Sunday, June 24, 2012

Who’s Paying Your Doctor?

Prior to being diagnosed with cancer, I did not have much interaction with doctors or the medical establishment.  I knew that the pharmaceutical industry paid doctors to prescribe drugs - with resulting conflicts of interest.  Since I was not taking any drugs, this did not really matter to me. 

Drug companies do indeed pay millions of dollars a year to physicians for speaking and consulting.

A series of “whistleblower” lawsuits brought by former employees of those companies allege those payments often were used for illegal purposes — financially rewarding doctors for prescribing their brand-name medications.  MultimediaIn several instances, the ex-employees say, the physicians were encouraged to push “off-label” uses of the drugs — those not approved by the U.S. regulators. This marketing tactic is banned by federal law.

After being diagnosed with cancer, but before I went to MSKCC to see a specialist, I looked into Sandostatin, the drug that Dr. L had recommended. I did not have to look too far. It had shown up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.  As a financial services employee, these are my regular reading materials.  On September 30, 2010, Novartis, the maker of Sandostatin, settled a whistleblower lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice regarding the payment of illegal kickbacks to health care professionals through mechanisms such as speaker programs, advisory boards, entertainment, travel and meals. These were inducements to prescribe Trileptal, as well as Diovan, Zelnorm, Sandostatin, Exforge and Tekturna.  Novartis paid $422 million as a civil penalty without admitting any guilt.  As a result of this settlement, Novartis had to disclose payments to any doctor or medical institution receiving any compensation from the company on a quarterly basis.  The link to payments is at: 

On November 2, 2010, I had my first appointment with Dr. Jekyll at MSKCC.  He wanted me to start Sandostatin immediately.  The following week he cited the PROMID study as a rationale for this treatment plan.  The PROMID study, funded by Novartis, found that patients taking a 30 mg monthly dose of Sandostatin had a median time to progression of 14 months longer than those on placebo.  Dr. Jekyll acknowledged the conflict of interest inherent in this study and said that there have been no independent studies to confirm these results.

I subsequently found a bio of Dr. Jekyll on a website where he had to disclose his conflicts of interest and it is below:

“Disclosure: Dr. Jekyll has disclosed that he has financial interests, arrangements, or affiliations with the manufacturer of products or devices to be discussed in this activity or who may financially support the activity: Consultant: Alchemia Limited; Bayer HealthCare; Delcath Systems; Genentech, Inc.; ImClone Systems Incorporated; Merck & Co., Inc.; Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation; Pfizer Inc.; Roche Laboratories, Inc.; YM BioScience Inc. Grant/Research Support: Amgen Inc.; Bayer HealthCare; Bristol-Myers Squibb Company; Genentech, Inc.; ImClone Systems Incorporated; Merck & Co., Inc.; Pfizer Inc.; Roche Laboratories, Inc.; Taiho Pharmaceuticals Co., Ltd.”

No wonder he had no interest in treating patients! 

My intent with this post is just to inform others that doctors may have conflicts of interest. They can be influenced by outsiders who are paying them to do things which may not be in the best interest of their patients.  Knowing all this information, I continued with the treatment plan of Sandostatin LAR and am still getting monthly injections of this drug.   In a recent article by  Dr. K.E. Oberg from University Hospital in Uppsala, Sweden titled “The Management of Neuroendocrine Tumors:  Current and Future Therapy Options”, the author states the following: “There has been a dramatic improvement in survival of patients with NETS diagnosed between 1988 and 2004 compared with those diagnosed earlier, based on data from the SEER database.  Coincidentally, this survival improvement in the past 20 years corresponds with the introduction of Octreotide (Sandodatin) in 1987.  Historically, the 5 year survival rate was 18%, but it has improved to 67% in patients who have received Somatostatin analogs.”

There have been quite a few whistleblower lawsuits over the past few years.  There is also another website that one can check to see if your doctor is receiving payments from any drug company.  Propublica, an independent not for profit news room, has compiled a list of doctors receiving payments from those drug companies which were forced to disclose this information as a condition of settlement of these lawsuits.  Unfortunately, this list only covers about 40% of the drugs prescribed in the US.  There are plenty of other doctors taking funds from big Pharma that are not on this list.  The link below from Propublica will inform you if your doctor is receiving money from the pharmaceutical companies involved in these lawsuits:

