More on Mammography, Breast Cancer, Misleading Arguments, Emotion and Women’s Health

It’s a holiday week. But when this morning’s paper delivered yet another op-ed by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, citing (and breaking an embargo on) yet another, misleading and manipulative two-author analysis of breast cancer screening by him and one other scientist, I thought it worth documenting some concerns.

I’ll start by mentioning that Dr. Welch and I seem to agree on one point – that women should have access to information so they might make reasoned decisions about breast cancer screening. He refers, also, to controversy among professionals about the relative benefits and harms of screening mammography. That there is debate is incontrovertible. No argument there.

The problem is that educated, middle-aged women are being nudged, and frightened, or even charmed into not going for mammography. Nudged, by papers like the one in JAMA today, which acknowledges controversy about statistics and then suggests a falsely low range for lives saved per number of women who get screened. Frightened, by headlines that highlight the risks of overdiagnosis, a statistical concept. If a woman finds out she has an early-stage breast tumor, she and her doctor can (and should) actively decide how much therapy she should have based on the molecular subtype of her tumor, stage and other factors. Just because you find a Stage 0 or small tumor by screening, doesn’t mean you have to over-treat it. If medical education were what it should be, there would be little or no overtreatment because doctors would discuss appropriate options with women and not advise them to have too much therapy. And charmed, yes – by the false notion that breast cancer is often nothing to worry about, that in many cases it can be let alone. That it might just disappear.

I am not aware of a single pathology-documented, published case of a breast tumor going away on its own. Yes, there are slow-growing tumors that may not do harm. But those tend to occur in older women. Those cases are, in general, irrelevant to discussions of breast cancer screening in women between the ages of 40 and 60 or so. What matters most in assessing screening benefits is the number of life-years saved, which is potentially huge for women in this age bracket, and quality of life changes due to the intervention, as assessed over decades.

Mammography (Wikimedia image)

Mammography (Wikimedia image)

For today, I’ll point to just a few issues in the JAMA paper. The authors state that among 1000 U.S. women age 50 years who are screened annually for a decade, “490 to 670 will have 1 false alarm.” But as detailed in Table 2 of their paper, it turns out the range for women who undergo false-positive biopsies is far lower: between approximately 50 and 100 per thousand women, depending on the age group and study from which the authors draw the “data.” What that means, according to the numbers they’ve culled from studies of non-specialized radiologists, is that only 1 in 10 women would undergo a breast biopsy, and not have cancer, per decade of screening. So the numbers of false positives involving biopsy are not so high.

Most of the false positives are callbacks for additional imaging. Welch and his colleague talk about frequency and anxiety produced by “false alarms.” They go as far as to cite studies documenting that “anxiety may persist for at least 3 years and produce psychological morbidity…” But if women appreciated the data to support that, in most cases – approximately 85 percent – breast cancer can be removed and metastatic disease avoided, over the long haul, by early detection, most of us, and certain anyone making decisions based on reason, wouldn’t mind the follow-up and worrying about irregularities noted on a screening test. Most of us can handle the emotional aspects, and uncertainty, of screening over the course of a few days. To suggest otherwise is patronizing.

Years ago, breast cancer screening was widely considered an act of empowerment, a way for women to take control of their bodies, and to avoid the disfiguring and sadly lethal effects of late-stage breast cancer, besides the potential need for treatment until the end of life. Now, mammography is more accurate and involves less radiation than ever before. Women might be demanding universal access to better, state-of-the-art facilities, rather than shying away from the test.

As for those women who do get called for needle breast biopsies, I say that’s not such an onerous prospect. What’s key is that the procedure be done under local anesthesia, under imaging (typically ultrasound) guidance in an office by a skilled radiologist. The sample should be reviewed by a well-trained breast pathologist, and molecular studies evaluated in a central lab that routinely runs those kinds of tests.

Finally, in the end of today’s op-ed, Welch suggests that the way to reduce uncertainties about breast cancer screening is to carry out costly and somehow randomized clinical trials to see how much and how often screening is needed to demonstrate a survival benefit. But, as his tone suggests, I suspect he doesn’t really favor investment in those clinical trials.

The fact is, I don’t either, at least not for mammography at this point in the U.S.  As I and others have pointed out, it takes 15 – 20 years of follow-up in a trial to demonstrate that screening and early detection reduce breast cancer deaths. In North America, the availability of mammography correlates with a reduction in mortality from breast cancer by over a third. He and others have attributed improvements in survival to better treatments. I and others would suggest that while therapy has improved quite a bit since 1985, the greatest benefit derives from most women avoiding the need for life-long treatment by having small tumors found and removed before they’ve spread. This applies in over 80 percent of invasive cases. The survival boost is from the combination, with early detection playing a significant (large) role in the equation.

Why I don’t support starting new randomized trials for mammography, besides that they’d be costly and hard to carry out, is that we can’t wait 20 years to know how best and often to screen women. Rather, it would be better to spend those theoretical research dollars in finding how to prevent the disease. If in 20 years breast cancer is less common, as we all hope will be the case, and true positives are rare, screening of the population won’t be needed. (If breast cancer rates do climb, Bayes’ theorem would support screening, because the positive predictive value of the test would, unfortunately, be higher.) Either way, by 2034 the technology would have improved, or we might have a valid alternative to mammography for screening, and so the studies would be, again, out of date.

It would be better to spend what resources we invest in mammography on improving the quality of screening facilities, now, so that women who decide to go for the procedure can, at least, know that it’s being performed with modern equipment and by doctors and technicians who are capable of state-of-the-art procedures involving the lowest level of radiation exposure possible, careful reading of the images, and application of sonography to further examine the appearance of women with dense breasts, when needed.

All for now.

