist about the financial distress of insured patients speaks volumes: “The Financial Toxicity of Cancer Treatments.”

Add to these expenditures exorbitant out-of-network fees, the loss of wages resulting from treatment-related appointments and disabilities, the cost of travel to and from the hospital, and the need to hire child care or housekeeping or elder care assistance. All these combined payments can be staggering.

As for the new cancer drugs, pharmaceutical companies apparently charge whatever the market will bear. A new type of medication, a PARP inhibitor similar to the one I receive in a clinical trial, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for recurrent ovarian cancer patients. Lynparza, produced by AstraZeneca, costs about $11,000 a month. That would come to $132,000 a year. After a media flap a few years ago over Zaltrap — doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering boycotted it, saying it was no more effective than a less expensive drug — its producers cut the price in half.

No wonder, then, that people with cancer are more likely to go bankrupt than other Americans. The authors of The New England Journal of Medicine article conclude that the QALY has been underestimated. For a single threshold now, they would suggest either $100,000 or $150,000 per QALY.

Whatever the estimate, a crude ratio of cost effectiveness, like the QALY, seems presumptuous. How can qualitative factors (nausea, fatigue) be converted into quantitative numbers? How can general calculations account for individual variations (my preference for fatigue over nausea) or overriding personal beliefs and principles about what constitutes a valuable existence?

Yet it would help patients like me to participate in sober public conversations on these issues since many of us are aware that individual decisions about medical costs sidestep vexing social questions of why they are inflated and how they will tax our children and grandchildren. At the least, more transparent communications would alleviate widespread fears that living life forward could trip us backward into penury.

For the past three years, the clinical trial in which I participate has covered most cancer-related expenses. When the drug in my trial fails, I want to have some say about whether another year of my life is worth the cost of treatment. But it will take a change in the current way of doing medical business to make that possible.

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Ovary Removal Tied to Colon Cancer Risk

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Removal of the ovaries — a procedure known as oophorectomy — may increase the risk for colorectal cancer, a new study concludes.

In some cases, such as cancer, the ovaries must be removed. They are commonly also removed electively during surgery for hysterectomy to avoid the risk of ovarian cancer.

The study, in the British Journal of Surgery, included 195,973 women in a Swedish health registry who had undergone oophorectomy either prophylactically or for benign conditions between 1965 and 2011. After an average follow-up of 18 years, 3,150 had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer. That rate — 1.6 percent — is about 30 percent higher than the rate in the general population.

The scientists found that the rate of colorectal cancer was lower in younger women and highest in the first four years after oophorectomy.

Oophorectomy has other risks too, said the study’s lead author, Dr. Josefin Segelman, a surgeon at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Androgen levels drop after the operation, and this is tied to osteoporosis, decreased sexual desire and other problems.

Still, she said, “If you find abnormal ovaries at the time of surgery, they should be removed. But prophylactic oophorectomy should not be performed where there is no clear risk of ovarian cancer.”