Lately, much has been written about the rush-to-mastectomy decisions adopted by women with DCIS diagnoses. DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) is the diagnosis given when abnormal cells reside in the milk ducts. It is precancerous and noninvasive. It is not life-threatening, although it can lead to an increased risk of developing an invasive cancer. While it is unquestionably scary to receive such a diagnosis, some in the medical community are questioning whether a slash-and-burn reaction to DCIS is appropriate. The current standard of care for DCIS is surgery and radiation. A natural reaction for a woman with DCIS is to undergo the most far-reaching form of treatment available. I won’t argue with that, because no one has the right to judge another person’s reaction to or decisions toward a cancer diagnosis. Anyone who tries to should be punched in the brain. Repeatedly.
That said, data don’t lie, and the case being made for a less-aggressive approach to DCIS is gaining ground. Dr Laura Esserman, a breast surgeon at the University of California, San Francisco, is setting the pace. In a recent New York Times article, Esserman says her goal is “to move the field and do right by our patients.”
Instead of immediately ordering biopsies for women with unsettling findings on their mammograms, Dr Esserman recommends active surveillance. She favors the “wait and see” approach, speaking out about the myriad ways in which a woman is adversely affected by slash-and-burn treatment for cancers that rarely progress beyond DCIS.
Dr Esserman is bringing to light the fact that mammograms — while valuable — find the slow-growing, non-metastasizing cancers that lead to panic more than they find the most lethal forms of breast cancer. She is lobbying for big changes in the early-detection world and has asked the National Cancer Institute to consider dropping the word “carcinoma” from the DCIS label. Instead, Esserman would like for DCIS to be renamed “indolent lesions of epithelial origin.” IDLE would replace DCIS as the way to describe a stage 0 diagnosis. IDLE is catchy and much friendlier than DCIS, if you ask me.
This woman is turning the breast-cancer world on its head, and I like it. In an era of less face-time with doctors, Dr Esserman spends as much time as needed with each patient, often texting or calling them at home. A big part of her “wait and see” approach to DCIS is asking the patients soul-searching questions and utilizing specific testing to gather further evidence before recommending surgery. She’s pushing for more innovation in clinical trials and for fine-tuning the process of screening for breast cancer. In cases for which she does recommend surgery, Dr Esserman counsels and frets like a family member, and even sings to her patients as they undergo anesthesia. Personally, I’d much prefer a serenade to a prayer before I go under the knife. I can imagine her patients, smiling and relaxed, as they enter the last blissful sleep they will enjoy for a while to come.
I love Dr Esserman. I don’t know her, but I love her. I love that she’s crashing through long-standing views and taking the road less traveled. I believe she will enact great change in the landscape of breast cancer. I wonder how I would have reacted to my own breast cancer diagnosis if mine had lacked an invasive tumor. If my cancer was simply DCIS, would I have chosen a different path? I don’t know, but I do know how scary my diagnosis was. I know that the scorched-earth treatment plan was right for me. I had watched my mom die from cancer at age 67. My kids were still in grade school when “the C word” was applied to me. I wanted to be as aggressive as possible, so my choice was to go balls-out against cancer. And it’s a good thing I did, because my “non-affected” breast turned out to be riddled with cancer. Nothing showed up, though, on any of the screenings. Nothing. When Dr Esserman mentioned that mammograms don’t find the more lethal forms of breast cancer, I nodded my head knowingly and actively talked myself off the roof rather than allowing myself to think “what if?” What if I had chosen a single lumpectomy or single mastectomy, and that smattering of cancer cells and Paget disease in my “unaffected” breast had continued to evade detection? Would I be sitting here, typing this post? Would I be glancing up from my computer to see this guy outside my window? What if?