I think that the reason that Americans take so many drugs is because the drug companies have promoted their products aggressively through the medical community.  In the USA, we have higher mortality and take more drugs than others in the developed world. Yet, these other nations have a substantially longer life span. I believe this is due to these payments and incentives for doctors in the US to prescribe drugs.  I would like the system to be more transparent. I would like to know what percentage of my doctor’s income is coming from patient and insurance reimbursements compared with income from “speaking engagements and other work” from pharmaceutical companies.  Doctors can and do take offense from this line of questioning and are not very transparent about this even if asked.  I don’t expect this to change very soon but it is an important issue from a patient perspective. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Difference Between a Flush and a Hot Flash

In the book Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele devotes a lot of time to flushing. This is not even close to one of the book’s themes.  I would probably not have noticed this particular feature if I did not have carcinoid cancer.  Skin flushing is a sudden reddening of the face, neck, or upper chest. Flushing is a normal body response that may occur when you are embarrassed, angry, excited, or experiencing some other strong emotion.  In the above book, Anastasia’s flushing is due to these reasons.

I started flushing in my mid-40’s; not very often – maybe once every 2-3 months. It would occur for a few minutes, almost always at mealtimes - either breakfast or lunch.  Since this was a seemingly random occurrence and I was starting to experience perimenopausal symptoms, I thought that the flushing was part of this hormonal change of life.  I could feel burning and the heat flow up to my face.  I could tell I was red even if no one said, as they sometimes did, “Wow Beth, your face is quite red”.  It was clear and noticeable but it only lasted a few minutes and then it would not recur for a few months.  There was no sweating involved, just a stinging/burning feeling, similar to getting slapped.   After a few instances of this flushing- and having some friends say that they don’t think it is from perimenopause - I considered that I might have a food allergy since it only happened around mealtime.  I tried to remember what I had eaten that would cause this flushing but I was not tracking closely. There did not seem to be any trigger foods. 
Below is a picture of me and my Aunt Judy – we had gone to lunch to celebrate her 80th birthday.  This was in 2010, right around the time of my carcinoid diagnosis.  I am clearly red and it is right at lunchtime – a typical occurrence for me.

I started taking Sandostatin LAR in January 2011 and I have not had a flushing incident since, at meal or any other times.  I still get red and sweaty at the gym, as I always have. This redness is accompanied by sweating so I do not consider this flushing. 
I did not get the typical menopausal hot flashes until about 12 months ago at age 52.  This feeling is quite different than a flush.  When getting a hot flash, I get immediately sweaty, mostly around my hairline and neck and this can spread so that I feel sweaty all over.  The hot flashes seem to be worse when the weather is warm – i.e., they seem to take a break during the winter.  Hot foods, such as soup and tea can also exacerbate them.  I have moved to iced drinks instead of hot ones.  I also have hot flashes at night and they can disturb my sleep.  There is no flushing or redness associated with my hot flashes.
My ob-gyn said hot flashes can go on for 5-10 years and that it is good to wear layers so you can take them off, have heavy and light blankets on the bed so you can shed them and if you use an electric blanket, make sure it has dual controls.  I feel like my internal thermostat has gone haywire as the hot flashes can happen at any time with no notice.  This is quite normal and all my female friends in the same age range are having some version of this so we can all gripe together.

I think it is important to understand how to recognize flushing versus other symptoms.  Suntans, regular blushing/flushing as described above, rosacea or other conditions might cause you or your health care professional to think you are flushing due to carcinoid when you really may not be.  Alternatively, flushing due to carcinoid can be mixed up with other conditions as well. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Patient Conferences and Support Groups – Part 2

There is good news to report -  the Boston conference was great and very informative. The support group was also quite interesting and not even close to a “pity party”. 

Owen (husband and caregiver) and I drove up to Boston on Thursday and stayed over for the conference on Friday.  We hit a ton of traffic getting from Manhattan to New Haven – it took us about four hours for a trip that should have taken about 1.5 – 2 hours!  Then it was another 2 hours to Randolph, MA where the conference was being held.  Needless to say, we were exhausted when we got there.  The Comfort Inn provided little comfort.

