University of Pennsylvania Health System

Focus on Cancer

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

'Breast Cancer Genes' are a Problem for Men Too

In recognition of Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week, Focus on Cancer is highlighting new support and research efforts for male carriers of BRCA mutations.

In August, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported an increase in research and support, specifically for male carriers of BRCA1/2 mutations. These mutations are known for being strong indicators of breast and ovarian cancer risk; as well as other types of cancer.

"Men very much matter in this equation," said Jacquelyn Powers, MS, CGC, a genetic counselor at Penn's Basser Research Center for BRCA, during her presentation at a recent conference in Philadelphia with partner organization, FORCE.

Understanding Hereditary Cancer Risk for Male Carriers

In men, mutations in either gene raise the risk for breast cancer as well as risk for other cancers. In fact, men with BRCA1 mutations have between a 1-5% lifetime risk of breast cancer and men with BRCA2 mutation have between a 5-10% lifetime risk of breast cancer.

Typically, a man's risk of breast cancer is 0.1%, or 1 in 1,000. Men who carry a BRCA mutation may also have an increased risk of prostate cancer, melanoma and pancreatic cancer.

Men, as well as women, can inherit and pass on a BRCA mutation to their children, further driving the demand for new research and support.

Penn Investigators Take Leading Role in Research 

In one international study, investigators from Penn are exploring the best way to screen male carriers with increased prostate cancer risk. Men with BRCA1/2 mutations who develop prostate cancer tend to develop these cancers at an earlier age than average and may develop more aggressive forms of the disease.

Free Webinar for Male BRCA Carriers with Basser and FORCE 10/1

As part of Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week, we invite you to join FORCE and Basser Center genetic counselor Jacquelyn Powers, MS, CGC next Wednesday for the webinar "BRCA and Men: Medical Management and Prostate-specific Considerations."

This free online session is open to male BRCA carriers, those at risk; as well as their family members and caregivers. Register online at FORCE.

Read the full Philadelphia Inquirer article on male carriers and learn more from the Basser Research Center for BRCA about risk factors, screening recommendations and research.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sara Gowing: A Partner in Hope Propels Research on Breast Cancer Recurrence

“I think that anyone who has received a cancer diagnosis would agree that it is a moment which is life-altering: emotions range from fear and sadness, to anger and regret, after which you can’t help but see everything in a different light.”

For Sara Gowing, that new light as a breast cancer survivor has been characterized by elation for her cancer remission and good health against the odds of and fear for her cancer returning.

“As my breast cancer treatment came to an end, I learned that palpation would be my primary method for monitoring recurrence,” Sara explained. “I was startled to think that after spending a year undergoing cutting edge treatments that included surgery, rounds of chemotherapy with two different drugs, and radiation, I would be back to relying upon breast exams to catch a recurrence of the cancer.”
Angela DeMichele, MD, MSCE (center) with Sara Gowing and her husband Jim, at the celebration of Dr. DeMichele's appointment as the Alan and Jill Miller Associate Professor in Breast Cancer Excellence.

Seeking an Active Measure for Recurrence in Post-treatment Survivorship

Despite 5-year survival rates approaching 90%, a substantial number of breast cancer patients relapse - and many more experience late treatment effects or are diagnosed with a second cancer. As a consequence, millions of breast cancer survivors find themselves in a post-treatment survivorship period that is largely devoid of active measures that they can take to monitor and prevent recurrence.

Sara asked her oncologist, and co-leader of the Breast Cancer Research Program, Angela DeMichele, MD, MSCE, what she could do to help propel breast cancer recurrence research forward.

“I got to know Dr. DeMichele particularly well during my chemotherapy. She was such a big help and provided so much reassurance during the unknowns surrounding my treatment,” Sara explained.

Forming the 2-PREVENT Translational Center of Excellence

“When I learned that the causes and treatment of recurrence was something that she was hoping to change through research, my husband and I were glad to be able to support this important work.”

The Gowings generously established the Breast Cancer Recurrence Program in support of the 2-PREVENT Translational Centers of Excellence (TCE) at the Abramson Cancer Center, co-led by Dr. DeMichele and Lewis Chodosh, MD, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Cancer Biology, Perelman School of Medicine. Translational Centers of Excellence are virtual centers that bring the most brilliant minds across Penn’s medical campus together, to solve cancer’s most complex challenges.

