Before jumping into the raring-to-go, already re-sparked debate on the value of breast cancer screening, or not, I thought I’d step back today and consider the background of what I won’t call the “mammography wars.”
So here’s the first point on this subject: happily, it’s not a war. This is about medical progress, or lack of progress, and what may or may not spare women morbidity (what doctors and stats types call illness) and mortality (death). This is not a battle by any sane measure.
The discussion should be civil and fair, ideally without assumptions and bias. (Of course it’s impossible for me to be unbiased on this subject – I am a trained oncologist, I’ve treated women with breast cancer who responded to chemotherapy drugs and witnessed their subsequent well-being, and I’ve seen women with metastatic breast cancer who died with disease eating through their bones and brains. And I had breast cancer, and was lucky that mine was found in an early stage. So far am well in that respect, eight years ago next month and counting -)
So I have bias, yes, but my second point is that we all do. Every journalist does, whether or not they’re up front about their life-experiences and community background, and so does every medical researcher and public health official who authors a paper and is not a robot. We delineate stories, analyze and represent data based on points we want to make and, in some medical journals – even for some trials that aren’t funded by drug companies – publish to serve academic, career or even what we think are idealistic, cost-saving, pain or procedure-sparing often high-minded goals.
Data can be very tricky to sort out and among.
The problems with mammography studies, as partly-detailed in the current NEJM paper, is that it’s considered impossible to do a controlled, randomized trial in which half of the women undergo screening and half don’t. (I might argue this assumption; now, that so many women and doctors are questioning the merit of mammography, maybe we could do a truly randomized trial involving a few thousand women in the U.S.) This issue relates to the important topic of ethics and real-life dilemmas oncologists face when they set up studies for evaluation or treatment of humans some of whom are likely to die.
But before we delve into the details of this study, and next month (October), what I hope is that we’ll keep some facts in mind:
The National Cancer Institute estimates that 40,000 women will die of breast cancer this year in the U.S. There’s been dramatic progress in how we manage this once-dreaded condition: prior to 1926, fewer than 20 percent of women survived for 5 years after diagnosis. By 1950, the overall 5-year survival rate among Caucasian women with breast cancer was 60 percent. Now, the overall 5-year survival rate is around 91 percent.
A question central to today’s discussion – which does at least acknowledge the decline in breast cancer mortality – is the extent to which mammography is responsible for this trend, as opposed to other factors such as increased awareness about cancer, better cancer treatments and other variables.
What concerns me is the tone of the debate on mammography, that it shouldn’t subtly or not-so-subtly, denigrate women’s valid concerns about their health. The quote with which today’s front-page story ends is this: “I think we have to respect what women want to do.” The way the story is framed insinuates that a decision to undergo mammography is based on something other than reason.
To be clear: this is not about what women want. It’s not about emotional turmoil, comfort, stress or people’s feelings. It’s about the efficacy of state-of-the art mammograms and whether or not those, when taken by skilled, well-trained radiologists in carefully-regulated modern facilities save women’s lives, at a reasonable cost (however we might calculate that) and reduce illness by detecting breast cancer in its early stages.