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Dr. Susan Love on breast cancer and wishful thinking

Some forms of breast cancer are slow enough to be found early by mammography, but others are too fast growing to be "caught" at the exact right time.
REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier
Some forms of breast cancer are slow enough to be found early by mammography, but others are too fast growing to be “caught” at the exact right time.

In her blog last week, surgeon and women’s health advocate Dr. Susan Love (“Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book”) wrote about breast cancer, wishful thinking and science.

Her message is a contrarian one, at least when compared with the “early detection saves lives” mantra that seems to dominate almost all public discussion about breast cancer this October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month (in case you’re wondering why the world seems awash in pink lately).

But Love’s message is one we need to hear if we’re going to finally “stop congratulating ourselves on our progress and start focusing on figuring out why” so many women, particularly those living with metastatic breast cancer, “have not benefited from all the money we have raised,” as Love herself put it in another blog post. 

One example of our wishful thinking when it comes to breast cancer, says Love, involves screening guidelines:

We get angry at the experts who tell us studies show that mammography is less beneficial for women in their 40s, and focus on the idea that if only every woman had regular mammograms every cancer would be found early, and cured.
This ignores the biology of breast cancer, which tells us that there are at least five or six different kinds of breast cancer that grow at different rates. Some are slow enough to be found early by mammography, but others are too fast growing or fast spreading to be “caught” at the exact right time! Instead of arguing about screening guidelines, we need to face the science squarely and focus on prevention, so that we can learn how to avoid cancer in the first place.

We also use wishful thinking, says Love, when it comes to treatment decisions (“It seems like the more radical the surgery the better the results should be … but that is really just wishful thinking”) and to diet:

The headlines scream that if you eat blueberries or drink red wine or don’t drink red wine you will not get breast cancer. We all want to believe this magic!
In reality, these findings come from observational studies, which show you a correlation, but cannot prove cause and effect. If you knew that all drug addicts drank milk as babies, would you really think that drinking milk as a baby could make you a drug addict? Of course not! That’s a correlation. It’s not cause and effect. Exercise and maintaining a healthy weight have been shown to reduce risk, but what you eat seems less critical.

You can read Love’s blog post here. (Hat tip: HealthNewsReview)

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ellen Moskowitz on 10/23/2011 - 06:51 pm.

    “we need to face the science squarely and focus on prevention, so that we can learn how to avoid cancer in the first place.”

    It would be a wonderful achievement to find a way to avoid cancer in the first place…. and what about something for those of us already living with mets? Is stage 4 to be ignored again.. and again. and again??

    We are wanting a part of the research $ to go to find treatments to keep us alive! We already know we can live with cancer in our bodies – if it behaves! Why not find a way to freeze the cancer… stop the progression… allow us to continue living – with cancer. Cancer that remains stable will not kill me. That is good enough. .
    Ellen
    MBCN

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