Precision medicine: genetic data doesn’t mean shit if you can’t afford to use it.

Obama just unveiled an ambitious “precision medicine” plan and the White House is diving into precision medicine head first: epatients! genomics! big data! sexy sexy science! I guess it’s no surprise that Obama would want to jump on that bandwagon, but I’m skeptical as ever.

I’m not a fan of the idea that more technology and more bureaucracy is inherently better. BRCA+ women often get held up as examples of the benefits of personalized medicine. However, genetic knowledge doesn’t automatically give individuals the tools they need to manage their risk. In 2015, the best HBOC women can do to prevent cancer is choose among variations of the “slash/burn/poison” methods of yesteryear. While BRCA mutations have been fairly well studied for over twenty-five years, women’s options for preventing hereditary cancers have not improved much.

Even within the limits of the surveillance, chemoprevention, and risk-reducing surgery triad, many women cannot afford genetic testing or risk management. Multiple members of my own family have been unable to get tested for our particular BRCA mutation because they can’t afford health insurance, not even Obamacare, despite being employed. If my relatives scrounged together enough money to pay for genetic testing out of pocket, then they certainly wouldn’t be able to afford risk management in the wake of deleterious test results.

There are a lot of systemic problems with healthcare in the United States that need to be resolved now. Many Americans still don’t have affordable health insurance, paid paternity leave, access to short and long term disability, etc.–basic human rights that are taken for granted in Europe. Something as quotidian as childbirth often sends Americans into massive debt, never mind a major heath issue like a cancer diagnosis or a chronic illness.

At the moment, I am still suffering the financial fallout of choosing prophylactic mastectomy. And “suffering” is not an exaggeration here. I’ll be paying off the medical debts I incurred with PBM for at least two years, even though I have a good job and relatively good health insurance. In a lot of ways, I’m lucky that I could take on and manage this debt: I had access to exceptional doctors and an overwhelmingly positive experience. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when medical debt is a privilege.

To me, these socioeconomic issues are far more pressing than personalized medicine. Massive reforms are long overdue and socioeconomic inequality in the United States is getting worse and worse. What good is genomic data if patients don’t have the socioeconomic means to put it to use?

Obama’s precision medicine plan reminds me of George W. Bush’s equally ambitious global AIDS plan, another public health initiative that was unveiled towards the end of a second presidential term. In theory, Bush Junior’s AIDS initiative sounded fantastic: billions of dollars directed at fighting AIDS in Africa, the massive distribution of AIDS drugs, new condom promotion programs, etc. In practice, however, Bush’s AIDS initiative was rushed and poorly implemented. The phrase “pissing into the wind” comes to mind.

Precision medicine is an enormous undertaking that requires careful planning. I don’t have much faith in the ability of government bureaucracies to efficiently plan and execute something so socioeconomically and ethically fraught. If Obama’s precision medicine plan is successful–and it will be a long time before we can adequately judge whether or not it is–then there are still massive hurdles to improving conditions for patients on the ground.

Maybe Obama’s precision medicine is the first step towards giving people better options. For now, we should be wary of getting caught up in the hype of precision medicine. Yes, it could lead to some great things for the HBOC community, but we need to recognize the immense challenges it poses.

If anything good is going to come out of this initiative, then BRCA+ advocates are going to have to stay on their toes, push hard for patient input, and lobby for improvements in healthcare access–that means, vehemently supporting universal healthcare, paid paternity leave, and other socioeconomic improvements¬† to healthcare access for the poor, the working class, and the shrinking middle class.

After all, genetic data doesn’t mean shit if you can’t afford to use it.

Should we stop telling BRCA+ women to do ovarian cancer surveillance?

FORCE has a new webinar featuring University of British Columbia oncology professor Dr. Jessica McAlpine on the “Pros and Cons of Hysterectomy at the Time of Risk-reducing Removal of Ovaries and Fallopian Tubes.” Like all FORCE webinars, it’s worth watching.

During the Q&A, someone asks Dr. McAlpine why physicians continue to recommend screening despite the fact that it’s ineffective at diagnosing ovarian cancer (check around the 46:30 minute mark). Dr. McAlpine answers that “three fantastically well-run trials” have shown just how ineffective ovarian cancer screening is. She continues:

“I don’t think anyone’s convinced that screening makes a difference. I practiced in a center in the U.S. where they routinely recommended it, but I actually don’t think that’s correct. I think we don’t have any evidence to suggest those improve things beyond a standard pelvic exam. I think it comes down to prevention, which is you know the focus here here, risk-reducing surgery and otherwise. So I guess, why do doctors suggest it? Probably because we’re frustrated–some physicians are frustrated by their inability to offer anything more. But I think at the end of the day, the studies show an increase in unnecessary surgery with those screening modalities and that it didn’t save lives. So I would have caution with using those modalities.”

