Misinformation:  false or inaccurate information that is spread unintentionally. In the desire to simplify information and awareness messages important details may be distorted, misused, or left without context. If these errors are done with intent to misdirect the public then it would be an example of disinformation.

See also: Breast Self Exam; Health LiteracyScreening Mammography


There are many examples of inaccurate information in the name of breast cancer awareness and fundraising. These might entail using common statistics out of context; giving consumers unverified information; or discounting opposing evidence through omission, framing with uncertain language, or openly denying relevance.


Example 1

“1 in 8”

During a lifetime, a woman’s probability of developing breast cancer is about 1 in 8. That is, there is about a 12.5 percent chance that a woman in the general population will be diagnosed with breast cancer by the time she turns 90. Awareness campaigns frequently use the ratio “1 in 8” to create a sense of urgency around breast cancer in order to promote some kind of action, often raising money or promoting certain behaviors. In doing so, however, the information is often taken out of context and women tend to overestimate their breast cancer risk.

Jennifer LaRue Huget of The Washington Post argues that,

“The ’1 in 8′ figure has long served as the basis for a macabre parlor game for women: If I’m in a room with seven other gals, it spurs us to speculate, which one of us will get breast cancer?”

Indeed, the use of fear to motivate is rampant in pink ribbon consumer culture.

BMW Print Advertisement

In an ad to encourage people to test drive their cars, BMW uses the “1 in 8” ratio to engender and personalize fear. Pink fine print on the passenger’s black leather seat reads:

“1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer. Will it be someone close to you?”

As populations live longer without the threat of massive epidemics from infectious diseases, their chances of developing chronic illnesses increase over a lifetime. The likelihood of developing most types of cancer (except for leukemia and lymphoma, which are most prevalent in those aged 15 to 39) also increase with age. Breast cancer is no exception.

The National Cancer Institute reports that 1 in 233 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer from birth to age 39. That ratio changes to 1 in 29 between the ages of 60 and 69. By the time a woman would die of old age, about 1 in 8 who had avoided other life-threatening events would likely be diagnosed with breast cancer. Seven out of 8 would not. What’s more, such predictions are about populations, not those eight gals in a room.

The advertisement in this example uses a real statistic out of context to play on fear, in the name of awareness, to lure potential customers into their cars.


Example 2

Breast Self Exam

Breast self exam (BSE) is a popular breast cancer awareness message. Campaigns and advertisements inaccurately promote breast self exam as a pathway to the early detection of breast cancer.

An hour-long live tutorial on Google+ Hangout claimed to teach women proper breast self exam techniques. To increase credibility, it featured the medical director for Breast Cancer Answers (which claims to give breast cancer patients access to accurate breast health information online),  past president of the American Society of Breast Cancer Surgeons, the National Consortium of Breast Centers, and The Breast Cancer Site.

September 30, 2012 Source: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=464301590280566&set=a.244806712230056.65942.244461848931209&type=1

The Problem

The evidence does not support the use of Breast Self Exam as a screening tool. BSE has not been found to find breast cancers early or reduce mortality. To the contrary, there is strong evidence of harm through excessive biopsies. BSE may result in a diagnosis, just as the accidental observation of a lump or new feeling in the breast might. But it does not result in longer survival. Read More.

Despite strong evidence against the use of BSE to screen for breast cancer, it is  one of the most popular awareness messages in pink ribbon culture. Downplaying the science, groups like “Project Boobies” use the disclaimer that BSE has “come under some debate about how effective it is” while they continue to promote the practice with slick advertising and a step-by-step procedure.

Image source: www.projectboobies.com


Example 3

Screening Mammography

– Print Advertisement

An advertisement from Centra Mammography Services is a typical example of using of the messaging surrounding the sale and promotion of routine mammography screening. Featured in an October special awareness issue, the ad leaves no doubt that routine screening is unequivocally good for women.

The ad claims that mammograms are successful in finding 90 percent of breast cancers, but includes no information about how many results are inconclusive, false-positives, or false-negatives.

It suggests that that routine screening may “prevent and diagnose,” though screening is not a form of primary prevention.

It puts the onus on women to be personally responsible for doing the “one thing” that might help them to beat breast cancer.

It relies on peer pressure to coerce women into doing what their friends are doing.

It embellishes and fabricates information in support of its product (mammograms) while omitting information that could help women to understand the risks, benefits, and limitations of screening technology.

The Problem

You wouldn’t know it from the ads and billboards, but questions about the benefits and risks of screening mammography have been ongoing in the medical scientific community for decades. No screening test has been studied more extensively. Read More.

Yes, routine screening does keep some women from dying from breast cancer. About 1 in every 2000 women who are screened. Yet when it comes from mortality reduction overall, even that benefit is slim to none. It is unclear which groups of women would be most likely to benefit from routine screening.

As Taralyn Tan of BioPerspectives writes,

We cannot expect to continue to hone our system of medical care without at least being willing to critically analyze reports that contradict the precedent. Likewise, it would be unwise to etch the number 50 in your head as the magical year of the mammogram, solely based on the logic that, ‘Well, they told me so.’”

Related:


Image from www.breastcancersite.com

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