British Medical Journal publishes damning account of charity’s promotion of mammography

Mammography has traditionally been presented to women as a bit of a ‘no-brainer’ – essentially you’d have to be lacking a brain not to submit to regular breast cancer screening. Over the last few years, though, there has been the publication of several scientific articles which highlight the fact that mammography simply does not deliver on its promise, and the decision regarding whether to undergo mammography is by no mean clear cut. I’ve written about these issues more than once, but here’s a short summary:

  1. You need to screen lots and lots of women to save one from dying from breast cancer (see below).
  2. For each woman who will be saved of dying from breast cancer, many more will be subjected to ‘false alarms’ and/or unnecessary further investigation or treatment. Some of these women will turn out not to have a problem at all. Some, will turn out to have forms of breast cancers that would not have bothered them of the natural course of their lives. This latter scenario is described as ‘overdiagnosis’.

In a recent article in the British Medical Journal, Professors Steve Woloshin and Lisa chwartz take to task the world’s largest breast cancer charity – Susan G Komen for the Cure – for what they see as its one-sided and biased promotion of mammography.

The authors use this advertisement to illustrate their point.

The first point the authors make is that screening does not guarantee a woman will survive breast cancer, as is suggested. They draw our attention to data which shows that a 50-year-old woman’s chances of dying from breast cancer over 10 years are 0.53 per cent. With regular mammography, that falls to 0.46 per cent. The drop is therefore 0.07 per cent.

We can calculate the number of women who would have to be screened in order to save one life by dividing that figure into 100. The number is 1,429. I think many people, including doctors, would be shocked to know just how ineffective mammography really is.

As you can see, the authors also take issue with the charity’s use of ‘5-year mortality’ data. 5-year mortality is the percentage of people alive five years after diagnosis. However, by virtue of the fact that mammography detects cancer earlier, 5-year survival will be better here than if tumours were detected some years later, even if overall survival is not improved (or is worsened). Importantly, though, 5-year survival statistics tell us nothing about mammography’s ability to prevent death. As we know, on this count, it performs very badly.

To illustrate just how misleading 5-year survival statistics can be, the authors use this example:

“…imagine a group of 100 women who received diagnoses of breast cancer because they felt a breast lump at age 67, all of whom die at age 70. Five year survival for this group is 0%. Now imagine the women were screened, given their diagnosis three years earlier, at age 64, but still die at age 70. Five year survival is now 100%, even though no one lived a second longer.”

The authors go on to make the point that overdiagnosis inflates survival statistics. Essentially, mammography will pick up a lot of people who have cancer who then survive it. But many of these people will have survived it anyway, even in the absence of mammography. This fact makes mammography look more effective than it is in reality.

The authors then turn their attention to the harms of mammography, which the Susan G Komen for a Cure charity does not even mention. According to the authors, 20-50 per cent of screened women will experience at least one ‘false alarm’ the requires at least a biopsy. That’s 286-714 women to balance the one woman who did not die from breast cancer because of screening. And we also get to learn that for each woman who’s life is saved, because of overdiagnosis anywhere from 2 to 10 other women will undergo needless surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy for cancers which would not have harmed them.

The authors close with the following damning (but I think, accurate) paragraph:

“Women need much more than marketing slogans about screening: they need—and deserve—the facts. 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. That kind of behaviour is not very charitable.”


1. Woloshin S, et al. How a charity oversells mammography. BMJ 2012;345:e5132 (Published 2 August 2012)

8 Responses to British Medical Journal publishes damning account of charity’s promotion of mammography

  1. Robin Davies 9 August 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    I’ve Just read (in Kindle Fomat) Margaret McCartney’s book “The Patient Paradox: Why sexed-up medicine is bad for your health”. She is GP living in Glasgow and has some withering comments in screening in general and breast-screening in particular.

    Well worth a read at 5.98. You don’t need a Kindle. Just run rhe Kindle reader software on your PC/laptop.

  2. ValerieH 10 August 2012 at 6:47 pm #

    What about exposure to radiation from the screening? I guess the BMJ isn’t ready to discuss that.

  3. SYLVIA FOXCROFT 10 August 2012 at 7:42 pm #

    t has often crossed my mind about what possible damage the actual machinery of having a mammogram can do to the breast. Surely, having your breast crushed in what is basically a press must do some sort of damage.

  4. M Jenkins 10 August 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    There’s actually a website called KomenWatch with some interesting information about ‘pinkwash’
    According to one doctor the race is all about money not curing cancer

  5. kem 11 August 2012 at 6:41 am #

    How often do needle biopsies cause cancer to metatastise or cause other physical harm? I know from experience how wrong those biopsies can be…

  6. Feona 11 August 2012 at 7:46 pm #

    The last test I had was abour 6 years ago. It hurt so much that I decided never to go for another one, and now your article confirms how sensible that was of me.

  7. Florence 12 August 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    Sylvia – I agree. I think the way the mammograph is done is nothing short of barbaric. And I have heard more than once of women who developed lumps AFTER having the procedure! You wont find me twisted and squashed by one of those machines!!

  8. hillarie 24 August 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    What is a more rational, sane approach to mammography, then? I am 32 and had my annual physical exam (pap smear). The NP says at 35 she will want to order a mammograph. 35?! I am in excellent health and have not felt any lumps. I really don’t know why they would want me to do a mammograph purely based on my age.

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