Andrea Mitchell’s Lost Opportunity to Explain the Real Risks of Breast Cancer

Earlier this month NBC news reporter Andrea Mitchell announced on network TV that she was among the 1 in 8 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and that she was being treated successfully. Then she added, “For you women out there and for the men who love you, screening matters. Do it. This disease can be completely curable if you find it at the right time.”

No one with half a heart would wish Mitchell anything but the best, but for people who believe in accurate medical and health information, and for people who believe that misinformation can be dangerous, her proclamation was problematic.

As respected health media watchdog Gary Schwitzer wrote on MedPage Today, “when journalists use their national television platform to make healthcare claims or to give advice, those claims and that advice should be scrutinized.”

And they were. One breast cancer survivor-blogger admonished, “Early detection is not a cure. … ‘Completely curable’ is a like a fat man wearing a hockey jersey. It covers a lot of ground. You have access to the top medical experts in the world — ask them what ‘cured’ means in the setting of breast cancer.”

Another woman with a similar background chimed in, “Wishing you the best Ms. Mitchell. … [But] what you said about breast cancer is harmful and untrue. You should correct it immediately.”

Others took issue with her oft-repeated and misguided claim that 1 in 8 women contract breast cancer. It’s fuzzy math that the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has tried to correct. As explained on its website, women born now have an average risk of 12.2 percent (often expressed as “1 in 8”) of being diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in their lives. [But] the chance that they will never have breast cancer is 87.8% (expressed as “7 in 8”).

That is a lifetime risk. Risk increases with age, so, as Schwitzer points out, the NCI provides a more helpful way of looking at it. A woman’s chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer is:

  • .43% (often expressed as “1 in 233”) from 30 through 39
  • 1.45% (often expressed as “1 in 69”) from 40 through 49
  • 2.38% (often expressed as “1 in 42”) from 50 through 59
  • 3.45% (often expressed as “1 in 29”) from 60 through 69

So the “1 in 8” chance of getting breast cancer is misleading, scary and unhelpful in telling people what they need to know to protect themselves the best they can.

A more accurate way Mitchell could have handled the message that also would help others assess their situation, Schwitzer says, goes something like this:

“And now a personal note. I don’t believe that journalists’ personal lives should become part of stories, but I am making this announcement to avoid the possible spread of any rumors or misinformation.

“I’ve been diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. I’m confident in my course of treatment but I don’t wish to discuss details because my case may not be representative of what other women face. My decisions are mine and should not influence others just because I’m on TV.

“As you can see, I’m already back at work and have been told my prognosis is terrific.”

The comments from readers of the MedPage Today post confirmed the wisdom of Schwitzer’s suggestions. One “been there” expert elaborated:

  • “Mammography’s effectiveness in pre-menopausal women is very questionable. There are facts out there to prove it and I lived it.
  • “Mammography is not the same as ‘early’ detection. By the time a tumor can be felt or seen on a mammogram, it has likely been growing for years, probably five years.
  • “An early-stage breast cancer, as Ms. Mitchell has indicated she has, can still return as Stage 4 cancer. The idea that that an early stage is the same as a cure is flat-out inaccurate. … even before a cancer is detected, the seeds of metastases have already been planted in the rest of the body. The problem is that we don’t know how to detect those, or why this happens, or how to stop those seeds from turning into a deadly disease.”

Another commenter spoke to the unfortunate “branding” of breast cancer:

“[E]ven after all the walks, races and pink products sold ‘for the cure,’ there isn’t one for breast cancer,” read one. “For any journalist with a body of solid research at her disposal to suggest there actually is just isn’t cool.

“Really, it perpetuates the stereotype that this disease is cute and beatable — so long as it is caught at an early stage and the doctors get it all. Nothing is further from the truth. So here is the truth: there is no rhyme or reason to breast cancer. Folks can be diagnosed at Stage I and end up a few years later with a recurrence or metastasis. It can’t be cured.

“Please tell the whole truth when you decide to tell your personal story, especially when you have a platform like a national news program. To quote half-statistics and ‘I’m cured!’ rhetoric does nothing more than sell the myth that breast cancer is cute, pink and oh-so-special. She and every other journalist deciding to tell this story must do better.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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