The 2-PREVENT TCE focuses on the microscopic cells that are left in the body after cancer treatment—rather than the original tumor—and researches how they relate to the original tumor, where they live, how they grow and how they relate to the relapsed tumor. That information is then used to develop clinical trials focused on innovative, targeted therapies.

These cross-disciplinary teams are already making great progress, helping deliver novel, personalized cancer care to cancer patients.

Sara has joined the ranks of the Abramson Cancer Center’s brave patients, advocates, and philanthropists who have formed a community of support in the fight to advance research that offers better options and therapies for women diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I am so pleased to be able to support the amazing work being done at the Abramson Cancer Center and know that we will be able to find a cure for breast cancer. Forever.”

For more information on how to support breast cancer recurrence research please contact Laura Ferraiolo at or by phone (215) 746-2948, or make a gift online.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Times Article Highlights Research on Universal Screening for BRCA Mutations

The New York Times recently reported on new research findings that suggest all women over 30 be screened for BRCA mutations, regardless of family history. The research was conducted on an Ashkenazi Jewish group in Israel and asserts that some women who tested positive for cancer-causing genetic mutations during random screenings may have higher rates of breast and ovarian cancer even when they have no family history of the disease.

Gene mutations in either BRCA1 or BRCA2 place individuals at higher than average risk for developing certain cancers, most notably breast and ovarian cancer. Inherited mutations in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 are rare -- only about 1 in 500 to 1 in 800 individuals have a mutation. However, individuals of Ashkenzi Jewish ancestry have a 1 in 40 chance of carrying a BRCA gene mutation.

Even with recent research, there is still general disagreement about cancer risk in families who have BRCA mutations but no known family history of cancer. Although some now think that all women should be screened, others advise against routine genetic counseling and testing for women whose family history doesn't indicate a risk of harmful mutations. Due to this uncertainty, some women may find themselves facing difficult choices, such as opting for surgery when they may not need to.

Susan Domchek, MD, executive director of the Basser Research Center for BRCA at the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center, commented in the article on the psychological and social impact on patients who test positive for BRCA mutations: “These are not trivial,” she said. “They have the potential to cause harm.”

It's worth noting that this research was done in an Ashkenazi Jewish group in Israel and not in a general US population group. We know that Ashkenazi Jews have a much higher chance of carrying a BRCA mutation than those of other ethnic groups.

When to Consider Genetic Counseling

In a family with a significant history of breast and/or ovarian cancer, the first step is to seek genetic counseling with an expert. Genetic counseling will help determine the best approach to testing in your family.

Consider genetic risk evaluation for BRCA testing if:

You or a family member has had:
  • Breast cancer at age 50 or younger
  • Ovarian or fallopian tube cancer at any age
  • Cancer in both breasts
  • Male breast cancer
  • Breast cancer and are of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
You have two or more family members with any of the following cancers:
  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian or fallopian tube cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Prostate cancer (at least one diagnosed under age 60)

Educational Events and Resources for Cancer Risk Evaluation and Genetic Screening

Join the Basser Research Center for BRCA, the Program for Jewish Genetic Health and the JCC in Manhattan for Testing for Cancer Risk in the Jewish Population: A Community Conversation on Monday, November 3 at 7:30 p.m. at the JCC in Manhattan.

Amy Harmon, a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist, will moderate a panel of medical experts in a lively discussion about testing for BRCA mutations in the Jewish community. She also will engage the audience in a conversation about the controversial topic of population testing all Ashkenazi Jews for these mutations. Read more information and RSVP online.

As always, you can find information on cancer risk evaluation, BRCA mutations, and the genetic counseling and testing process online at

Thursday, September 18, 2014

October 17: Lung Cancer Prevention and Patient Education Conferences with Free to Breathe

Penn's Abramson Cancer Center and Free to Breathe Philadelphia are teaming up to provide a free day-long lung cancer education conference highlighting prevention, diagnosis, treatment, genetics and life after lung cancer treatment.

Attendees will receive up-to-date information on the latest laboratory research, treatment advances, clinical trials, and survivorship issues.

There are two different sessions for the day, including Focus On Lung Cancer Conference and CANPrevent Lung Cancer Conference. Each session can help those at risk, newly diagnosed or who have survived lung cancer for a long time, find support, answers and possible alternatives to current treatment.