Dr. McAlpine’s response reminds me of a rather shocking slide that Sloan-Kettering oncologist Dr. Noah Kauff showed at the Joining FORCEs conference in Philly last summer. It illustrated that BRCA+ women who undergo regular screening for ovarian cancer actually have worse survival rates than those who don’t.¬†

The ineffectiveness of ovarian cancer screening is very well documented in scientific studies. I also have written a lot about the ineffectiveness of screening for ovarian cancer and my own run-in with what turned out to be unnecessary surgery last year:

  1. Pelvic exams are pointless, like everything else.
  2. HBOC Threat Level Orange
  3. Oophorectomy Sucks

Still, it’s rare to see someone in the greater HBOC community as prominent as Dr. McAlpine so openly admitting that ovarian cancer screening does. not. work. at. all.

What she doesn’t mention is the gut-wrenching anxiety screening causes multiple times a year; the time-consuming appointments and endless waiting rooms; or the onslaught of co-pays and other expenses–just to give BRCA+ women false reassurance.

All this makes me wonder: Why are doctors still recommending ovarian cancer screening to BRCA+ women when reputable scientific studies prove it’s useless? Why is the leadership of the HBOC community continuing to recommend it? Why am I still following through with ovarian cancer screening twice a year like a good little girl scout when I know it’s pointless or even harmful?

I know these are surprising questions for many people in the BRCA+ community. Those of us who are actively involved in HBOC advocacy know the drill: if you come from a cancer family, then getting tested, getting screened, and maybe getting surgery will empower you and save your life. It’s a reassuring soundbite, but it’s not entirely true, because we don’t have effective methods to detect early-stage ovarian cancer and the only way to save the lives of women at high risk for it is oophorectomy.

I’m considering stopping nearly all ovarian cancer screening. At this point, the only ovarian cancer screening that seems worth doing is the CA-125 test. It too is highly problematic and unreliable, but a recent study showed that it has some promise of detecting cancer once it has been administered for many years to establish a personal baseline.

We need to have an honest conversation in the BRCA+ community about whether or not we’re going to continue to encourage women to undergo psychologically, physically, and economically costly ovarian cancer screening that we already know does not save lives.

[This quote is probably misattributed to Carl Sagan, but the point stands]

HBOC Threat Level Orange


I may or may not have ovarian cancer. I’ve had a host of “whispering symptoms” for a while now that three different general practitioners have repeated misdiagnosed. Each time I reminded them that I was BRCA+ and asked if I should be screened for ovarian cancer. They waved it off. As is typical with ovarian cancer, these symptoms could very well turn out to be something else entirely. My doctors are rushing me into extra screening this week.

The timing is ironic. My usual twice annual screening was coming up soon anyway, so I already had appointments for a CA-125 test, ultrasound, and physical exam that have now been urgently condensed and sped up. I’m also preparing for my prophylactic mastectomy surgery later in the year. So the same day my doctor sits me down with a grim face to say it may be ovarian cancer, a bunch of supplies I ordered from Amazon appeared on my doorstep–shower chair, bed tray, wedge pillow, etc.

It’s a funny thing to be preparing for a surgery you may not be able to have because of more pressing medical issues. Part of me is mentally putting the mastectomy surgery on hold until I have answers about these symptoms. Part of me thinks the symptoms will turn out to be much ado about nothing and I should carry on with mastectomy plans. It’s hard to know what to do or how to occupy myself while I wait for answers.

I’ve been joking that this ovarian cancer scare has put my family and I on threat level orange, like the Homeland Security alerts. Hopefully, it will all turn out to be a false alarm. But one of the many frustrating things about having a BRCA mutation is that, in a way, you are always at threat level orange, not unlike Homeland Security terror levels after 9-11. If/when I’m told that I have “no detectable cancer” (which is as much as a high risk girl can possibly hope for), I’ll still be looking at decades of false alarms. Even if I have a prophylactic mastectomy with oopherectomy, salpingectomy, and hysterectomy, I will still be predisposed to other cancers. The best case scenario is a life of fear and threats with no actual diagnosis–a life of threat level orange.

This threat level system is really more my style