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It’s safe to say we’re very aware of the prevalence of breast cancer in our society. We have an entire month dedicated to breast cancer awareness, and various charities fill the media with advertisements, asking for donations to their causes. It’s almost come to the point where women have a misinformed impression of what the disease is and how best we can treat or prevent it.
One of the organizations that always fills the media is Susan G. Komen for the Cure. They were the ones who coined the pink ribbon we see on so many cars. But today, the charity is in the news for something other than raising awareness.
Researchers claim the foundation may have exaggerated the benefits of mammography – while minimizing its harms. In 2011, an advertisement for Susan G. Komen stated that the five-year survival rate for breast cancer, when caught early, is 98 percent; it’s only 23 percent if the cancer isn’t found early.
Seeing those numbers laid out is startling. Dr. Steve Woloshin, co-author of the article challenging the charity, said, “The survival statistics they present are eye-catching and compelling. They imply that a woman would be crazy and irresponsible if they didn’t go for screening. But the statistics are deceptive.”
Woloshin states that a woman who is in her 50s, and who goes for regular mammograms for 10 years, will only “cut her chance of dying by a fraction of a percentage point.” He goes on to say, “For every 10,000 women who are screened, 7 deaths will be prevented.”
Those numbers are shockingly low when compared to Susan G. Komen’s. The discrepancy between the data seems to lie within the statistics of survival rates. Survival statistics determine how long a woman lives “only after diagnosis.” So if 100 women were diagnosed with the disease after they felt a lump at 67, and all died within 3 years at age 70, then survival would be zero percent. But if the cancers were detected by mammography, and the women were diagnosed at 64 and died at 70, the five-year survival would be 100 percent.
Komen utilizes these skewing methods to make their numbers seem more shocking. On top of that, they minimize the harm that can come from getting too many mammograms. For each woman who is saved by mammography, between two and 10 women are over-diagnosed. Over-diagnosed means these women were told they have cancer when they actually don’t, and they end up going through unneeded treatments.
The faulty readings are more common than you’d like to think. Up to half of women that receive screening every year for ten years receive “at least one false positive, meaning they have to undergo a biopsy and experience the fear of thinking they have breast cancer, if only temporarily.”
While I am young, I’ve had a breast cancer scare myself, and can say with certainty it is one of the most horrifying experiences I’ve been through. I am truly anxious about when I must receive yearly mammograms. My family has a history of cancers: my aunt had breast cancer, but has thankfully reached the five-year point. My mother has also had some scares, with multiple biopsies that turned out to be nothing.
Sometimes the media makes us hyper-aware of some diseases more than others. Breast cancer is one of the diseases everyone knows about, and that can be a good and bad thing. I definitely think we should be concerned about the disease, but an unrealistic outlook on treatments and statistics can cause great harm.