I wish all my readers a happy and healthy 2014,


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A Message for Doctors, on Christmas in the Hospital

When I was 14 years old, I spent Christmas as a patient in the hospital. While that circumstance might seem sad, it wasn’t my holiday to celebrate. Rather, it was scary, because my usual surgeon was away on vacation, and my care was in the hands of strangers.

Years later, after medical school, I spent more than a dozen Christmases working. Maybe more. Because I am Jewish, it seemed appropriate for me to work on that date. The main drawback, as I matured in my physician-ship, was that my sons were home from school; it was a day I might spend with them. But as holidays go, it was one when I didn’t mind working. I was glad to do it.

So here’s the thing for doctors on call on holidays like today or Thanksgiving, or Easter or Eid, or the Jewish New Year – here’s what I’d say to the young doctors, residents and fellows, if I were still making rounds, covering more patients than usual, and eager to get home:

Please don’t race through rounds. Be a little more generous than usual with your time, thoughts and words. Yes, your family wants you to get home today. But the people for whom you’ve accepted responsibility, to take care of them today, need you too.

Patients who are in the hospital over the holidays aren’t there by choice. They may need extra examination and a bit of hand-holding, besides greater diligence at a time of year when the on-call schedule “turns” more frequently. It’s when some doctors may be loathe to call a cardiology consult for an abnormal cardiogram, or an infectious disease specialist to evaluate fevers…Patients need the doctor who’s there, who may be less supported than usual, with fewer nurses or physician assistants than usual, to notice if they need a change in their meds, or if they’re short of breath, or in pain.

My thoughts are with people who are sick in the hospital today, the patients and their families, and the nurses, doctors and support staff. And everyone else –

Cheers, salud! Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it! And thank you to the doctors and nurses for being there when patients need you.

I wish all my readers a good holiday and healthy 2014,


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What to do about a Curved Spine? On Data, ‘BodyCast’ and New Directions

I don’t often write about scoliosis, a health problem that’s been with me since age 6. The problem is that my spine is twisted, S-shaped, and – without the support of steel rods, titanium cages between lower vertebrae, seven or so bolts and a screw into my hip – I couldn’t walk or stand up much, if at all.

Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article on a rare, NIH-funded study evaluating treatment of this condition in adolescents. It’s an odd, semi-randomized trial: the researchers intended to randomize the patients to wear a back brace for at least 18 hours each day, or not. Not surprisingly, they had trouble enrolling young patients from over 1000 deemed  eligible; few were willing to be randomized to wear the brace, or not. In the end, they studied 242 patients. The endpoint was whether the kids who wore braces were less likely to need surgery.

How do you know if a child needs surgery for scoliosis? The authors state that “Curves larger than 50 degrees are associated with a high risk of continued worsening throughout adulthood and thus usually indicate the need for surgery,” based a 1983 report. The date of that limited old paper – and a greater point, I might add – is how little evidence there is for patients with scoliosis and their parents to guide treatment decisions.

An anatomical illustration from the 1921 German edition of Anatomie des Menschen

Anatomical illustration from the 1921 German edition of Anatomie des Menschen (wikimedia entry)

The NIH provides some information on scoliosis, although there’s not much on how common is the problem in moderate and severe forms. Significant scoliosis is far more common in girls than in boys. A lot of kids have a slight curvature, if you look hard for it, and many older adults develop curving of their spines. But the frank, debilitating kinds of deformity caused by an S-shaped spine at a young age, which limits the capacity of the heart and lungs, besides other problems, cosmetics aside, if of unknown frequency. And there’s little by way of hard data to distinguish among braces, surgical methods, duration of casting and other issues. I learned today that the USPSTF doesn’t recommend routine screening for this condition.

The NEJM study stopped early, because the results became clear. Wearing the brace significantly reduced the chances of an adolescent spine’s progression to severe curvature, from 72 percent down to 48 percent. So for the next friend of a friend or colleague’s acquaintance who calls me and asks what it was like to wear a Milwaukee brace as a child, and then to have surgery, I might refer them to this article, which supports the “bracing of adolescents” – quite a summary of 4+ years of my life, before the (brief) traction, surgery and casting.

Surgery for scoliosis is a much lesser and safer procedure than it used to be, but it’s nothing to choose if you can avoid it. When I was 14 years old, the orthopedist told us my chances of dying during the procedure were approximately 0.5 percent. I was good enough at math to comprehend it, and by then had been to enough doctors’ offices to know that he was probably making it seem better than it was. Besides, what were the non-fatal and long-term complications of the surgery?  I didn’t ask, but I’ve learned: Many –

Jump to yesterday evening, when by chance I got a front-row seat at Bodycast, an autobiographical performance art or “talk,” with bits of dance, music and neat images by Suzanne Bocanegra. The artist, now in her fifties, has scoliosis and wore a cast for two years as an adolescent in Texas. Frances McDormand, one of my favorite actresses, delivered the layered, piercing work. As Bocanegra mentioned, some people fetishize casting and bracing and putting women in traction and stuff like that, which is truly sick.

"Bodycast," by the artist Suzanne Bocanegra, at BAM

“Bodycast,” by the artist Suzanne Bocanegra, at BAM

I liked the show, and I’d be interested to see more of Bocanegra’s work. One of the threads was making order out of curves, art out of irregularities…She’s into tartans, and plaster casts, and art history, and classical notions of beauty. What she represented in Bodycast, as I saw it, was somehow putting different aspects of one’s life in order, and interweaving them, including the flaws.

Life is curved, usually, and maybe it’s better that way. Perhaps that was the Bocanegra’s point, or dot, as she might illustrate it.

And on that note, I’ll lead my readers to my new website: What’s next?

I thank the artist for her work.


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