Breast Cancer Care in the Era of Covid-19

It’s been a while! I’ve taken time to recover from my mastectomy (will blog about that later) and, like many folks in self-isolation, I’ve been doing things like gardening, cooking/baking, home improvement, and family activities to fill the time. I waver between being grateful, bored, peaceful, restless, and generally anxious about the immediate and long-term future.

Photo Credit Deposit Photos

And, like many other people battling cancer in the midst of the pandemic, I’ve been dealing with uncertainty about my ongoing treatments on top of the “normal” concerns. I’ll get to my specific case in a bit, but first we’ll go over highlights from a recently published article.

How has cancer care changed in the era of Covid? A recent article from the New England Journal of Medicine provides insight into some of the challenges for breast cancer care. The article is part case study and part discussion of alternative approaches to cancer care designed to mitigate risks of cancer patient exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in healthcare settings. These include delays in surgical tumor removal in some cases where rapid growth/progression of the tumor isn’t a significant risk. One interesting approach is the use of neoadjuvant (a fancy term for treatment before surgery) endocrine therapy (a fancy term for use of estrogen hormone blocking agents like tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors). As discussed in the article, the advantages of this approach for hormone receptor positive breast cancer include: 1) shrinking the tumor before surgery and improving chances of getting clear margins (no extra tumor left behind after surgery); 2) making breast conserving surgery a safer and more aesthetically pleasing option; 3) giving more time for genomic testing (e.g. OncoType DX – will blog about this later, too) results to come back; 4) determining sensitivity of the patient’s tumor to estrogen suppression, which can also help with the decision whether or not to add chemotherapy.

Photo credit Deposit Photos

The downside, of course, is that delayed surgery and neoadjuvant endocrine therapy require more monitoring (examination, imaging, biopsy, etc.), which takes place in healthcare settings and increases the risk of exposure to the virus. With chemotherapy, which targets rapidly dividing cancer cells (along with hair follicles, cells lining the gut, and immune cells), the risks for exposure to coronavirus is especially problematic as patients are rendered immunocompromised (unable to fight off infections with the body’s natural defenses) or immune fragile (less able to fight off infections). Approaches to mitigate these risks are discussed in the article for hormone receptor positive breast cancer as well as HER2+ and triple negative subtypes. It also discusses ways healthcare providers can and should effectively communicate with patients about treatment decisions and risk management.

Communication – this is an ongoing issue with my care. There are many factors, not the least of which is Covid-19, but we’ve had some…confusion about the schedule for reconstruction following my mastectomy (Note: the surgical team managing my case are PHENOMENAL at what they do, but in both cases, communication with me has not been on par with their skills). When we first scheduled the mastectomy, we also discussed which option might be best for reconstruction and settled on a TUG flap autologous reconstruction. This will involve using a flap of skin, fat, muscle (transverse upper gracilis), and blood vessels from the upper thigh is used to reconstruct the breast. It is a rather involved surgery, which includes microsurgery to reattaches the blood vessels of the TUG flap to the blood vessels in the chest. The nature of the grafting procedure means close monitoring to make certain the graft has sufficient blood flow to survive and thrive, and therefore requires a one night stay in the ICU.

An ICU stay in the era of Covid-19 is a risky and scary prospect!

Because of the risks, my plastic surgeon called and suggested we postpone reconstruction (could have theoretically been done immediately after mastectomy) to minimize the risks of exposure to the coronavirus. That made perfect sense and I agreed. During this conversation, he mentioned reconstruction 6-8 weeks following mastectomy (scheduled for May 11 – meaning reconstruction around June 22 – July 6).

This did not happen. I *think* what happened was a change in timeline due to the need for an expander implant after surgery – this serves as a temporary, fillable implant that can stretch the skin in preparation for reconstruction. I had a skin/nipple sparing mastectomy (glad the nip made it – it was dicey for a week or so), and the expander sat underneath the skin. With an expander, weekly injections into the port with saline gradually increases tension on the skin and stretches it. When I first started expansion, there was talk from the doctor about reconstruction in August.

This did not happen. I *think* it’s because the doctor forgot to let me know that there’s a three month waiting period between the last expansion and reconstruction. Right now, as far as we know, I’m looking at reconstruction around the end of September/beginning of October.

I hope this happens. Again, healthcare providers and patients must be flexible during the pandemic. I trust that my team will make the safest decision about reconstruction.

I just kind of hope they keep me in the loop!

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