Why the Sun’s breast check campaign may actually harm women

“Why the Sun’s breast check campaign may actually harm women” by Margaret McCartney, British Medical Journal.

It’s “Page 3 v breast cancer,” sang the Sun’s front page, accompanied by a young woman naked apart from knickers, hand on mammary, to launch its “check ’em Tuesday” campaign. The newspaper, keen to shift attention from widespread calls for it to scrap topless women on Page 3, will include a weekly call for women to examine their breasts and asks readers to send in photos to prove compliance. Readers can sign up for a text message reminder.

This is just one aspect of a bigger move to promote untested “breast awareness.” The charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, which is not connected to the Sun’s campaign, tells women to “touch, look, feel” regularly and advocates “knowing what your breasts look and feel like normally” as well as being able to name “the 5 signs of breast cancer.” Teaching women to examine their breasts regularly has been shown not to reduce deaths from breast cancer and actually increases the chances of a benign biopsy result. It is unfair to tell women that regular self examination will save their lives when it may simply incur anxiety and have the potential to harm. Yet it would be possible to run a randomised trial to see whether promoting “breast awareness” has benefits and what it should consist of.

Publicity campaigns that claim to be “against cancer” seem to get past much critical challenge, to our collective disadvantage. Public health messages should be based on evidence. If we fail to critically evaluate campaigns on cancer, we create the appearance of doing something useful while potentially distracting from what might really help.

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Related: “Does The Sun’s Check ’em Tuesday campaign raise awareness or just set up a sexy breast cancer blame game?” by Grazia De Michele, Breast Cancer Consortium, March 11, 2014.

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