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Cancer communication breakdown

Say what?! Confusing medical jargon and topsy-turvy language can leave a lot of patients feeling lost in translation

Sept. 22, 2016 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center

Lost in translation illustration

Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

Like many diseases, cancer has its own special language. It’s one of the first things I learned after I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2011. Well, actually, I learned it at the exact same time.

“Your biopsy results came back,” the radiologist told me over the phone. “They’re all positive.”

“Oh thank God,” I said, relief washing over me. A nanosecond later, the relief was gone. Apparently, positive is not positive in the world of cancer. Positive is awful. Negative results are what you want.

What else do you want? “Unremarkable” body parts, especially if those body parts have just been scanned by CT or PET or MRI. My uterus is unremarkable according to my scans, which I at first thought was a snide jab from some lab tech until my doctor explained it just meant there was no sign of cancer.

So apparently cancer isn’t just positive, it’s also remarkable. That’s not confusing at all.

Whether it’s topsy-turvy meanings for words like positive, negative or progression (another bad thing in Cancerland), stilted phrases like “poor outcome” or “end-of-life event” when referring to death, or the murky, quirky alphabet soup of medical-speak — “You have ER+ PR+ HER-2/neu negative invasive lobular carcinoma, or ILC. Any questions?” — most cancer patients have run up against a “lost-in-translation” moment with their doctors. I’m not talking about patients who speak a different language (although this can certainly up the confusion). Or the shell shock that happens as soon as somebody in a white coat drops the C-bomb, that thing where time stands still and you suddenly turn into a patient version of that old "Far Side" cartoon “What dogs hear”:  Blah blah blah cancer blah blah blah blah cancer blah blah blah.

I’m talking about leaving a surgeon's or oncologist’s office with absolutely no clue as to what’s going on with your body or what they’re going to do about it. If your doctor uses euphemisms like “neoplasm” or “malignancy” to explain your diagnosis, you might not even know you have cancer.  

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The molecules that drive cell movement

A new study visualizing cells' 'leading edge' sheds light on processes behind cellular migration

Sept. 23, 2016 | By Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Microscopic images, such as this one, shed light on the processes behind cellular migration.

Photos/videos from Teckchandani A, Cooper JA. Elife. 2016 Sep 22;5. pii: e17440. http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.17440

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center biologist and director of the Basic Sciences Division Dr. Jonathan Cooper studies the molecules that drive cell movement. Understanding how cells migrate through the body will help scientists better understand not only embryonic development, but disease processes such as wound healing and cancer metastasis.

This week, Cooper and Fred Hutch postdoc Dr. Anjali Teckchandani published a new study in the journal eLife describing their latest findings on the proteins that act at the edge of a migrating cell.

Take a peek at what the researchers saw through their microscopes in this slideshow.

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Good News at Fred Hutch

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements

Sept. 22, 2016

Dr. Candice Grzelak

Dr. Candice Grzelak

Fred Hutch file photo

Two Fred Hutch breast cancer researchers receive Susan G. Komen awards

Two breast cancer researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center this week received grant awards from Susan G. Komen. This international nonprofit organization aims to reduce U.S. breast cancer deaths by 50 percent over the next decade by supporting breast cancer research and advocacy.

Dr. Candice Grzelak, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Public Health Sciences Division, received $180,000 for research into breast cancer metastasis, or spread. Specifically, she will delve into understanding why breast cancer cells that spread to the liver stay dormant, or quiet, for long periods of time; and what triggers them to awaken and grow once again. Understanding this process will allow the design of new therapeutic approaches for metastatic breast cancer.

“Around 20 percent of metastatic breast cancer patients relapse years to decades following diagnosis and treatment. Developing such a therapy is imperative to eliminate the chance of metastatic relapse,” said Grzelak, who works in the Laboratory for the Study of Metastatic Microenvironments at Fred Hutch under the mentorship of Dr. Cyrus Ghajar, the lab’s director. 

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Nixon's War on Cancer: Why it mattered

Some view it as a boondoggle — but it helped set a critical course that is still playing out, a half century later

Sept. 21, 2016 | By Sabin Russell / Fred Hutch News Service

President Richard Nixon addresses a gathering after signing the National Cancer Act on Dec. 23, 1971.

President Richard Nixon addresses a gathering Dec. 23, 1971 in the White House State Dining Room after signing the National Cancer Act, a $1.6 billion federal crusade to find a cure for cancer.

AP file photo

Nearly 45 years after President Richard Nixon signed the bill that would be called his War on Cancer, cancer is still right behind heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States. Just a decade after the bill became law, critics were calling it a failure.

But Dr. Fred Appelbaum, deputy director and executive vice president of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has an unconventional take on the old law, known as the National Cancer Act of 1971.  “From my standpoint,” he said, “the ultimate impact has been extraordinary.”

Appelbaum was in medical school when Nixon signed the bill, and today he contends that the law has made all the difference for the cancer research center where he has worked since 1978.  “Without that act, the Hutch would not exist,” he said.

In his opinion, the signing of the bill on Dec. 23, 1971 was a pivotal moment that helped make possible the recent spate of advances in cancer treatment. 

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Fitness trackers don't improve weight loss: study

Participants who added ‘wearables’ to diet and exercise plans actually lost fewer pounds than those who stuck with traditional tactics

Sept. 20, 2016 | By Bill Briggs / Fred Hutch News Service

Fitness tracker

Wearables are getting scrutiny

Stock photo by FeaturePics

They’ll crunch your steps, tally your calories, and measure how long you move or snooze. What fitness trackers won’t do: give you a weight-loss edge, according to a study published Tuesday.

Young adults who are overweight or obese and who added wearable activity sensors to their diets and exercise plans actually lost fewer pounds after two years compared to similar-sized people who stuck just to traditional weight-loss tactics, scientists reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study involved fitness trackers made by a now-defunct company called BodyMedia but the findings may apply to all mobile health devices, including the popular brand Fitbit, said the study’s authors at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Fitbit and their competitors take note: tracking physical activity and energy doesn’t work when combined with a real diet and physical activity program,” said Dr. Jonathan Bricker, a psychologist and public health researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who was not involved in the new study.

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Good News at Fred Hutch

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements

Sept. 16, 2016

Jessica Beckstrand and daughter, Layla.

Jessica Beckstrand helps her daughter, Layla, 2, place her handprint on a car during the Hyundai Hope on Wheels ceremony.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Hyundai Hope on Wheels presents $250K grant for pediatric cancer research at Fred Hutch

Hyundai Hope on Wheels presented Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center scientist Dr. Roland Walter with a $250,000 grant award Thursday to fund his research on drugs that help immune cells fight cancers. The ceremony on the Hutch campus welcomed Hyundai dealers from across the Seattle area and the families of children with cancer.

“You guys are doing amazing work for the community and for the country,” Nathan Miller, regional sales manager of Hyundai Motor America, told Walter and his Fred Hutch colleagues. Hyundai Motor America and its dealers are the primary source of funding for Hyundai Hope on Wheels, a nonprofit working to end childhood cancer.

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