7th Focus On Lung Cancer Conference

Date: Friday, October 17, 2014
Time:  7:30 am to 2:00 pm
Location: Hilton Hotel, 4200 City Avenue, Philadelphia, PA
Looking for information from medical professionals? Learn from expert panels about lung cancer prevention, risk, and quitting smoking.

RSVP for the Focus on Lung Cancer Conference here.

3rd CANPrevent Lung Cancer Conference

Date: Friday, October 17, 2014
Time: 12:30 pm to 2:00 pm
Location: Hilton Hotel, 4200 City Avenue, Philadelphia PA
Are you or a loved one newly touched by lung cancer? Join us for risk assessment, new diagnostics and procedures, surgical advances, information on proton therapy and more.

RSVP the for CANPrevent Lung Cancer Conference here.

Can’t Make the Conference? 

If you can’t make this year’s conference, you can watch or follow the conference live:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

6th Annual Focus on Mesothelioma: A Free Educational Conference for Patients and Caregivers

Join us for full day of mesothelioma patient education next Friday, September 26. Our research and clinical experts from Penn's Mesothelioma and Pleural Program, with support from the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, will give the latest in mesothelioma treatment and care for those at risk or diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Who should attend?

Anyone at risk for or facing a mesothelioma or pleural disease diagnosis, as well as caregivers and loved ones, are welcome to attend our free educational conference. 

As a rare, incurable disease, mesothelioma has approximately 2,000 to 3,000 new cases diagnosed a year in the United States. Studies attribute up to 80 percent of all new cases to asbestos exposure -- exposure that can affect patients and loved ones years after working with the material.

When, where and what?

Date: Friday, September 26, 2014
Time: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Location: The Hub, Cira Center, 2929 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104

The full event agenda includes:
  • Q&As with Penn and MARF experts
  • Information on new clinical trials for mesothelioma
  • The latest in new treatment options for both peritoneal and pleural mesothelioma
  • An overview of palliative care options
  • Early detection and risk factor assessment
  • The future of mesothelioma on a genetic level

Friday, September 5, 2014

Are you ready to Stand Up 2 Cancer?

Each year, more than 1.2 million new patients are diagnosed with cancer every year in the United States.

To help combat this, Stand Up 2 Cancer brings together dream teams of the best and the brightest researchers spanning disciplines, institutions, countries and specialties, to join in a unified fight against cancer with translational research.

By providing these teams with long term funding, groups of scientists from peer institutions get to work collaboratively, rather than competitively, to develop new treatments quickly.

Transforming Pancreatic Cancer to a Treatable Disease

Over the next three years, the newly announced SU2C-Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Convergence dream team hopes to apply advances in immunotherapy (hardwiring the body's immune system to fend off cancer as opposed to more traditional treatment options) to the realm of pancreatic cancer.

Co-leading the effort is Penn Medicine’s own director of Translational Research, Robert Vonderheide, MD, DPhil.

Why Pancreatic Cancer?

As the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States, pancreatic cancer remains one of the most deadly. Despite recent advancements, survival rates remain poor, as more than 90 percent of pancreatic cancer patients die within the first year of diagnosis, creating an urgent need for new treatments.

Why Immunotherapy?

Clinical efforts focused specifically on pancreatic cancer have failed to improve the survivability or quality of life for those affected. In short, greater research and better answers must be created or found, through novel approaches like immunotherapy.

Today, those diagnosed with the cancer, their caretakers and loved ones face a grim prognosis. To help alleviate this need in the pancreatic cancer community, Stand Up 2 Cancer is bringing together researchers, scientists, and doctors from institutions across the country to work together.

See how Penn's Abramson Cancer is Standing Up 2 Cancer and finding that the Cure is Within.

Patient Documents His Experience with Radiation Treatment at Penn

After he received radiation therapy for a nasal tumor at Penn Radiation Oncology in 2013, local filmmaker Tom Ashley wanted to help others going through the same experience.

As an incoming patient unfamiliar with radiation therapy and the patient journey, Tom had had a lot of questions:

Where do I go? How do I prepare? What is the process like? Will I have support staff with me the whole time? Why do I need a mask? Does having a mask made before treatment hurt?

Tom's tumor required a custom immobilization device -- also known as a mask -- which is used to help patients remain still and in the same position each time they receive treatment.

To better explain the process, Tom brought the camera behind the scenes and documented the experience from his point of view:

What else do you want to know about a first visit to Penn Radiation Oncology? 

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