I abhor the pinkification of our culture.
I have nothing against the color pink (for a brief time in my childhood, after wearing a princess-like peach bridesmaid dress at my aunt’s wedding, peach was actually my favorite color), but I do have a deep dislike of the culture of cancer that has grabbed pink ribbons (or pink cookware, clothes, and even garbage barrels) to raise awareness *cough* money *cough* for foundations that make a big deal out of breast cancer.
I don’t want to downplay breast cancer. According to The American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American Women after skin cancer. It is estimated that around 40,000 women will die from breast cancer this year. But breast cancer awareness is also a BIG money maker- turning over many million dollars per year.
I’ve yet to see this movie, but the trailer raises some interesting points.
All the pinkification and fanfare would be tolerable if the breast cancer awareness campaigning, and most importantly the mammography that it promotes, reduced the toll of breast cancer, but the reality, according to a November 2012 New England Journal of Medicine article , is not such a pretty picture.
Let’s cover some of the basics…
To be an effective screening tool, a modality must detect life-threatening disease at an early treatable stage. It follows that an effective screening tool then decreases the prevalence of late stage disease.
While screening mammograms have certainly led to an increased detection of breast lesions (it has effectively doubled the rate of diagnosis), the reality is that this increase in detection has not led to a significant decrease in advanced disease. [The NEJM abstract is here, and certainly worth a read]. Furthermore, it appears that increased detection has had, at best, only a small effect on the rate of death from breast cancer.
What the NEJM of article doesn’t cover is the psychological toll that the pinkification of our culture has had. Women feel like they are failing themselves if they don’t start getting annual mammograms at the age of 40. Teenage girls are being brought up to believe that their breasts are two pre-cancerous lesions… ticking time bombs.
Yes- breast cancer kills, but there are also plenty of breast lesions that women have that they would live and die with, not from, if it weren’t for aggressive screening recommendations. I’m not a psychiatrist (and I’m not going to be), but I do wonder what the increased diagnosis (and then “survival”) of otherwise slow-growing and relatively benign cancers does to the psyche – the survivor effect. These factors raise a number of concerns, without even bringing up any monetary issues…
Apparently the prostate cancer ribbon is blue, but men (and our culture) seem to have avoided a tidal wave of “bluification”. Perhaps, as the gender that tends to utilize the healthcare system less, , men have been seen as a less lucrative target. Nonetheless, prostate cancer has fallen victim to some of the same pitfalls (abuses?) as breast cancer.
Prostate cancer is the most common non-skin malignancy and the second leading cause of cancer death in men. Prostate specific antigen [PSA] is a protein that can be detected in the blood, and until fairly recently it had been recommended that men undergo regular PSA testing as a screening for prostate malignancy.
The problem with PSA testing however, much like mammography, is that it catches many lesions that a man would die with, not from. As with mammography, increased detection leads to increased treatment, increased surgery, increased patient stress, and increased financial burden for the patient and the system. And for what?
Many of the lesions that PSA screening catches do not negatively impact the life expectancy of the patient. In fact, a paper published yesterday in the Annals of Internal Medicine  shows the opposite- that treating these lesions (instead of observing them), actually leads to a decrease in quality-adjusted life expectancy (and increased medical costs).
What does this all mean? Should we give up on screening tests for the two big sex-specific cancers?
No- I’m not a nihilist when it comes to screening, but I do think that screening should be done with full patient awareness of the risks, benefits, and consequences.
I think the American Urological Association (AUA) is on the right track, with their 2013 guidelines that greatly limit the recommendations for PSA testing (these came after the 2012 US Preventative Taskforce recommendations, which advised against the use of all PSA screening). While the AUA made general recommendations for some populations that PSA screening is unnecessary (those with a low-risk who are young, those who are old, and those with less than a 10-15 year life expectancy), for a large group the recommendation is that men should talk to their doctors about the relative risks and benefits, and from that discussion make a decision based on their personal values and preferences.
Having a patient weigh in with his personal values doesn’t seem like a particularly groundbreaking recommendation, but in many ways it is. A patient’s medical care should be in his hands as much as possible, and when the risks and benefits of a screening tool are unclear it is appropriate that the patient and doctor discuss the risks and benefits. Looking back at the data on mammography over the last few years, I think it is only right that doctors start to have similar discussions with women about their personal values and preferences when it comes to mammography. [The elephant in the room, however, is that if screening tests are deemed “optional”, will insurance companies cover them?]
So where does that leave us.
Screening MAY catch an early cancer, but it may also catch a lesion that you would die with not from. It can lead to extensive testing, stress, expenses, and surgery. I’m not saying we shouldn’t screen, but I’m saying that the medical community (and the organizations that profit from cancer-awareness) need to be honest about the reality of our testing modalities.
I also think this is a call to arms for scientists. The screening tests we have are not meeting our needs. While the tests above can tell us about potential lesions, they tell us little about the malignancy of the lesions. We need tests that can more accurately tell us what is going on in our bodies. Those tests are coming- in the forms of mRNA and protein assays, but until they get here I think we ought to have more informed discussions about what screening tests are really doing today.
1. Bleyer, A. and H.G. Welch, Effect of three decades of screening mammography on breast-cancer incidence. N Engl J Med, 2012. 367(21): p. 1998-2005.
2. Bertakis, K.D., R. Azari, L.J. Helms, E.J. Callahan, and J.A. Robbins, Gender differences in the utilization of health care services. J Fam Pract, 2000. 49(2): p. 147-52.
3. Hayes, J.A., D.A. Ollendorf, S.D. Pearson, M.J. Barry, P.W. Kantoff, P.A. Lee, and P.M. McMahon, Observation Versus Initial Tretment for Men with Localized, Low-Risk Prostate Cancer: A Cost-effectiveness analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2013. 158(12): p. 853-860.