Komen for the Cure oversells mammography, according to mainstream critics

As a woman, it’s almost impossible not to feel the pressure.

The pressure comes from your doctor, your family, your friends. It comes from your television, your radio, your computer. The message is relentless.

“It will save your life.”

By this time next month, the pressure behind that message will be even more intense. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But more and more, it’s become Get a Mammogram NOW Month.

Ladies, we don’t need that pressure. In fact, you’ll be better off if you ignore it.

Collateral damage

Susan G. Komen for the Cure is the powerhouse behind October’s mammogram message. As the largest breast cancer charity in the world, Komen’s voice is heard everywhere. For years, the Komen message went unchallenged in the mainstream. But not this year.

This has nothing to do with the top-level shakeup and resignations at Komen. All of that is just drama and gossip. But the mammogram issue is real. It’s vital information that every woman must hear.

In a recent British Medical Journal article, two Dartmouth professors take aim at Komen’s mammogram sales pitch. The authors break it down into two parts…

1) Mammogram benefits are exaggerated.

2) Mammogram harms are ignored.

Sound familiar? It’s the same basic tune I’ve been singing for a decade. And finally, the mainstream is catching on.

Komen claims a five-year survival rate in 98% of breast cancers where mammograms catch the disease at an early stage. Impressive? Not at all. Mammograms detect many cancers that are very slow-growing. And some never become dangerous at all. So setting a five-year cut off is cooking the stats to benefit mammography.

Then there’s the hard reality Komen ignores.

The Dartmouth authors told CNN that between 20 to 50% of women who get yearly screenings have at least one false alarm over 10 years. And 5 to 20% of those cases result in biopsy.

That adds up to thousands of needless biopsies, unnecessary worry, and avoidable expense.

CNN notes that even the National Breast Cancer Coalition rejects Komen’s mammogram pitch. According to the NBCC… “There is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against universal screening mammography in any age group of women.”

But the NBCC does recommend mammograms for women with breast cancer symptoms. And that’s where I have to part ways.

As I’ve said many times, mammography is a bad screening choice. Three reasons… 1) Compression of breasts may cause existing cancers to spread. 2) Radiation exposure increases risk of cancer.

And 3) You have alternatives.

Here’s what I’d like to rename October… “Mammogram Alternatives Awareness Month.”

And I would start with ultrasound screening. Several years ago I first told you about ultrasound for breast cancer screening. The two outstanding benefits are obvious… No compression. No radiation. And a new technique called elastography helps ultrasound technicians spot malignant tumors.

You can read more about ultrasound with elastography here.

Meanwhile, brace yourself for the October blitz. You’ll hear Komen and others talking up mammograms. Be strong. Don’t give in to the scare tactics.

Just keep reminding yourself… “Think outside the pink!”

“How a charity oversells mammography” Steven Woloshin and Lisa M. Schwartz, British Medical Journal, Vol. 345, 8/2/12, bmj.com

“Professors: Komen overstating benefits of mammograms” Saundra Young, CNN, 8/7/12, cnn.com

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