Grand Rounds

Breast Cancer and Autism

Lisa Radcliff, DNP, FNP, AOCNP®

From Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon

The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Correspondence to: Lisa Radcliff, DNP, FNP, AOCNP®, Oregon Health & Science University, 1130 NW 22nd Avenue, Suite 100, Portland, OR 97220. E-mail:

J Adv Pract Oncol 2013;4:113–117 | DOI: 10.6004/jadpro.2013.4.2.6 | © 2013 Harborside Press®



Case Study

Amy is a 44-year-old woman with severe autism. She lives with her sister Susan, who is her caregiver and guardian. Amy is ambulatory and able to dress and feed herself. She is a healthy individual with no other significant comorbidities. She walks daily and enjoys her sister’s company. Amy’s life expectancy is greater than 10 years. However, she is difficult to care for medically, as she will not allow a physical examination and strikes out when strangers try to touch her. She is nonverbal and unable to participate in decision-making.

Initial Diagnosis

Amy has a history of breast cancer diagnosed 2 years ago, originally presenting as a stage I lesion (T2N0) that was palpated by her caregiver while bathing. She underwent right simple mastectomy with sentinel lymph node resection. Susan recalls that the mastectomy was a very challenging ordeal, as Amy kept pulling out IV lines, drains, and dressings. Susan felt that Amy withdrew from her after the procedure as she most likely associated Susan with the cause of the pain, making her role as caregiver more difficult.

Pathology confirmed an invasive ductal carcinoma, moderately differentiated, 2.4 cm, estrogen/progesterone receptor negative, HER2/neu negative, with negative surgical margins. Two right axillary sentinel lymph nodes were negative for disease. The standard of care for a patient with these tumor features is surgery plus adjuvant chemotherapy (National Comprehensive Cancer Network [NCCN], 2012). According to the Adjuvant Online! database (2012), Amy’s risk for relapse was approximately 40% without adjuvant treatment; her risk for mortality was approximately 29%. After meeting with a medical oncologist, Amy did not receive adjuvant chemotherapy. According to Susan, she was not offered the choice, and the decision was not explained to them. She was simply told that it was not necessary. Aside from pathology, previous records were unavailable for review.

Medical assessment of Amy’s level of autism reveals marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction. She exhibits a total lack of development of spoken language, with no attempt to compensate through alternative modes of communication such as gesture. During the visit, she occupies herself with repetitive motor mannerisms. Susan believes that Amy struggles with overstimulation from tactile input. Therefore, she is combative with health-care providers and intolerant of invasive devices. Susan has an intimate understanding of Amy’s ability to communicate her needs and wants through nonverbal changes.


Approximately 2 months ago, Amy began favoring her right arm and appeared to be in pain when participating in various activities. Susan became aware of Amy’s pain issues by noticing that her posture was slightly altered and she was carrying herself differently. Further investigation with a CT scan showed concern for local disease recurrence involving the axillary lymph nodes. No distant metastases were seen. The standard of care for this diagnosis is surgical resection and consideration of radiation therapy, followed by adjuvant chemotherapy (NCCN, 2012). Susan does not want Amy to undergo further surgery and believes radiation would be too difficult to maneuver. The next best option would be a medical approach with chemotherapy as the main modality.

Difficult Decisions

If treatment is pursued, the advanced practitioner will need to perform regular examinations and prescribe and monitor chemotherapy. The delivery of therapy, requiring frequent blood draws and IV access, will be a challenge for the health-care staff. The APN is apprehensive about the ability to accomplish these tasks safely given Amy’s limited capacity to participate. The APN is also concerned with how treatment will affect Amy’s life. The APN may have her own individual conflict of morals to contend with, given the limited understanding of the patient vs. nontreatment of a potentially curative malignancy.

Chemotherapy is not an easy task for any patient to undertake, especially for a patient with challenges such as Amy has. Although Susan can give legal consent for her sister, Amy is unable to participate in this decision-making. Susan strongly believes that Amy’s quality of life is much more important than the quantity. Withholding treatment may shorten the natural course of Amy’s life, yet administering chemotherapy will alter the quality of life that she now enjoys without her understanding or consent. Should Amy receive chemotherapy or should Susan refuse treatment on her behalf?

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