Did Komen Lie to Women About the Benefits of Early Breast Cancer Detection?

Researchers take the organization to task for its reliance on mammograms.

Posted: 08/13/2012 11:08 AM EDT

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure charity is no stranger to controversy. Back in February, the group went under fire for temporarily cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood for mammograms claiming that their decision was based on the fact that the reproductive health organization was under investigation by the government. Meanwhile, many others believed that the move was political and based on the fact that Planned Parenthood performs abortions — an act that right-wing conservatives and many GOP members oppose.

 

Now, the breast cancer organization finds itself in another firestorm.

 

Recently, a duo of researchers took aim at the organization for a series of ads that claim that women with cancer who are diagnosed early have a 98 percent chance of a five-year survival rate compared to a 23 percent chance for women with cancer that was not caught early on. The researchers, who published a column in a recent edition of the British Medical Journal, say the claims are biased, exaggerations and trick women.

 

Komen defends its ads. Chandini Portteus, the organization’s vice president told Health Day, "Everyone agrees that mammography isn't perfect, but it's the best widely available detection tool that we have today.”

 

Mother Jones reported:

 

The figure Komen's ad uses is bogus, the pair writes, because the short-term survival rate would most certainly be improved by spotting the cancer earlier. The five years is from the date of diagnosis, meaning screened women would have a longer lead-time. Without screening, the cancer isn't caught until it's much farther along. "Comparing survival between screened and unscreened women is hopelessly biased," they write. And the stat says little about longer-term survival rates, which are far more important.

 

Steven Woloshin, of the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and Lisa M. Schwartz, of the Center for Medicine and the Media at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, are also worried because these ads also don’t mention the fact that the not all women benefit from being screened early or multiple times.

 

Mother Jones also wrote:

 

Meanwhile, the ads don't mention some of the problems caused by too much screening. Between 20 and 50 percent of women screened every year for ten years will experience at least one "false alarm," which could result in over-diagnosis (which also distorts survival rate figures). For every life saved by an early mammogram, two to 10 women are misdiagnosed and undergo unnecessary medical treatment, they write. This is why the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women wait until they're 50 to start getting mammograms, and then only get them every two years.

 

They also believe that these types of claims set up a dynamic where women who are diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer are blamed because they waited too long to be tested. And, in some instances, waiting longer is not the reason why the cancer is so aggressive.

 

Now is the mammogram perfect? Not by any means. CBS News reported that the American Cancer Society has stated in the past that this screening doesn’t always detect breast cancer and it doesn’t work well with younger women.

 

And it’s really complicated, especially given that African-American women are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, we are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age and at a later stage, and have more aggressive features associated with poor prognosis.

 

"We think it's simply irresponsible to effectively discourage women from taking steps to know what's going on with their health,” said Komen’s Chandini Portteus.

 

 

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