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Breast Cancer Charity Under Fire for Overstating Benefits of Screening

Their views were published on August 2 on as part of an occasional series highlighting the exaggerations, distortions, and selective reporting that make some news stories, advertising, and medical journal articles "not so."

A growing and increasingly accepted body of evidence shows that although screening may reduce a woman's chance of dying from breast cancer by a small amount, it also causes major harms, say the authors. And yet, Komen's public advertising campaign gives women no sense that screening is a close call. Instead it states that the key to surviving breast cancer is for women to get screened because "early detection saves lives. The 5-year survival rate for breast cancer when caught early is 98%. When it's not? 23%."

Mammography certainly sounds better when stated in terms of improving 5-year survival from 23% to 98%, a difference of 75 percentage points, Schwartz and Woloshin say. But in terms of its actual benefit, mammography can reduce the chance that a woman in her 50s will die from breast cancer over the next 10 years from 0.53% to 0.46%––a difference of 0.07 percentage points.

The Komen advertisement also ignores the harms of screening, they add. For every life saved by mammography, around two to 10 women are over-diagnosed.

"Women need much more than marketing slogans about screening: they need––and deserve––the facts," conclude the authors. "The Komen advertisement campaign failed to provide the facts. Worse, it undermined decision-making by misusing statistics to generate false hope about the benefit of mammography screening.”

Read the article from the British Medical Journal.

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