Breast Cancer: Catching Up With Amy Berman, a Woman Who Chose Life Over Longevity

HealthBeat readers may remember the two-part post that I wrote about Amy Berman back in October of 2011.

Part 1 began:  “When Amy Berman was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer a year ago, she made a courageous choice. Instead of fleeing death, she decided to pursue life.  Rejecting chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, she chose palliative care instead.” 

                                   Our War on Cancer

Berman knew that her stage IV cancer could not be cured. As a nurse, she also knew what women who undergo aggressive treatment endure—and that, despite that treatment, many will never escape the disease.

As Clifton Leaf points out in his new book The Truth in Small Doses, when people talk about the strides that we have has  made in our War On Cancer, they greatly exaggerate our success. When it comes to breast cancer, for example, 30 years after we launched the way, the number of women per 100,000 who die of breast cancer had actually grown from 28.4 per 100,000 in 1970 to 29.2 per 100,000 in 2000.

Over the next 10 years, the death rate fell to 26.2 per 100,000 women. But we know that this was mainly because we have gotten better at detecting breast cancer early, when the tumors are small and easily removed.  By contrast, most of the caustic drugs designed to defeat cancer have disappointed.

Of  “the myriad compounds that have set the research community abuzz, the ones that have already built up billions of sales,” Leaf observes, “there is little evidence” that “they have had more than a modest effect on long-term patient outcomes. Taken together, this multitude of drugs has been responsible for about a quarter of the reduction seen in the standardized death rate.”

Granted five-year-survival rates have improved. But this, too, is largely because we are diagnosing cancer earlier.  In the past, if the disease was detected when a woman was 65 and she died at 67, we would say she died of cancer. Today, if a tumor is detected when she is 62, and she lives a few months past 67, she has made it to the five-year mark and is counted as a “survivor.”  Thus Elizabeth Edwards’ name was added to the roll of victories–even though breast cancer killed her.

By measuring our progress in terms of five-year-survival rates we “transform nearly six hundred thousand annual deaths into a victory-in progress,” Leaf notes. This allows us to hide from what he calls “an unshakable reality: the rising toll from cancer is plain to see, but this method of counting is so firmly established and so commonly used by health care researchers and policymakers, that few remember anymore that it’s a statistical sleight of hand.”

Even If She Could Not Be Cured, Why Didn’t Berman Try to Buy More Time?

After she was diagnosed, Berman secured an appointment a pre-eminent researcher/clinician in the field of inflammatory breast cancer.

He was clear about what she should do: Chemo, radiation and a mastectomy, followed by more chemo. This he told her, is “what I recommend for all of my patients.”

In part 2 of my 2011 post, I quoted her memory of that conversation:

“I pressed him, ‘Why do the mastectomy?’ I asked, puzzled. ‘The cancer has already spread to my spine. You can’t remove it.’

“His brow furrowed: ‘Well, you don’t want to look at the cancer, do you?’

“He made it sound like cosmetic surgery,” she recalled. “Considering that a total mastectomy includes months of pain and rehabilitation, I thought that worrying about the view was secondary.”

She continued to press him.

“But what about the side effects of radiation?’ I asked. ‘I’ve heard they are terrible’.

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A New IOM Report Reveals Why Medicare Costs So Much (Hint–It’s Not Just the Prices)

George W.  Bush is 67. Chances are Medicare paid for the stent operation that I describe in the post above.  For years, medical researchers have been telling us that this procedure will provide no lasting benefit for a patient who fits Bush’s medical profile.   Nevertheless, in some hospitals, and in some parts of the country, stenting has become as commonplace as tonsillectomies were in the 1950s.

Location matters. Last month, a new report from the Institute of Medicine confirmed what Dartmouth’s researchers have been telling us for more than three decades: health care spending varies  across regions. More recently, as Dartmouth’s investigators have drilled down into othe data,, they have shown that even within a region, Medicare spends far more per beneficiary in some hospitals than in others.

In a recent Bloomberg column, former CBO director Peter Orszag notes that “Because this variation doesn’t appear to be reliably correlated with differences in quality, the value [that we are getting for our health care dollars] seems to be much higher in some settings than in others.” He asks the logical question: “What is causing this and what might we do about it?”

Some health care analysts claim that as a nation, we spend far more on health care than any other developed country because we over-pay for everything—from statins to surgery. (A landmark article that appeared in Health Affairs in 2003 put it this way “It’s the Prices Stupid!” )

Others put more emphasis on overtreatment. Up to one-third of Medicare dollars are squandered, physicians like Dartmouth’s  Dr.  Elliott Fisher, Boston surgeon Atul Gawade and former Medicare director Dr. Don Berwick argue.  As Fisher puts it, “hospital stays in the U.S. may not be as long as in some other countries, but more happens to you while you’re there.” (Note: the authors of “It’s the Price’s Stupid” also point out that care in the U.S. is “more intensive.”)

I agree that both theories are true: We have managed to devise a health care system where we both over-pay AND are over-treated. The  Institute of Medicine report that came out at the end of July supports this thesis.

              The Difference between Medicare and Commercial Insurers

The IOM report reveals that both Medicare and commercial insurers are spending about 40 percent more per patient in some areas and in some hospitals than in others. “This has persisted over decades;” Orszag observes.  “Regions that spent the most in 1992 tended to remain big spenders in 2010.”

But, he adds, “There is one important difference between Medicare and commercial insurance, the Institute found, and that is in the causes of spending variation. With commercial insurance, spending is higher in some areas because of markups — that is, the difference between the charge for a service and the cost of providing that service.

“Seventy percent of the variation in commercial spending was attributed to differences in markups, which in turn probably reflect local differences in market power among hospitals and other providers relative to insurance companies and beneficiaries.”

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