Not too long ago, a commercial for a local healthcare system in Western Pennsylvania caught my attention for the “statistic” it features at the very beginning. The commercial is for the healthcare system’s 3D mammography services.
As soon as I read that “99 percent of women will survive breast cancer if detected early,” I shouted, “YOU’RE LYING.” Unsurprisingly, the source of this so-called statistic is the Susan G. Komen foundation, though I have no doubt that Excela took the statistic out of context to suit its own purposes. Excela Health wants to get as many women into the doors for its Walk in Wednesdays, and what better way than to keep perpetuating the myth that mammogram saves lives or early detection saves lives. Who cares if it completely disregards facts, science or context, right?
Let me count the ways in which the commercial is as wrong as Donald Trump as president (seriously, dude is a clown).
1.) Those diagnosed with early stage breast cancer may go on to become metastatic, though the exact number is unknown.
The Metastatic Breast Cancer Network estimates that 20 to 30 percent of those diagnosed with early stage breast cancer go on to become metastatic. (Source) We don’t know this statistic for certain because of this problem, as stated in Laurie Becklund’s op-ed “As I lay dying”:
I say “estimated” because no one is required to report a metastatic diagnosis. Death certificates normally report symptoms such as “respiratory failure,” not the actual disease. We are literally uncounted.
We now know that breast cancer is not one disease. What works for one person might not for another: There is no one “cure.” We are each, in effect, one-person clinical trials. Yet the knowledge generated from those trials will die with us because there is no comprehensive database of metastatic breast cancer patients, their characteristics and what treatments did and didn’t help them [emphasis mine].
How can any healthcare network make the assertion that 99 percent of women will survive if their breast cancer is diagnosed given the lack of information? They can’t, and they should not. It’s irresponsible for any health care provider to even give the impression that 99 percent of women will survive breast cancer if diagnosed early, especially without giving a time frame (context!). Ms. Becklund died of metastatic breast cancer (source).
2.) Excela Health is perpetuating the myth that mammograms save lives. For years, there has been so much controversy regarding the effectiveness of mammograms. Do they save lives, or have they contributed to the over-diagnosis of breast cancer?
Back in 2009, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommended that mammograms should begin at 50, instead of 50, and should occur every two years, instead of every year.
A September 23, 2013 CBSNews.com article reported:
A new study shows that women between the ages of 50 to 74 that get mammography screenings every two years may be at no more risk for advanced-stage breast cancer and at a lower risk for false positives, than those who get tested annually.
The results, which were published on March 18 in JAMA Internal Medicine, follow the 2009 recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that advocated for biennial mammography for women in this age group instead of the previous suggestion of getting screened every one to two years.
However, the study authors pointed out that the original recommendations only looked at age as a factor for influencing breast cancer risk. This new study factored in age, breast density and postmenopausal use of hormone therapy (HT).
According to a February 12, 2014 CBSNews.com item:
A controversial new study has found that annual mammograms may not help reduce breast cancer deaths and may increase the number of women unnecessarily getting treated for breast cancer. The Canadian study tracked almost 90,000 women for 25 years, and found that having an annual mammogram between the ages of 40 to 59 did not lower the chance of dying from breast cancer more than having a physical examination.
The study, which was published in BMJ on Feb. 11, disconcertingly showed that 22 percent of invasive breast cancers were overdiagnosed by mammography, meaning the tumors would usually have been too small to cause symptoms or become life-threatening.
If different task forces and non-profit agencies cannot even come to the same conclusion regarding mammography, that speaks volumes. Some might argue that, “Well, hey, the mortality rate is declining, so of course mammograms save lives?” Well, are mammograms saving lives or is targeted therapies and better treatment contributing to this (source)?
3.) Without context, the 99 percent statistic is just misleading.
The American Cancer Society’s 2013-2014 Breast Cancer Facts & Figures (found here) states:
Based on the most recent data, relative survival rates [i.e., an estimate of the percentage of patients who will survive for a given period of time after a cancer diagnosis] for women diagnosed with breast cancer are: • 89% at 5 years after diagnosis • 83% after 10 years • 78% after 15 years
Relative survival rates should be interpreted with caution. First, they do not predict individual prognosis because many patient and tumor characteristics that influence breast cancer survival are not taken into account. Second, long-term survival rates are based on the experience of women treated many years ago and do not reflect the most recent improvements in early detection or treatment.
The same Facts & Figures document also states that five-year relative survival is also lower among women diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 40 (yay…. me). “This may be due to tumors diagnosed at younger ages being more aggressive and/or less responsive to treatment.” You can’t make a blanket statement about a disease that is so complex. Cancer doesn’t work that way, and breast cancer certainly does not work that way. Breast cancer is not just one disease – it’s many.
4.) How dare anyone, especially a healthcare system provider, imply, insinuate or just outright state that those with metastatic disease weren’t proactive in their health or didn’t do all that they can to prevent a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis.
An estimated 6% to 10% are diagnosed stage IV as their initial diagnosis (source). What does that mean? The remaining percentage were diagnosed with breast cancer (stage 0 through III) at some point prior to a metastatic recurrence. Believe me, they were getting routine screenings (such as mammograms, MRIs and/or PET scans) from their oncologists or other healthcare provider. After their initial diagnosis, those with estrogen (ER) + breast cancer take some form of hormone suppression medication (such as Tamoxifen, Arimidex and Zoladex).
Lisa B. Adams, who died in March 2015 from metastatic breast cancer, did absolutely everything to reduce her risk of a breast cancer recurrence after she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in December 2006. She wrote on her website she had the following done: double mastectomy, chemotherapy (4 rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan two weeks apart followed by 4 rounds of Taxol two weeks apart), Zoladex injections to combat her ER+, PR+ breast cancer and later had a salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of my Fallopian tubes and ovaries) in December 2008. She received a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis in 2012.
She caught it early! She. Caught. It. Early. Many women (and men, of course) caught their breast cancer early, and later died of the disease, and that number is not 1 percent.
Just because someone has been diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, it certainly does not mean that they did not do everything to prevent such a diagnosis. Some tumors are more aggressive than others, and can be fast-growing. Inflammatory breast cancer does not present with a lump. It is quite possible to have a clean mammogram and then three months later, have a later stage breast cancer diagnosis. To say otherwise, is downright offensive to those with stage IV breast cancer.
Excela Health isn’t alone in this ever-present pink-washing cycle, perpetuating myth after myth. However, given that they are an actual healthcare system, then they should be held to a higher standard. I would love to think that the hospital I’m going to for my healthcare isn’t producing commercials with such garbage like this. Breast cancer is horrible enough without adding myths and falsehoods on top of it. How hard is it to tell the truth?