Cancer Research UK and 1 in 8

Radio 4 news: “1 in 8 women will get breast cancer”. It’s based on a press release from Cancer Research UK. And it is not helpful: these are the figures, below,  for risk of breast cancer you want to know (from their press release) . At present, the headline figure media outlets are using isn’t helpful, and is alarmist. What’s more, we know that the more screening we do, the more ‘breast cancers’ we diagnose – but since many of these won’t go on to harm or impair the woman, it’s debatable whether these are true ‘cancers’ at all. I think this statistical information could have been handled a lot better by CRUK.

Up to and including age Risk
29 1 in 2000
39 1 in 215
49 1 in 50
59 1 in 22
69 1 in 13
Lifetime risk 1 in 8

4 Responses to “Cancer Research UK and 1 in 8”

  1. Dr No February 4, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    As I heard the report on the BBC’s Today programme, I thought I bet MM is posting on this even as the broadcast is coming to a close!

    The ‘story’ is currently top of google news. The CRUK spokesperson on Today was a PhD Dr Kat Arney who apparently

    “After a brief career in scientific research, Kat realised she was much better at talking about science than actually doing it. ”

    Dear oh dear oh dearie me! The trouble that breast cancer fear is the perfect fear industry. A few brief hysterics loosely based on some figures and the story get to the top of google news…more women step forward and the great wheels of the mammogram machine spin ever faster – but to who’s benefit?

    Arney made much of the fact the figures are age adjusted. The actual table at first glance appears age stratified but on closer examination it appears cumulative (each row adds to the previous one). I wouldn’t be surprised if there is shady statistical manipulation going on here to get the the hysterics.

  2. Penny Wolff February 4, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    I heartily endorse your comments Margaret, as well as those of your first commentator. To publish what are essentially raw statistics does the public little service – there ae many confounding variables – only some of which are mentioned in your article. Survival rates in themselves are also less informative than at first glance. The earlier the diagnosis, per se, must of course mean an increase in survival time……its straightforward logic after all…… (and I know statisticians would claim that this is factored in to any analysis…..however, the extent to which it is ‘factored in’ is rarely acknowledged).
    May I suggest three ways forward:
    1. That raw statistics are quoted differently – how about ‘7 out of 8 wonen will NOT suffer from breast cancer, during the course of their lives….
    2 That the public become better educated in understanding the meaning of the sensitivity and specificity in relation to screening…….and what is meant by false negatives and false positives……
    3 That Margaret McCartney re-starts writing for the National Press, so that this stuff gets a wider audience……..How about it Margaret???

  3. Margaret McCartney
    margaretmccartney February 6, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    I am glad I’m so predictable! I find it infuriating that CRUK say

    “Data obtained from ONS, and the Cancer Registries of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and compiled by Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK” but don’t actually cite their workings. I have asked them for details and this week’s project will be to critique them. I agree with Dr No that this does not appear straightforward. Futher, I don’t think it’s presented usefully and if I were a regular donater to CRUK I’d be thinking carefully about the use of resources to publish such alarmist data.

    And thank you Penny, but am trying hard to concentrate on the word count for the book at present…..

  4. Elizabeth (Aust) July 15, 2011 at 10:40 am #

    As far as mammograms are concerned, the things that helped me make an informed decision not to have them…
    “The risks and benefits of mammograms” produced by the Nordic Cochrane Institute (forget the BreastScreen brochure which does not inform women of actual benefits and risks) and I’d also recommend the lecture given by Prof Baum recently at UCL, “Breast cancer screening: the inconvenient truths” (Utube or at Prof Baum’s website)
    I’ve also rejected clinical breast exams – it was difficult to find references, but I couldn’t find any evidence of benefit – that they’re helpful, but I did find evidence of harm – unnecessary biopsies.
    It annoys me that so many doctors tack on a breast exam when a woman wants the Pill or a bimanual exam when she’s having a Pap test…”this is the second part of the exam” or “I was trained to do these exams as well”…
    If the exams are not recommended and are not evidence based – this should be mentioned to the patient and if she still wants them, the risks should be explained to her and the fact there is no evidence that symptom-free women benefit from them.
    Otherwise these exams will keep happening and more healthy women will become patients and some left worse off….it’s not good enough to say, “the woman wanted the exam” or “she didn’t refuse the exam” – many women have been told for years they need these exams – it’s time for doctors to give them the facts. I also blame the womens’ magazines that misinform women – I saw one recently that was recommending breast self-exams, they’ve been OUT for years.