Recently in Cancer Category

Cancer center ads that play on fear and emotion


Natasha Singer of the New York Times has an important story on cancer center advertising, including embedding actual radio, TV and print ads in the online version of the article.

Another Washington Post column that misleads readers on mammography


I would ignore this except that it's in the Washington Post and despite the fact that they're closing bureaus in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, what's in what remains of the paper is still influential.

So I feel compelled to address Dana Milbank's column in the Post about the US Preventive Services Task Force breast cancer screening recommendations.

He characterized the USPSTF recommendations as a "cruel and clumsy blow" that "wiped out much of the progress" in breast cancer detection.


It got worse, as he wrote:.

"With a drumbeat of recommendations raising doubts about various cancer screenings, the public could easily get the mistaken impression that all cancer screening is a waste of time and money."

Stop the foolishness.

The USPSTF said nothing about any cancer screening being a waste of time and money. In fact, it recommends biennial screening mammography for women aged 50 to 74 years. It recommended against routine screening mammography in women aged 40 to 49 years, stating "The decision to start regular, biennial screening mammography before the age of 50 years should be an individual one and take patient context into account, including the patient's values regarding specific benefits and harms."

How "cruel" to try to ensure that women are fully informed about benefits and harms, and to state that this should be an individual decision based on individual values.

If the public can get the impression that all cancer screening is a waste of time and money from those statements, then Milbank might better spend his time educating the public on how to read.

It got worse. Much worse. As he continued:

"Luckily, Congress has a simpler solution at hand: It can abolish the task force and turn it into a group that is more accountable to the public. Under the House version of health-care legislation, the task force, whose members need not subject themselves or their opinions to public comment or public hearings, would be reorganized as a federal advisory committee subject to oversight. Their scientific judgments would stay independent, but the group would no longer be able to go rogue with surprise recommendations."

Oh, that would be a grand idea. Make science accountable to the public? Let's make science ignore the evidence and tell us fairy tales that we want to hear. That everything is terrific, risk-free and without a price tag? And let's make the independent task force subject to federal government oversight. Then we can make science ignore the evidence and only spew out what is politically popular at the moment.

Milbank believes his ideas mean that the task force would no longer be able to "go rogue with surprise recommendations." Read your own paper, Dana.

Dan Eggen and Rob Stein reported that "The findings underscore a decades-long debate in the medical community about the benefits and risks of routine breast cancer screening for younger women." So this is not "rogue" and not "surprising" to anyone who has made any attempt to follow the issue.

Why did he choose to give only Nancy Brinker's side of the story? His own paper reported this praise for the USPSTF recommendations:

"It's about time," said Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, a Washington-based patient advocacy group. "Women deserve the truth -- and the truth is the evidence says this is not always helpful and can be harmful."

But it's really sick when a columnist suggests that task force members be sent to Gitmo and that they be sent "to the Death Panel for a humane end."

If he thought this was humorous, it wasn't. If he thought his column clarified anything, it didn't. Confusion and rhetoric will reign as long as we continue to get one-sided, vacuous, inaccurate columns like this. If, indeed, anyone is reading it.

Women over-estimate breast cancer risk


The disconnect between the facts and women's beliefs about breast cancer was shown again in a USA Today story. Excerpts:

"A vast majority of American women plan to ignore controversial new recommendations about mammograms, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows. The poll also shows that most women sharply overestimate their risk of developing the disease. ...

Forty percent of women estimate that a 40-year-old's chance of developing breast cancer over the next decade is 20% to 50%. The real risk is 1.4%, according to the National Cancer Institute."

Woloshin chart.png Is it any wonder that women say they'll ignore the USPSTF recommendations when they over-estimate their own risk by such a huge degree! And such over-estimation of risk is not new - having been reported consistently through the years.

The story includes this chart, with figures that get lost in the rhetoric.

Rochester freelancer criticizes Mayo stance on mammography


Paul Scott has an opinion piece in the Rochester Post-Bulletin in which he criticizes what he calls the Mayo Clinic's "vague and surprisingly unprepared" response to the US Preventive Services Task Force's mammography recommendations.

"Taking unspecified issue with "the modeling data used in the analysis," it stated "a substantial number of women who receive biopsies because of a screening mammogram are found to have cancer." Mayo's Dr. Sandhya Pruthi added "there are many stories about younger women who have found cancer early as a result of screening."

