American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Where are we now with breast cancer screening?

Among the more important medical studies reported in recent weeks, even resulting in that rarefied “front page, above the crease” coverage by the New York Times, was a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicating that the interpretation of breast biopsies is not the infallible gold standard we had hoped. The investigators found that expert pathologists often reached differing conclusions about the same biopsy sample when they reviewed it independently.

This finding has the potential to add consternation to controversy, if not quite insult to injury, as breast cancer screening succumbs to all manner of reconsideration. There has long been debate, and conflicting evidence, about the utility, impact, optimal timing, and optimal frequency of mammography. There have been concerns about the inadequacies of standard mammography when breast tissue is dense. Self-breast examination, long recommended, no longer is, although I, along with many of my colleagues, know patients who ascribe early breast cancer detection to the practice.

The lead author of the paper in JAMA, Dr. Joann Elmore, is a leading expert on breast cancer screening, publishing numerous papers that have challenged, and thereby improved, the standard of practice for more than two decades. She also happens to be a friend and colleague; we have co-authored four editions of an epidemiology/preventive medicine textbook together.

So while I generally sort out the implications of new studies on my own, I don't mind calling in the cavalry when I have that opportunity. I asked Dr. Elmore where her new study leaves us, and here is our exchange. The questions, of course, are mine, the answers are hers, with the occasional editorial comment from me in brackets.

Q: What are the key findings and implications of your new study?

A: Every year millions of women undergo breast biopsies. As a primary care physician, I depend on the pathologist to look at the tissue under a microscope and provide a diagnosis so that I know how to advise and care for the woman. In our study, we turned the microscope back on ourselves to see how well we are doing in classifying these biopsies as normal, abnormal, or cancerous.

We invited 115 doctors to interpret the same biopsy cases and compared their interpretations to a diagnosis decided upon by three very experienced breast pathologists. We had 240 biopsy cases and collected 6,900 individual interpretations.

It was reassuring that the pathologists had very high agreement on the breast cancer cases. Unfortunately, they were much less likely to agree with the expert panels the rest of the time. For cases of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a very early stage of localized cancer, they disagreed one out of five times. For cases of atypia (or atypical ductal hyperplasia), meaning cells were abnormal but not cancerous per se, they disagreed on roughly half of the cases.

Women who receive a diagnosis of DCIS usually undergo the same types of treatment as women with early stage breast cancer (mastectomy, or lumpectomy and radiation), so these are important diagnoses. Women who receive a diagnosis of atypia are told that they are at increased risk of a subsequent breast cancer diagnosis and often undergo additional biopsies and sometimes more intense screening.

It is important to note that even the experienced pathologists disagreed on some of the biopsy cases. This problem may have more to do with the biology of the disease than the doctor making the diagnosis. Some biopsy specimens are just really challenging to characterize.

Q: You have published prior papers that questioned the reliability of breast cancer screening with mammograms. Where does that research leave us?

A: Variability among doctors is not confined to the interpretation of biopsy specimens. We noted extensive disagreement of radiologists who interpreted mammograms many years ago. After our research was published, legislation was passed in the U.S. to address this concern (the Mammography Quality Standards Act). The American College of Radiology also developed a standardized classification system for mammography reports and NIH funded a national Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium that has gathered and evaluated data on millions of mammogram exams.

[Editorial note: The breast cancer screening recommendations of the United States Preventive Services Task Force are currently being updated; the report-in-progress may be found here.]

Our work in breast pathology is an important benchmark as it identifies another area where we need to do better.

Q: What would you consider the ‘ideal’ breast cancer screening protocol?

A: An “ideal” breast cancer screening protocol is one that starts with informing women about the benefits and risks of screening. Every woman should make a decision that is right for her.

Many women incorrectly think that their personal risk of a breast cancer diagnosis is higher than it really is. Thus, I encourage them to go on-line and enter information into a “risk calculator.” I just entered my own data and the website says that my risk is 2.5% in the next 5 years (this also means that I have a 97.5% chance of NOT getting breast cancer in the next 5 years).

Mammography is the only breast screening examination with data showing a potential mortality benefit when applied to the general population of women. We do not recommend that the average woman get MRI scans or ultrasound exams for screening. We do not have data to support this.

Risks of mammography include over-diagnosing lesions that would never have harmed the woman, yet wind up being treated; in such cases, the “cure” is worse than the disease was ever going to be. Other risks include false alarms where an abnormality is noted, and the woman has to return for additional testing (usually more imaging, but sometimes a biopsy). These false alarms occur in half the women who undergo annual screening for a decade.