The conference featured three doctors from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI):  Dr. Matthew Kulke, Dr. Matthew Schenker and Dr. Thomas Clancy.  There were also several breakout sessions. I attended one on the importance of nutrition to the neuroendocrine survivor, the other on integrative therapies for carcinoid survivors.  The first was not that interesting, covering basic nutrition and how to adjust one’s diet for gastronintestinal symptoms that some carcinoids have.  The integrative therapies discussion was much better. It was give by Stephanie Meyers, a registered dietician at DFCI. She spoke about how to integrate certain nutrients that carcinoids can be deficient in (vitamin D, niacin and omega 3’s) into the diet or how to use supplements. She also spoke about mindfulness and meditation into life to reduce stress associated with having cancer.  Ms. Meyers recommended a book by Danny Penman called Mindfulness – an 8 Week Plan to Finding Peace in a Frantic World.  She also noted that you can watch videos of the meditations at  by typing in Danny Penman and the videos might be more helpful than reading the book. 

I was impressed by the doctors and the breakout sessions.  I feel that I can go to DFCI if things in NYC do not work out.  The people at my table were Farber patients. They seemed happy with their care.  The woman sitting next to me had carcinoid surgery with Dr. Clancy and it went well.  Another woman has had carcinoid cancer since 1996 and has been going to DFCI since then.  No one said that they ever had to wait more than ½ hour to see a doctor.  Although she was not at this event, I’ve heard that Dr. Jennifer Chan at DFCI is also quite good.  The New England Carcinoid Connection did a very good job putting on this event.

Sunday was my first time at a support group.  Owen and I went up to the Bronx to attend a local support group. The host, Emily Zuckerberg told us it was the first such NYC group in 10 years!  There were eight people in attendance, 5 patients and 3 caregivers.  We all introduced ourselves; some of them are people I have emailed off the ACOR listserv but it was good to meet them in person.  We had an interesting discussion concerning treatment options and procedures that we had considered or undertaken.  Of the 5 patients, 2 had gone to Dr.Jekyll (My ex-MSKCC doc.) and fired him as well!  Three patients, including myself, were going to Mount Sinai, and 2 had been to New Orleans for surgery and were using local oncologists with Dr. Woltering supervising.  One of the group had been told by a Dr. at Mt. Sinai that she needed surgery.  She recently went for a second opinion with Dr. Steven Libutti at Montefiore and said that he was quite nice and professional. 

The group decided to meet again after the end of the summer. Hopefully, we will find a Manhattan location by that time.

In summary, I found this group very interesting and it has shattered the myths in my head about support groups.  The meeting was quite uplifting and there was no “pity party” to be had. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Patient Conferences and Support Groups

Before I had cancer, I had been mostly uninvolved with the medical field, patient issues, or any sort of healthcare education.  My family has a history of heart disease. That is what I thought I would die of and I may yet.  I generally keep myself healthy, eating right and exercising.  The main reason was to prevent heart issues.  Instead I have neuroendocrine cancer. 

I had never heard of patient conferences before I was diagnosed with cancer in 2010.   Since then, I have been to three such events.  Usually these are either a half or full day, with both patients and caregivers as the primary audience and doctors, nurses, and nutritionists as speakers.  All three conferences have been quite informative. I was able to meet some of the more experienced carcinoid doctors to discuss the disease and treatment options, though sometimes the material is a bit too technical for me. I do not have much medical aptitude but I am learning the terminology. I also enjoy meeting other patients at these forums. I like discussing their treatments and issues in person, rather than over the internet. 

On June 8th, I will be going to a patient conference in Randolph, MA that is being sponsored by the New England Carcinoid Connection  (  This is a little out of the way for me, being from NYC.  I look forward to seeing the doctors from Dana Farber Cancer Institute in case my situation with the NYC doctors does not work out.  It’s also been almost a year since I’ve been to such an event, so I am both hoping to learn something new and to meet other patients.

I have always heard about cancer support groups.  My general feeling is that I would not like it.  I assume it might be like a "pity party" where everyone talks about their pain and suffering.  My personality does not fit well with this type mentality - I tend to have an optimistic attitude.

I am not aware of any active support groups in NYC.  I'm not sure why. In a city of 8 million people, one would think that there would be plenty of carcinoid patients who might want to form a group.  Emily Zuckerberg, spouse of a carcinoid patient, is starting a support group in the Bronx.  I am planning on attending the first meeting which will be on Sunday June 10th at 1:00 pm at Riverdale Neighborhood House, 5521 Mosholu Avenue, Bronx, NY 10471.  If interested in attending, please email Emily at  I am hoping it will be a valuable experience and that I can talk to people who may be using the same doctors and hospitals or can give me advice on alternatives.  

So, next week will be a double dose on carcinoid events for me.  I am hoping to learn something and to dispel some myths in my head about support groups.  If you will be at either event, please introduce yourself - I would love to meet you in person.