I'm not sure why she made mention of stories. Dr. Pruthi is surely a talented clinician, but in supporting mammograms for women in their 40s here she is citing anecdotes, not data. It would have been better for her to acknowledge that when it comes to population-wide recommendations about screening and illness, medicine always eventually draws a line in the sand somewhere. People invariably will fall on either side of that line wrongly, but if we don't draw a line somewhere, you have to screen everybody for everything, and screening sets in motion the potential for new harms."

It seems that anyone who opposes the USPSTF recommendations trots out personal anecdotes to bolster their argument. Scott countered and concluded with an anecdote of his own:

"I would like nothing more than for our society to prevent the incidence of breast cancer. It took the life of my mom, who identified a tumor on her own at 37, was treated surgically at Mayo in the mid 1970s, and who then lived another 26 years. But my mom believed in science, and in trusting science, and in this case, the science says what it says. I hope that Mayo can do the same, even when doing so runs against that which is popular."

The first online comment posted in response to Scott's opinion piece stated that "there isn't one single oncologist on the US Preventive Services Task Force." I've heard that curious argument before. Evidence is evidence - regardless of whether you're a primary care doc, an oncologist, an epidemiologist, an ob-gyn or a breast surgeon. Evidence-based medicine should be guided by the best evidence, not by the personal experiences or preferences of any specialty group.

Multiple reasons why women are misinformed about breast cancer


John Crewdson in The Atlantic:

"The current controversy over the task force's report owes much to the media's confusing coverage, some of which has been misinformed, including by TV doctors who ought to know better.

The confusion has been abetted by the American Cancer Society, whose position appeared to have softened, then hardened again, in recent weeks.

There are multiple reasons women are ill-informed about breast cancer. The fault lies primarily with their physicians, the cancer establishment, and the news media--especially the news media. Until coverage of breast cancer rises above the level of scary warnings mixed with heartwarming stories of cancer survivors, women are likely to go on being perplexed."

Howard Kurtz doesn't add to public understanding of mammography issue

Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz strayed beyond media observations and injected his own comments about the US Preventive Services Task Force breast screening recommendations.

He calls the task force recommendation a "don't-worry-be-happy-till-you're-50 finding."

He defines "the essential problem with such studies" as "in the end it's a very personal decision."

Exactly. And that was the entire point of the USPSTF recommendation - that women need to weigh the harms and benefits in consultation with their doctors. But Kurtz must not have read that far.

And then he goes on to cite a list of journalists who wrote about their own personal opposition to the recommendations.

But he didn't quote even one person who wrote in a more balanced way about the evidence behind the recommendations. So, while his column was headlined, "A battle over breasts," he didn't present much about "the other side" in this battle.

Then again, Kurtz has exhibited an advocacy stance for the screen-screen-screen mentality in the past in his handling of a friend's promotion of prostate cancer screening.

Five popular falsehoods in the mammography discussion

My friend Robert Davis writes about five popular falsehoods he's seen this week in the "the widespread confusion, consternation, and even anger that the new (US Preventive Services Task Force mammography) guidelines have unleashed." His five:

1. This is all about saving money.

2. This is about rationing.

3. Early detection saves lives.

4. The fact that I or someone I know was saved by a mammogram proves that more testing is better.

5. The shifting recommendations prove that scientists are clueless.

Read his entire column. He's a smart guy and his summary is insightful.

I am a frequent critic of TV health news - and especially of much of this week's TV coverage of the US Preventive Services Task Force mammography recommendations. So I want to make special note this week of some of the fine work by Dr. Nancy Snyderman on this issue. I've seen several examples where she offered more explanation and context than her network TV competitors.

Case in point: this clip on yesterday's NBC Today Show.

In it, Snyderman said: "What we as a population were unwilling to accept - which has become very apparent in the last 48 hours - is that we didn't like the message." Yet she emphasized that the message was what the science shows.

She said HHS secretary Sebelius threw the task force under the bus and oversimplified the message by telling women "keep doing what you're doing."

She said "emotion, anecdote, lobbying, advocacy groups, doctors and patients" led to a political reversal.

She said "This is the role of scientists to take the emotion out of the science. That was their charge - look at the hard numbers and give recommendations back."

While she editorialized on Sebelius, her even-handed comments on the work of the task force stood in sharp contrast to some of what was broadcast on ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox.

