Did Susan G. Komen Do the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason?

(Brandi Korte: Flickr)

(Brandi Korte: Flickr)

While the widely regarded Cancer Letter is usually available only by subscription at a hefty $405 a year, the current issue is available for free. It looks at the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. But the Cancer Letter is not concerned with the politics behind the story.

Instead, the Cancer Letter takes an extensive look at Planned Parenthood itself and why the organization is worried about screening mammography for the women it serves.

Remember, women who benefit most from mammography are post-menopausal, usually over age 50. Mammograms have been fiercely debated most for women in their 40’s. But no credible organization recommends screening mammograms for women younger than 40.

And how old is the population served by Planned Parenthood? Nearly 90 percent are 35 and younger, according to a Planned Parenthood spokesperson quoted in the article.

The Cancer Letter consulted with four experts in evidence-based medicine, people who have been trying to get the public to understand that all screening exams bring risks, chief among them the possibility of overtreatment. Mammography’s rate of false positives means many women end up worrying needlessly until they have a biopsy. One of the experts consulted also mentioned the possibility of a woman being treated for a cancer that never would have caused a serious problem.

Here’s Donald Berry, a biostatisician at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, as quoted in the Cancer Letter:

“It is far from clear that screening for breast cancer in the context of Planned Parenthood is an appropriate use of Komen’s money or Planned Parenthood’s time,” Berry wrote. “Had Komen chosen to cut funding on this basis and not on the basis of a political agenda, then this would have been a powerful and important statement.”

Specifically, the Cancer Letter asked its panel to review information about breast cancer screening on the Planned Parenthood website. All four were concerned about what they found.

As Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin of Dartmouth Medical School said:

“The website presents screening the way a screening advocacy group might—persuading women to be screened rather than helping them understand the benefits and harms—an approach at odds with Planned Parenthood’s philosophy of ‘respect for each individual’s right to make informed, independent decisions about health, sex, and family planning.'”

It’s worth reading the entire report.

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  • Anonymous

    Except that women like me are diagnosed younger and younger and our cancers tend to be much more aggressive, which means early detection is the difference between life and death. I was diagnosed when I was 39 yrs old (I’m now 40). I had my 1st mammogram at 38 yrs “just to be pro-active, for a base line”, because my aunt died of breast cancer at age 54. Less than a year later I had a lump that hurt. It was stage IIa, grade 3, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma with lymphovascual invasion, so cancer cells had already made it into my blood stream. I would be on my death bed right now if it wasn’t for eary screening! There are thousands of other women like me and many of us have small children that need us to stick around and raise them. Discounting us does our families a gross disservice.

    • Lisa Aliferis

      You say you your first mammogram at 38, but then it sounds as if you discovered a lump yourself, some months later, is that correct? I’m presuming you then had another mammogram. At that point, since you had detected a lump, the mammogram becomes a “diagnostic” mammogram. It is obviously important to determine whether the lump is malignant or benign and a diagnostic mammogram is the first step in making that determination. As Donald Berry said in the Cancer Letter cited in the post above, “Every woman should have access to diagnostic mammograms..”