The breast cancer advocacy group, Susan G. Komen for the Cure — which famously introduced the world to the pink ribbon — used misleading statistics in an advertising campaign to overstate the benefits of mammography, while ignoring its risks, say researchers publishing in the BMJ.
Breast cancer screening has sparked ongoing debate over the last few years, particularly since 2009 when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) rolled back its breast-cancer screening guidelines, advising against routine mammography for women in their 40s, and instead recommending screening every other year for women starting at age 50. The guidelines were based on data showing that routine mammograms may cause more harm than good in younger women, leading to overdiagnosis, aggressive overtreatment, undue stress and complications.
Still, the American Cancer Society continues to recommend annual mammograms for women in their 40s, and many women choose to adhere to a similar screening schedule. But many have lingering questions about the risks and benefits of screening, and getting reliable data can be tricky. Many women look to their doctors, who aren’t always up on the most recent data, or to well-known breast cancer charities like Komen.
Last year, Komen ran an ad for mammograms urging women to “get screened now” because “early detection saves lives. The 5-year survival rate for breast cancer when caught early is 98%. When it’s not? 23%.”
The numbers suggest that women “would have to be crazy” not to get screened, say the authors of the editorial in the BMJ, Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin of the Center for Medicine and the Media at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. “But it’s the advertisement that’s crazy,” they say, because its presentation of data wildly misrepresents the true mortality benefits of screening and fails to address the potentially serious risks.
“Komen’s public advertising campaign gives women no sense that screening is a close call. Instead it simply tells women to be screened, overstates the benefit of mammography, and ignores harms altogether,” they write.