More on the reactions to the US Preventive Services Task Force mammography recommendations. Susan Perry writes on about:

"... the rampant, breathless fear-mongering rhetoric that has framed much of the media's response to the recommendations. ...

On ABC's daytime talk show "The View," co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck made the stunning claim that the recommendations were "gender genocide."

In mammography discussion, the plural of anecdote is not data


I can't tell you how many times I've used that line in interviews recently.

So it was refreshing to see someone else - Steven Pearlstein - use it today in the Washington Post. (* Actually, either he or the copy desk butchered the quote, leaving out the "not." Surely they meant well, but the quote and the point makes no sense without it, and indeed, is NOT what the standard line is. I've added it in the following excerpt with a * and hope the Post corrects this soon.)

"I should acknowledge that I have no idea who should and should not get routine mammograms. But I know enough about statistics to say that the issue is not settled just because you know of someone in her 40s whose breast cancer was detected by a mammogram and cured. As economists and medical researchers are fond of saying, the plural of anecdote is *(not) data. ...

As is often the case in such matters, those raising the most fuss were those with greatest financial interest in mammography (the radiologists and the makers of mammography machines) and the disease groups (in this case, the American Cancer Society), which tend to resist recognizing limits on how much time, money and attention is devoted to their cause.

"How many mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, daughters and friends are we willing to lose to breast cancer while the debate goes on about the limitations of mammography?" Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, asked in an op-ed article in Thursday's Washington Post. Dr. Brawley cleverly didn't answer his own question, but the clear implication of his question was that the only acceptable number should be zero. And it is that very attitude, applied across the board to every patient and every disease, which goes a long way in explaining why ours is the most expensive, and one of the least effective, health-care systems in the industrialized world."

Truth squad needed on breast screening quotes

In the stories reported by major news organizations all across the US, there have been countless quotes that make wild, unsubstantiated charges about the motivation behind the US Preventive Services Task Force's breast screening recommendations.

A quote in a New York Times story yesterday:

"Why all of a sudden this change?" said Karen Sun, 41, who was loading her groceries into her car here in Los Angeles. "It feels out of nowhere."

It's not all of a sudden and out of nowhere.

As the Washington Post led with in their story, this has been a decades-long debate. What we have seen in the past 3 days is akin to what happened with the uproar 12 years ago after a NIH Consensus Conference on this issue made a concluding statement that many women - and their politicians - disagreed with.

In an ugly clash between science and politics, confusion reigned.

And now it's happening again.

From the LA Times:

Some Republicans jumped on the report as the kind of government intervention in medical decisions that Obama's healthcare plan would bring.

"This is really the first step toward that business of rationing care based on cost," said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), a physician.

Where is the evidence for that? That is fear-mongering rhetoric.

In the Washington Post:

"We can't allow the insurance industry to continue to drive health-care decisions," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who said earlier this year that she had undergone treatment for breast cancer.

Wasserman-Schultz, whose legislation promoting breast cancer education in young women was widely criticized by evidence-based experts, should be forced to produce evidence for her claim as well.

And on ABC last night, a physician was allowed to say - unchallenged - that mammograms pick up early cancers when they need less treatment. If anecdotes are going to rule the day, then that physician should have to counter the anecdotes I've heard from women whose early DCIS or ductal carcinoma in situ - often called "pre-malignant" or "pre-cancerous" - was picked up by mammograms. And the range of treatment options then thrown at them - as aggressive as prophylatic bilateral mastectomy - left the DCIS-diagnosed to wish that they had actually received a diagnosis of invasive cancer because the choices were easier and more clear cut. These are real stories I heard from real women. The story - the discussion - isn't complete without taking into account the experiences of women like that.

I watched all three TV networks' lead stories from last night's newscasts - all three on the US Preventive Services Task Force's new breast cancer screening recommendations. Lots of talk about "anger, confusion, concern, fear, outright revolt, disturbing, shocking" reactions from women and doctors all across the country.

First, I'll note a reasonably well-balanced job by CBS' Dr. Jon LaPook and by NBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman. LaPook included a woman who had experienced a false positive mammogram. Snyderman talked about data versus personal anecdotes.

But ABC's Dr. Timothy Johnson gave a personal recommendation - perhaps only because he was asked to by anchor Charles Gibson - and recommended "sticking with the current guidelines." He said he understood concerns about costs and quality. But that misses the underpinning of much of the USPSTF's recommendation and rationale. It implies that the USPSTF considered costs, which they have repeatedly reiterated they did not. He never addressed false positives and the harms thereof. So his summary was misleading and incomplete.

