Research Brief: “How a charity oversells mammography”

Professors Steven Woloshin, MD, and Lisa M. Schwartz, MD, of the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, published “How a charity oversells mammography” in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) [2012;345:e5132] that criticized the breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure for exaggerating and distorting medical information. The researchers argue that, “there is a big mismatch between the strength of evidence in support of screening and the strength of Komen’s advocacy for it.” Komen’s 2011 advertising campaign “simply tells women to get screened, overstates the benefit of mammography and ignores harms altogether.”

The researchers point out two serious informational flaws in a widely disseminated advertisement in Komen’s 2011 breast cancer awareness campaign. First, instead of screening being “the key” to surviving breast cancer as the advertisement states, evidence shows that screening may reduce a woman’s chance of dying from breast cancer by a very small amount (0.07 percent for a woman over age 50). Second, instead of five-year survival statistics serving as indicators that “early detection saves lives,” five-year survival statistics are biased due to “lead time” (the time difference between when a cancer can be diagnosed with screening and when it can be felt) and “overdiagnosis” (when cancers are detected that never would have been life threatening or caused symptoms in a persons lifetime.) See below.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s mammography advertisement during breast cancer awareness month, 2011

In addition to the misuse of statistics, Woloshin and Schwartz note that the advertisement completely ignores the harms of screening, including false alarms, unnecessary testing, and the greater chance of being treated with surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation without actually benefitting from those treatments.

Source: Steven Woloshin and Lisa M. Schwartz. 2012. ”How a charity oversells mammography,” British Medical Journal [22-6:e509-e512].


RESEARCH BRIEFS

BCC highlights scientific research studies that bridge social science, culture, and medicine as it relates to breast cancer and related issues. In addition to reporting on methods or key findings, research briefs highlight the implications of the research.

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