As many of you know, our agency works with several companies that specialize in either the diagnosis or treatment of breast cancer. Our unique position has given us insight into the mindset of women and their physicians on the subject of this terrible disease that is taking the lives of 40,000 women each year.
While the “pink ribbon” campaign has made women aware of breast cancer and the importance of screening mammograms, this has led to a degree of overconfidence with regard to knowing their true individual risk. Women also mistakenly believe that their doctors are up to speed on the latest advances in early breast cancer detection and treatment.
Karuna Jaggar, Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action, recently wrote that pink ribbon culture “distracts from meaningful progress on breast cancer.” She claims that pink ribbon products that spread “empty awareness” have failed to address and to end the breast cancer epidemic.
Then there is the disinformation spread by women themselves. Growing up on Long Island, NY, I was constantly exposed to the notion that above-ground power lines caused breast cancer. A decade-long study published in The American Journal of Epidemiology showed no correlation whatsoever, but the rumors persist. Other dispelled rumors include the notion that breast cancer is caused by underwire bras, implants, antiperspirants, fertility treatments, abortion and caffeine.
Here are, in my opinion, the most important facts about breast cancer that most women—and many of their doctors—have never heard of but need to know:
While family history is an important risk factor, more than 75% of women who develop the disease will have no known family history. In fact, age is the most important risk factor (over 50), and because women are living much longer than they did 100 years ago, it makes sense that breast cancer would be more prevalent today.
- Annual screening mammograms beginning at age 40 are recommended by the nation’s leading medical associations and institutions, although many women are still confused by the 2009 United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommendation and the subsequent announcements by the Canadian National Breast Screening Study (CNBSS), both of which recommend screening every two years and starting at age 50. Major professional medical societies publicly denounced the new guidelines, saying they will cost lives, not save them.
- Let us dispel the myth that radiation is more damaging to women than mammograms themselves. Not only do the benefits of screening far outweigh the risks, but the amount of radiation exposure has been greatly exaggerated. A modern mammogram exposes a woman to 0.4 millisieverts (mSv), a measure of radiation dose. To put this into perspective, the FAA considers a dose of 20 mSv per year an acceptable level of radiation exposure for flight crews working on commercial airlines. In fact, simply living in the United States for a year exposes you to 3.1 mSv per year from natural sources such as the sun and foods that we eat.
- While mammograms are important, they do have limitations, especially when it comes to women with denser breast tissue. Breast density, as measured on a mammogram, has been revealed as an important risk factor for breast cancer. Dense breast tissue makes it more difficult to spot cancer on a mammogram, and women who have denser breast tissue may benefit from a supplemental form of screening. Fifteen states have now passed breast density notification laws and many more are sure to follow.
- Speaking of supplemental screening, there are some exciting new developments in this area. Automated Breast Ultrasound and FAST Breast MRI are two relatively new techniques that are now being used across the country as adjunctive tests to mammography…and with excellent results. While these tests are not typically covered by insurance, the cost is low enough so that they are affordable for most women.
- For women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, Genomic Tumor Profiling is being used by progressive oncology practices to characterize the nature of their breast cancer and create more personalized, targeted therapy. Oncology and hematology professionals who are using this approach are achieving survival rates that far exceed the national average.
Awareness is a good thing, but up-to-date knowledge is even better. It’s important to spread the word to friends, family, physicians and colleagues. Even though this information can be readily found, women are not getting it through regular information channels. Sadly, the national news media these days serve only to confuse the issue by gravitating toward more “controversial” stories, whether or not they are medically substantiated.
There is a great amount of research currently underway, looking at both the causes of, and treatments for, breast cancer. Each year brings new, clinically validated information to light so it makes sense to stay informed.
As always, the best defense in the fight against breast cancer is knowledge. Therefore, let knowledge be the new “pink.”