by: Dr. Mercola
July 18, 2012
The “C” word; probably the most feared word there is in healthcare. Just the mere mention of cancer conjures up images of death and despair. Cancer screening like annual mammograms is the conventional go-to “prevention” strategy. But researchers increasingly agree that mammography is ineffective at best, and harmful at worst…
In November of 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a federal advisory board, revised their cancer screening recommendations, saying annual mammograms weren’t necessary for women under age 50 and that screenings were recommended only every two years after that1.
The panel based the new guidelines on data indicating that mammography does more harm than good when used on younger women.
Besides the fact that the ionizing radiation delivered during mammography can cause cancer in and of itself, overdiagnosis of cancer, as well as misdiagnosis, has been shown to be a significant problem plaguing this form of cancer screening.
According to a Norwegian study, published in April of this year2, as many as 1 in 4 women are consistently overdiagnosed with breast cancer that, if left alone, would never have caused them any harm.
Whistleblowers Claim FDA Approved Dangerous Mammography Equipment
On July 15, the New York Times revealed that the FDA has engaged in an intense spying campaign against five whistleblowers within the organization3, as well as “FDA opponents” deemed to be in collaboration with the whistleblowers.
According to the NYT:
“What began as a narrow investigation into the possible leaking of confidential agency information by five scientists quickly grew in mid-2010 into a much broader campaign to counter outside critics of the agency’s medical review process, according to the cache of more than 80,000 pages of computer documents generated by the surveillance effort.
Moving to quell what one memorandum called the “collaboration” of the F.D.A.’s opponents, the surveillance operation identified 21 agency employees, Congressional officials, outside medical researchers and journalists thought to be working together to put out negative and “defamatory” information about the agency.
… The extraordinary surveillance effort grew out of a bitter dispute lasting years between the scientists and their bosses at the FDA over the scientists’ claims that faulty review procedures at the agency had led to the approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies that exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation.”
As a longtime critic of mammograms, I’m familiar with the kind of harassment the FDA can dish out, so it does not surprise me the agency would stoop so low as to spy on their critics.
How can the FDA justify spying on and harassing their own scientists—professionals hired to assess the safety of devices such as mammograms—just because these employees found serious health threats that the agency would rather continue to ignore in order to protect their industry clients? It’s completely unconscionable and there’s no good defense.
Good News: Fewer Younger Women are Getting Mammograms
While U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s new guidelines initially ignited fierce protests from cancer advocacy groups, mammography rates for women in their 40s are declining4.
According to recent findings by the Mayo Clinic5:
“Presented last week at an annual research meeting, the study analyzed data from 100 health plans across the U.S. Looking specifically at the number of mammograms performed from January 2006 to December of 2010, researchers found a drop of nearly 6 percent among women ages 40 to 49.
Meanwhile, the number of mammograms among women ages 50 to 64 remained steady, despite the same panel’s recommendation that women need only be screened every two years.
“We applaud this news,” says ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. She notes that, while too many people still believe there’s no harm in getting a mammogram, the task force study demonstrated that this is clearly not the case. “We now have reason to hope that the influence of the USPSTF guidelines will only increase, meaning that we’ll see a decrease in the number of women who unnecessarily undergo procedures such as radiation, mastectomy, or lumpectomy.”
Cancer Overdiagnosis, Still a Serious Concern
According to Dr. Otis Webb Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, the term “overdiagnosis” in cancer medicine refers to6:
“… a tumor that fulfills all laboratory criteria to be called cancer but, if left alone, would never cause harm. This is a tumor that will not continue to grow, spread and kill. It is a tumor that can be cured with treatment but does not need to be treated and/or cured.”
The problem, according to a report by CNN published back in April, is related to advances in technology7. As mammograms are able to detect tinier and tinier spots in the diagnostic films, the possibility overtreatment increases exponentially when overzealous clinicians insist that more tests, including invasive MRIs with dye and painful biopsies, be done on women who have the misfortune of having a tiny spot in their X-ray.
Concerns about overdiagnosis of both breast- and prostate cancer have increased over the years. (According to Dr. Webb Brawley, an estimated 60 percent of prostate cancers are also harmless tumors that do not need treatment.)
The findings from Norway support several previous studies, such as the Cochrane Database review from 20098, which found that breast cancer screening led to a 30 percent rate of overdiagnosis and overtreatment, which actually increased the absolute risk of developing cancer by 0.5 percent. The review concluded that for every 2,000 women invited for screening throughout a 10 year period, the life of just ONE woman was prolonged, while 10 healthy women were treated unnecessarily. Another 200 women undergo psychological stress and trauma for several months due to false positives.