Though we can all recognize those pink ribbons and wrist bands famous for supporting those with breast cancer, it might be time to question whether they actually help.
Last week, a study published in the Journal of Health Affairs reported that the United States spends $4 billion a year on false-positive mammograms and over-diagnoses. These results have contributed to a large conversation about how money is spent on breast cancer.
According to nursing professor Michael Beebe, it’s a complicated issue. He said that in exchange for every advantage, there will be some setbacks.
“Everything has a cost benefit to it, and tomography is no different,”
Tomography refers to imaging by sections or sectioning, through the use of any kind of penetrating wave. It is one method used to detect breast cancer.
In addition, the nature of cancer can make pinpointing the best technology difficult. Just as there are many types of cancer, there are multiple kinds
of breast cancer.
“People think of breast cancer as one disease, but it’s not,” Beebe said. “Just like people think cancer’s one disease, and it’s not.”
Mammograms are tests performed on women usually in their 40s and 50s, to check their breasts for cancer. They can be yearly exams, the idea of which is to catch cancer early. Sometimes the results appear positive when there is in fact nothing wrong.
“A Mammogram is a radiographic study that tries to take imaging of breast tissue to see if there’s any abnormalities,” said nursing professor Dr. Benjamin Miller. “[The] Problem is, is that breast tissue come in many shapes sizes and densities. It makes it so it’s not the most perfect science by any means.”
While the current technology is not perfect, Beebe said it is improving
“The technology related to imaging keeps improving literally daily, there’s all kinds of new stuff coming along,” Beebe said.
Senior AnneMarie Ladlad took a class last quarter in which she was tasked with making a social media campaign. She and her partners created an advocacy group related to breast cancer.
Ladlad believes it is worth it to put money into practices that could catch cancer early.
“Preliminary measures are the best way because of course that catches breast cancer before it gets really serious,” Ladlad said.
She believes that the funds are crucial to perfecting technology used in early detection, and that the reason false positives occur is because the current technology is insufficient or ineffective.
“There’s so much to be researched to make it better, “ she said.
The advocacy she created was called “Trim the Ribbon.” The goal of the campaign was to raise awareness about Pinkwashing, and advocate against it.
Pinkwashing is the idea of companies tagging themselves with emblems associated with breast cancer to indicate that they are using some of their funds to aid in breast cancer research. Anti-pinkwashing campaigns point out that in reality, it is usually only a small portion of a company’s profit that goes to research. Anti-pinkwashing groups want that financial information to be brought to the surface.
“It’s a kind of a call for budget transparency,” Ladlad said.
While the study regarding the $4 billion spent by the U.S. on false-positive mammograms and over-diagnoses is not directly related to pinkwashing, both the study and campaign concern the issue of how money should be handled with regards to breast cancer, and which practices best reflect those monetary priorities.
“I would say that, yes, [money] should go toward preliminary stuff. Of course there should be a balance. I don’t know where that balance lies,” Ladlad said.
When it comes down to it, while $4 billion a year is a lot, many believe such money is necessary until better detection practices are developed.
“If we had better screening techniques, I think it would probably cut down a lot on unnecessary biopsies, a lot of unnecessary tests, and procedures that we’re doing,” Miller said.
Beebe reiterated Miller’s point, and recognizes the challenges of balancing the issues of money and patient care.
“That’s the struggle,” Beebe said. “Are we doing the right test that’s going to give us the best images at the least risk to the patient at the lowest cost and the fewest false positives or false negatives?”