And CBS again allowed Dr. Jennifer Ashton to give her own personal medical opinion, saying "I am not telling (women) to deviate from their screening practices."

I have a lot of problems with the networks giving airtime to the opinions of their physician-correspondents. Do they ask political reporters about their voting habits? Do they ask economics reporters what their investments are? Do they ask the White House correspondent if they personally like the President or support his stances?

I don't personally care what Timothy Johnson or Jennifer Ashton recommend - and I don't think there's any reason for anyone in the viewing audience to care. In this venue, they are supposed to be journalists. Not recommenders. Not opinion-promoters.

Instead of promoting their celebrity docs, the networks should use that precious air time to educate people on the evidence behind the USPSTF recommendations.

All three networks - and many other news organizations - are treating this issue as if it's new. There never has been certainty about mammography recommendations for women in their 40s. And it was just 12 years ago that an NIH Consensus Conference on this issue resulted in a great uproar - what one editorialist described as "what took place seemed more akin to the Queen's order in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "Off with her head!" Thus began the latest round in the debate over recommendations for breast-cancer screening."

Journalism has to take responsibility for conveying far too much certainty about screening issues. And at times like this, when evidence-based bodies speak up, journalists - and the public they serve - act as if their worlds have been shaken. But, in fact, their world on this issue never was cast in concrete. Anyone who spends anytime following this issue would know that.

In the face of the confusion, journalists can fuel the flames by interviewing endless women about their personal anecdotes. Or they can explain, give context, history, guide readers and viewers through the confusion.

US - world outliers when it comes to screening rates

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I've been asked by students in the past, "How much do we screen for prostate cancer in the US compared with other countries?" Now there are some new numbers to help answer that question.

An article in HealthAffairs (Cancer Screening And Age In The United States And Europe. Howard et al. Health Affairs.2009; 28: 1838-1847- subscription required for online access) compares screening rates in the US and in Europe on a number of different screening tests.

But the prostate screening results jumped out at me.

In 50-64 year old men, we screen more than any European country except Austria - and that's a close call. In men this age, we screen twice as much as Finland, Sweden and Spain - almost three times as much as the Netherlands, and almost four times as much as Great Britain and Greece. We screen a whopping 7.5 times more than Denmark in this age category.

In the 65-74 year old category we screen more than any European nation - by far.

And in men 75 and older, we screen more than any European country except - again, Austria.

Some, of course, will say this is a good thing.

I don't think we can know that unless we know the rate of truly informed decisions that led up to these screening tests.

And, as previously reported on this blog, a recent Archives of Internal Medicine study showed that the quality of discussions between US men and their doctors on prostate cancer is not optimal. The authors wrote:

The finding that 30.1% of subjects underwent PSA testing without first discussing screening... is a disconcerting finding. Only 20.6% of discussions presented both the pros and cons of screening and elicited the subject's preferences for testing.

And, as the HealthAffairs authors point out, we're paying for this: "The results point to an overlooked source of high U.S. per capita health spending: the U.S. health care system pursues a more aggressive approach to detecting and treating patients with subclinical disease."

Amidst the flood of stories that only reflect the benefits of cancer screening, here's a story from the UK - and the Sunday Times - that delivers the perspective of the harms of screening that we seldom hear. It begins:

Jane Flanders was not aware of the risks involved in being screened for breast cancer when she received her invitation from the National Health Service four years ago.

After being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing extensive surgery, the mother of two now wishes she had not attended. She believes she was the victim of over-diagnosis.

The 56-year-old maths teacher from Basingstoke, Hampshire, was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, a dormant cancer which was not spreading and may never have caused problems.

Doctors advised her to have radical treatment -- including a mastectomy -- in case it might spread.

"Screening has caused me considerable and lasting harm. It has certainly not saved or prolonged my life," she said.

"The reality of this diagnosis has been two wide excisions, one partial mutilation (sorry, mastectomy), one reconstruction, five weeks' radiotherapy, chronic infection, four bouts of cellulitis (a bacterial infection), several general anaesthetics and more than a year off work."

Flanders believes it is "outrageous" that the NHS has withheld information on the risks. The government has been forced to rewrite its advice to include warnings about potential harm caused by the screening process.

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