Cancer

Taking new aim at cancer

Matthew Solan
Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Last year, only months after announcing that he had an aggressive form of melanoma, former President Carter declared that he was cancer free — thanks at least in part to a recently approved immunotherapy drug. Immunotherapy is a type of targeted therapy that helps boost the body’s own immune response to cancer. It does so while sparing healthy cells, thus minimizing side effects.

Does fewer PSA tests mean less prostate cancer?

Charlie Schmidt
Charlie Schmidt, Editor, Harvard Medical School Annual Report on Prostate Disease

Fewer men are being given PSA tests to screen for prostate cancer. As screening rates have fallen, so have the number of prostate cancer diagnoses. This probably also means that fewer men are receiving potentially unnecessary treatment, with its attendant negative side effects. At the same time, it isn’t yet clear whether that comes at the cost of more aggressive cancers being caught at an incurable stage. Better screening tests may make the difference in helping strike the right balance between limiting harm and preventing prostate cancer deaths.

The “right” goal when managing pain

Robert R. Edwards, Ph.D.
Robert R. Edwards, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

When it comes to pain management, focusing only on reducing the intensity of pain may lead to treatments that do as much harm as good. Ideally, pain-management plans should be tailored to each patient and include a range of therapies that not only reduce pain but also help improve pain-related quality-of-life problems.

Active surveillance is safe for low-risk prostate cancers

Charlie Schmidt
Charlie Schmidt, Editor, Harvard Medical School Annual Report on Prostate Disease

A new study confirms that active surveillance is a safe and reasonable alternative to immediate treatment for prostate cancer. In recently published study that followed 1,300 men, the prostate cancer survival rate after 10-15 years of active surveillance, was 99%. For some men, a strong discomfort with “living with cancer” may steer them away from postponing treatment in favor of careful monitoring.

Hidden cancer rarely causes out-of-the-blue clots in the bloodstream

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Blood clots can be lifesavers when they form outside the bloodstream to stop bleeding from an injury. But they can wreak havoc when they form inside the bloodstream. A blood clot in a coronary artery can cause a heart attack. One in the brain can cause a stroke. Blood clots that form in a leg vein cause a problem known as venous thromboembolism, or VTE. If the clot stays in the leg, it can cause swelling or pain. If it breaks away and travels to the lungs, it can cause a potentially deadly pulmonary embolism. In about half of people who develop a VTE, doctors can identify what caused it. In the other half, VTE is something of a mystery. These are called “unprovoked” VTEs. Such unprovoked VTEs often spark a search for hidden cancer. But a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that these searches are usually fruitless — and costly.

Switching to a fiber-rich diet may lower colon cancer risk in blacks

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Switching from a “Western” diet with lots of fat and meat to a fiber-rich diet for just two weeks makes conditions in the large intestine less favorable to the development of colon cancer. The opposite switch may promote the formation of cancer. That’s the conclusion from a small but elegant study done in urban Pittsburgh and rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In the study, 20 volunteers from each area switched diets. For two weeks, the Americans ate a traditional high-fiber African diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans, while the Africans ate a Western diet with more fat, protein, and meat. In just two weeks, significant changes occurred in the lining of the colon and in its chemical and bacterial make-up in both groups, but in different directions. Those following the African diet showed improvements in colon health likely to protect against colon cancer, while those following the Western diet showed changes that could lead to colon cancer.

Vegetarian diet linked to lower colon cancer risk

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Looking for ways to ward off colorectal cancer? According to a new study, a pescovegetarian diet — that’s a vegetarian diet that includes fish — was linked to a 43% reduction in the risk of developing colorectal cancer. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, adds more support to the notion that something in red meat, or the way it is cooked, encourages the growth of colorectal cancer. It’s also possible that eating more plant foods provides extra beneficial nutrients such as folate, calcium, and fiber that may protect against colorectal cancer. Fish contain healthful omega-3 fats and vitamin D. Another good strategy for preventing harm from colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States? Have colonoscopies as needed.

Vitamin D testing not recommended for most people

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Over the past decade, a barrage of reports linking low vitamin D levels to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other ills led many doctors to routinely test vitamin D levels in their healthy patients. But there is no good reason to do that, according to a new recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) published in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine. The task force concluded that it isn’t helpful for most people to know their vitamin D level, and that even if you have a “low” vitamin D level there’s little evidence that taking a vitamin D supplement will do most people any good.

Medicare says it will cover lung cancer scans for long-time smokers

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Last spring, an advisory panel for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recommended that Medicare not cover low-dose CT scans for smokers or former smokers. These scans can double the proportion of lung cancers found at an early stage, while they are still treatable. Yesterday, CMS announced that it would cover the cost of these scans for people between the ages of 55 and 74 who smoke, or who quit within the last 15 years, and who have a smoking history of 30 pack-years. (That means a pack a day for 30 years, two packs a day for 15 years, etc.) The new Medicare plan would cover scans for an estimated 4 million older Americans, at a cost estimated to be more than $9 billion over five years. In a wise addition, Medicare will require smokers to get counseling on quitting or the importance of staying smoke-free before having the annual scan.

CT test for hidden lung cancer is cost-effective but not covered for many likely to benefit

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

The best test for finding hidden lung cancer in smokers is a low-dose CT scan. Its use has been endorsed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent panel that makes recommendations for screening tests. Most insurers follow the recommendations of the task force, and pay for those services. But some opposition to this by Medicare may mean that the test isn’t covered for some of the people who could benefit from it the most. A new report in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the cost of adding one good year to a person’s life through CT screening is around $80,000. Tests or procedures that cost less than $100,000 per year added are considered cost effective. The analysis identified two groups for whom screening is the most cost-effective—current smokers and people ages 60-74. People with private insurance will have low-dose CT scans covered. But those with Medicare may not, thanks to the decision of a Medicare advisory committee. The CMS is expected to publish a draft of its decision within the next few days and come to a final decision in early 2015.