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Cancer is a term that inspires a broad range of feelings: from fear, anger, and helplessness to curiosity and determination. Cancer, as a force, has given rise to a massive infrastructure of cultural and clinical responses, and many of these are highly visible and virtually iconic. We see Lance Armstrong talking about cancer, we see children wearing colored wrist bracelets, we are asked to participate in bike rides and walka- thons for cancer research. The majority of this energy is focused on what is called cancer “prevention” and research.
In the case of breast cancer, for example, the main thrust of cancer advocacy is towards “prevention” in the form of mammograms. Question: If 100% of all women in the United States between the ages of 40 and 80 had regular mammograms, how would this affect US cancer rates?
Answer: Not in the slightest degree, unless you include the iatrogenic factor of applying ionizing radiation to breast tissue in otherwise healthy women, in which case it could be stipulated that the rates would naturally rise. Mammograms don’t prevent cancer; they detect cancer that is already there, and probably has been for a long time.
I read a recent issue of a local women’s magazine titled, “Quest for the Cure,” about breast cancer research and fund raising. The word “cure” is defined by Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary as “course of treatment to restore health.”
“Health” is defined as “a state of optimum physical and mental well-being, not just the absence of disease or infirmity.” This would suggest that individuals seeking a cure would be not merely investigating new treatments for sick people, but seeking to enhance health and discover the cause of the disease and address those causal factors so that future generations are less likely to contract the disease.
But the magazine featured little to no discussion of things like risk factors, causes, or prevention. The report was on the development of screening and treatment options for women with cancer.
Unfortunately, women appear to be acquiring highly inconsistent beliefs about screening and cancer. A recent study of 4,000 women found that 68% believed screening prevents or reduces the risk of contracting [my emphasis] breast cancer.
It is unusual, if not outright disingenuous, that the idea of screening is being used synonymously with the idea of prevention. Screening detects disease that has already occurred, and hence, has failed to be prevented. Screening is, in a way, the opposite of prevention. It’s what we do to determine how much we have failed at prevention.
And this miscommunication is not limited to breast cancer. Another article recently published was titled, “Colon Cancer—the Number Three Cancer Killer—is Largely Preventable.” Yet the article was actually about screening technologies for colon cancer. There was no real mention or discussion about how to avoid getting colon cancer in the first place.