Breast Cancer Survivors Need Comprehensive Care Plans

Many of the persistent problems that breast cancer survivors experience after treatment are not part of the conversation with oncologists during treatment, said Patricia A. Ganz, MD, during a presentation at the European Society for Medical Oncology Breast Cancer annual congress.

Several studies suggest that many breast cancer patients are not well prepared to move forward after a breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments, continued Dr. Ganz, who works at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, Los Angeles.

Meeting the survivorship needs of breast cancer patients requires addressing both their physical and psychosocial needs, Dr. Ganz said. She explained how to achieve that, but first pointed to research elaborating on what’s missing from some breast cancer survivors’ care and barriers to these patients having their variety of health-related needs met.

In a 2021 study published in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship, Dr. Ganz and colleagues conducted a survey of approximately 200 medical oncologists in the United States. They determined that less than 50% provide survivorship care plans to patients at the end of treatment or communicate with patients’ other physicians about follow-up care.

In a secondary analysis of data from the same survey published in 2022 in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, Dr. Ganz and colleagues examined medical oncologists’ perceived barriers to addressing both physical and psychosocial long-term effects in breast cancer survivors. For both, lack of time was the greatest perceived barrier, cited by nearly two-thirds of oncologists. Other barriers to addressing physical effects included lack of evidence-based, effective interventions, lack of clinical algorithms to guide care, and ambiguity regarding professional responsibility at the end of treatment. Other top barriers to addressing psychosocial issues included lack of mental health providers, lack of psychosocial resources, and lack of clinician knowledge and skills.

Data from additional studies suggest that, overall, cancer patients with greater physical burdens, such as more complex and lengthy treatment regimens, also have greater psychosocial needs, Dr. Ganz noted. Plus, approximately 15%-20% of cancer survivors have ongoing anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Shift to primary care

As more breast cancer and other cancer patients survive for longer periods, more care will likely occur in general medical settings, Dr. Ganz said. Issues to be addressed will include the potential increased risk of comorbid conditions for these survivors, and whether survivorship interventions earlier in the disease trajectory will impact survivorship. For cancer patients who achieve remission after treatment, the first 5 years after a diagnosis involves treatment and short-term surveillance for late effects. Beyond 5 years, care for cancer survivors mainly involves primary care and management of any comorbid conditions, as well as surveillance for late effects and recurrences, and awareness of new research.

A patient consultation early in the process after diagnosis is the start of a continuum of care, Dr. Ganz said. A patient consultation should address symptoms related to initial treatments, such as neuropathy, pain, fatigue, and insomnia, as well as the psychological symptoms of anxiety and depression. An early consultation also should evaluate adherence to endocrine therapy and management of symptoms, if needed, with the larger goal of preparing patients for recovery and the transition to survivorship, and what to expect for long-term follow-up.

Delivering the three P’s

The “Three P’s” of survivor care for breast cancer patients are palliation, prevention, and promotion of health, according to Dr. Ganz .

The first “P,” for palliative, is a key part of survivorship care, said Dr. Ganz. Palliative care is defined as care that focuses on reducing symptom severity and improving quality of life. The biological effects of cancer treatment can be associated with physical effects, such as functional limitations and frailty, and behavioral/cognitive effects such as depression, fatigue, and cognitive deficits, she said. To manage these effects and provide palliative care, consultation is needed with specialists in relevant areas including mental health, pain management, physical medicine/rehabilitation, endocrinology, cardiology, and neurology.

The second “P,” which is for prevention in survivorship care, refers to ongoing follow-up screening to identify any potentially serious late-onset complications such as osteoporosis or cardiac disease so they can be addressed, said Dr. Ganz. Other considerations include chemoprevention if available and genetic counseling for patients with hereditary cancers. Prevention also includes counseling patients about lifestyle modifications to help prevent additional cancer.

The goal of the third “P,” which is for health promotion, is to promote risk reduction for the health problems associated with accelerated aging that may arise in cancer survivors, said Dr. Ganz.

Health promotion strategies include maintaining a healthy weight, increasing physical activity, and avoiding harmful exposures, she said. Healthy lifestyle interventions can also reduce the risk of other chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

To that end, Dr. Ganz outlined several behavioral interventions that may mitigate the effects of cancer treatment on the accelerated aging process, including stress reduction in the form of meditation or yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy, improving sleep, increasing physical activity, reducing obesity, and decreasing tobacco and alcohol use. These interventions may help reduce inflammation and promote tissue repair and healing.

For cancer survivors, the life span may be longer than the health span, and these patients may benefit from an integrated model of care, with systematic screening and consolidated appointments, rather than a fragmented model in which departments and referrals are siloed, which may result in conflicting advice or redundancy, said Dr. Ganz.

Looking ahead, more research is needed to explore models of care delivery, as requirements for survivor care will vary among patients and care settings, Dr. Ganz said.

However, regardless of setting, treatment plans and shared decision-making can help reduce potential long-term or late-emerging effects, she said. Developing a survivorship care plan can help patients learn how to enhance their recovery.

During a question and answer session, Dr. Ganz was asked about whether hormone therapy could be used for patients with hormone negative breast cancer. “I think vaginal estrogen can be used if someone is on tamoxifen,” she said. However, “we need to be cautious” in case there are remaining estrogen positive cells, in order to avoid potential metastases, and use of hormone therapy in breast cancer survivors is an individualized decision based in part on quality of life.

Engaging a patient’s partner early can be helpful

If possible, engage the patient’s partner in survivorship discussions, said Luzia Travado, PhD, head of psycho-oncology at the Champalimaud Foundation, Lisbon, who presented on the topic of sexuality and commented on survivorship during the discussion. For those women with partners, engaging the partner early in treatment often means they are more likely to play a larger role in the post treatment and long term by providing stability and emotional support.

“Make sure partners are engaged and understand that they have a role, and that this role is valued,” she said. Unfortunately, there are a lot of divorced women with breast cancer, as the disease can take a toll on relationships. However, remember “sexuality is not just sex; it is caring, loving, and intimacy.”

“To end on a positive note, it is important to empower patients, and to give them self-management skills so they can make things even better in their survivorship,” said Dr. Ganz. In spite of discussing difficulties and challenges, one of the goals of the session was to offer potential solutions and answers.

Dr. Ganz disclosed serving as editor of the cancer survivorship section on Up-to-Date, and serving as a consultant for Blue Note Therapeutics, GRAIL, InformedDNA, and Roche-Genentech. Dr. Travado had no relevant financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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