Christie Aschwanden is a 2011 National Magazine Award finalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Mother Jones, Reader’s Digest, Men’s Journal, and New Scientist. She’s a contributing editor for Runner’s World and writes about medicine for Slate. Follow her on Twitter @cragcrest or find her online at christieaschwanden.com.
This post originally ran on the blog Last Word on Nothing.
Over the week or so, critics have found many reasons to fault Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The scrutiny began with the revelation that the group was halting its grants to Planned Parenthood. The decision seemed like a punitive act that would harm low-income women (the money had funded health services like clinical breast exams), and Komen’s public entry into the culture wars came as a shock to supporters who’d viewed the group as nonpartisan. Chatter on the Internet quickly blamed the move on Komen’s new vice president of Public Policy, Karen Handel, a GOP candidate who ran for governor in Georgia on a platform that included a call to defund Planned Parenthood. Komen’s founder, Ambassador Nancy Brinker, attempted to explain away the decision, and on Tuesdy, Handel resigned her position.
The Planned Parenthood debacle brought renewed attention to other controversies about Komen from recent years—like its “lawsuits for the cure” program that spent nearly $1 million suing groups like “cupcakes for the cure” and “kites for the cure” over their daring attempts to use the now-trademarked phrase “for the cure.” Critics also pointed to Komen’s relentless marketing of pink ribbon-themed products, including a Komen-branded perfume alleged to contain carcinogens, and pink buckets of fried chicken, a campaign that led one rival breast cancer advocacy group to ask, “what the cluck?”
But these problems are minuscule compared to Komen’s biggest failing—its near outright denial of tumor biology. The pink arrow ads they ran in magazines a few months back provide a prime example. “What’s key to surviving breast cancer? YOU. Get screened now,” the ad says. The takeaway? It’s your responsibility to prevent cancer in your body. The blurb below the big arrow explains why. “Early detection saves lives. The 5-year survival rate for breast cancer when caught early is 98%. When it’s not? 23%.”
If only it were that simple. As I’ve written previously here, the notion that breast cancer is a uniformly progressive disease that starts small and only grows and spreads if you don’t stop it in time is flat out wrong. I call it breast cancer’s false narrative, and it’s a fairy tale that Komen has relentlessly perpetuated.
David Ropeik is an international consultant in risk perception and risk communication, and an Instructor in the Environmental Management Program at the Harvard University Extension School. He is the author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts and principal co-author of RISK A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You. He writes the blog Risk; Reason and Reality at Big Think.com and also writes for Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and Scientific American.
He founded the program “Improving Media Coverage of Risk,” was an award-winning journalist in Boston for 22 years and a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.
This post originally appeared on Soapbox Science, a guest blog hosted by the nature.com Communities team.
If you were to be diagnosed with cancer, how do you think you would feel? It would depend on the type of cancer of course, but there’s a good chance that no matter the details, the word “cancer” would make the diagnosis much more frightening. Frightening enough, in fact, to do you as much harm, or more, than the disease itself. There is no question that in many cases, we are cancer-phobic, more afraid of the disease than the medical evidence says we need to be, and that fear alone can be bad for our health. As much as we need to understand cancer itself, we need to recognize and understand this risk, the risk of cancer phobia, in order to avoid all of what this awful disease can do to us.
In a recent report to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), a panel of leading experts on prostate cancer, the second most common cancer in men (after skin), said;
“Although most prostate cancers are slow growing and unlikely to spread, most men receive immediate treatment with surgery or radiation. These therapeutic strategies are associated with short- and long-term complications including impotence and urinary incontinence.”
“Approximately 10 percent of men who are eligible for observational strategies (keep an eye on it but no immediate need for surgery or radiation) choose this approach.”
“Early results demonstrate disease-free and survival rates that compare favorably (between observation and) curative therapy.”
“Because of the very favorable prognosis of low-risk prostate cancer, strong consideration should be given to removing the anxiety-provoking term ‘cancer’ for this condition.”
Let me sum that up. Many prostate cancers grow so slowly they don’t need to be treated right away…the unnecessary treatment causes significant harm…and one of the reasons nine men out of ten men diagnosed with slow-growing prostate cancer accept, indeed choose these unnecessary harms, is because “cancer” sounds scary.