Some women are learning that they have dense breast tissue [Editorial note: I have written a prior column on that topic.] State law mandates that women be advised about their breast density in ~20 states and a few states even mandate that women be advised to have ultrasound testing (even though this recommendation is not clearly evidence-based at this point).

Q: What is your standard recommendation to patients about breast cancer screening?

A: Get the facts and make a decision that is right for you. Every woman has different values and concerns and priorities.

Now that we have the results of our study on breast biopsies I am encouraging women to think twice before undergoing a breast biopsy. When a very subtle abnormality is noted on a screening mammogram women are often presented with the option of a biopsy vs. waiting 6 to 12 months and just repeating the mammogram to see if the abnormality changes. Many women assume that the biopsy will provide an immediate answer; our study shows that may not be the case, as these biopsies are difficult to evaluate.

Q: When I talk to patients about prostate cancer screening, I can't ignore the fact that I am a >50 year old guy with a prostate of his own; so how I apply what I know to myself is relevant. I do not get screened for prostate cancer (although of course I do for colon cancer). What is your personal breast cancer screening approach?

A: A personal decision that I make about breast cancer screening may not be relevant to others.

Q: Slightly off topic: Angelina Jolie just followed up her prophylactic mastectomy with a prophylactic salpingo-oophorectomy (i.e., surgical removal of ovaries and fallopian tubes). As an epidemiologist, a cancer screening expert, and a woman, would you have done the same in her position? If not, what would you have done?

A: We need to clarify that Angelina Jolie's position was very unusual. She found out that she is a carrier for a genetic mutation, the BRCA-1 mutation. The majority of women in the U.S. do NOT have this genetic mutation. The majority of women with breast cancer do NOT have this genetic mutation.

Ms. Jolie gathered data, reflected on her own values and she made an informed decision. I would do the same.


There you have it, straight from the source. I can tell you that my wife does undergo mammography at the standard intervals (and, by the way, she tells me it is VERY uncomfortable, which is something that isn't discussed much). We have had to deal with minor abnormalities requiring additional imaging (and generating anxiety, of course)- but so far, have not confronted the biopsy issue.

You might also appreciate a patient's perspective on the breast biopsy issue, and hearing a bit more directly from Dr. Elmore.

Cancer screening is, in the most literal sense, looking for trouble. Significant declines in cancer mortality over recent years are a product of both improved treatment, and early detection, so we are clearly doing something right. On the other hand, when our expectations and actual experience diverge, trouble may be exactly what we find. I suppose April 1 is a particularly good day for a reality check, and making sure we don't set off on a fool's errand.

Dr. Elmore's work has improved breast cancer screening standards over the years, for which we all owe her a debt. The new study is likely to do the same in time, but for now- we are forewarned of the fallibility of biopsy assessment, and thus forearmed to make judicious, personalized decisions accordingly. We are also invited to second-guess a biopsy report, and request a second opinion in those cases where interpretation is most apt to vary.

David L. Katz, MD, FACP, MPH, FACPM, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health, and Associate Professor (adjunct) in Public Health Practice at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is the Director and founder (1998) of Yale University's Prevention Research Center; Director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital (2000) in Derby, Conn.; founder and president of the non-profit Turn the Tide Foundation; and formerly the Director of Medical Studies in Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine for eight years. This post originally appeared on his blog at The Huffington Post.

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Members of the American College of Physicians contribute posts from their own sites to ACP Internistand ACP Hospitalist. Contributors include:

Albert Fuchs, MD
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000.

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Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.

Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Zackary Berger
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.

Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention
Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).

db's Medical Rants
Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.

Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.

Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.

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Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.

Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.

Glass Hospital
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.

Gut Check
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.

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Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.

Informatics Professor
William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.

David Katz, MD
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACP, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care.

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Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.

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Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.

Medical Lessons
Elaine Schattner, MD, FACP, shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology, and as a patient who's had breast cancer.

Mired in MedEd
Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is the Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education (CME), and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where he blogs about medical education.

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Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, reflects on the personal side of being a doctor in a community hospital in Atlanta.

The Blog of Paul Sufka
Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine.

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Neil Mehta, MBBS, MS, FACP, is interested in use of technology in education, social media and networking, practice management and evidence-based medicine tools, personal information and knowledge management.

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Peter A. Lipson, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. The blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture.

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Janice Boughton, MD, FACP, practiced internal medicine for 20 years before adopting a career in hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling.

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Other blogs of note:

American Journal of Medicine
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.

Clinical Correlations
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.

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White Coat Rants
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.

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