Who’s Stirring up Breast Cancer Fear?

By Michael Fumento


Copyright 1996 Michael Fumento

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"Women in 40s Overestimate Breast Cancer Risk," ran the title of a story in USA Today. If you didn’t read it there, you probably didn’t read it anywhere because only one other major newspaper carried the article. And neither explained that the reason so many women are scared is because somebody gains from it politically.

The story concerned a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), which found that surveyed women thought they had at least a one in five chance of developing breast cancer in the next 10 years. The actual risk is about one in 43. The surveyed women also thought they had about a one in ten chance of ultimately dying of the disease. Their actual chance: about 1 in 250.

How could these poor women be so far off?

First, women are told repeatedly that breast cancer is an epidemic, the definition of epidemic being a sudden increase a disease considerably above that which had been occurring. A search of the Nexis computer database of media outlets using "breast cancer" within 15 words of "epidemic" finds no fewer than 681 references. Many of these are extremely prominent, as in the cover of the May 1994 issue of Life magazine: "Fighting Back Against the Breast Cancer Epidemic."

The "epidemic" dates back to a sudden surge of breast cancer diagnoses from 1982 to 1987. But the surge, it turns out, was for the best of all reasons. Improvements in the detection of breast cancer, combined with campaigns to get women to avail themselves of these improvements, resulted in tumors being detected long before they otherwise would have. Thus a tumor that might not have been found until 1988 might show up in 1986. So while diagnoses were going up, deaths were actually holding steady.

Because earlier detection merely speeded up diagnoses that would have been found later, in 1988 there was actually a drop in breast cancers found. Since then new diagnoses, adjusted for the aging of the population, have held steady. Yet five years after the drop you could watch a Cable News Network (CNN) report titled "Breast Cancer Reaches Epidemic Proportions." Just last month 1,000 activists from the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition rallied in Boston to "Stop the Epidemic."

Yes, they’re even trying to terrify men, who comprise less than one percent of breast cancer cases. The more the merrier, the activists feel.

The other factoid scaring women to death started with a 1991 American Cancer Society (ACS) report estimating a woman’s risk of having developed breast cancer by the age of 85. It came up with the now-famous one-in-nine figure. The next year the National Cancer Institute upped the ante, calculating the risk for a woman at the age of 95 and coming up with one in eight.

Using 85 or 95 greatly exaggerates a woman’s risk because life expectancy in the United States today is 79.

Conceding the point, ACS and the NCI have since tried to explain their figures (which doesn’t justify using them in the first place), but the activists ignore the explanations. Like the false epidemic, they’re just too convenient.

So who are those groups stirring up the fear cauldron?

The first are radical feminists, who seize upon any problem that is disproportionately female to show how wicked the male-dominated world is. They’ve converted breast cancer from just another form of a terrible disease into a rallying cry. "One in eight, we can’t wait!" chanted activists in a 1993 march on Washington. Or, as the cover of a popular woman’s magazine put it, "The Breast Cancer Epidemic: Women Aren’t Just Scared, We’re Mad."

Mad at men, that is. But why? Because female diseases, including breast cancer, get short shrift in the federal budget put together by a male- dominated Congress. Or so we’re told. Thus activists like Rep. Pat Schroeder (D.-CO) rail that until recently only 14 percent of National Institutes of Health funding was devoted to diseases that afflict exclusively or almost exclusively women. They do so without noting that this is because 80 percent goes for diseases of both men and women. Simple subtraction reveals that this leaves exclusively male diseases with but six percent of the budget.

Compare breast cancer with prostate cancer. The ACS estimates breast cancer will strike about 183,000 American women this year, killing 46,000. Prostate cancer will afflict 244,000, killing 35,000. But while breast cancer will receive $500 million from the feds, prostate cancer will get less than $80 million. Such a spending disparity seems quite unfair, even if it has the noble goal of getting Schroeder to shut up.

The other group preying upon women’s fears are environmentalists. They claim the cause of the alleged epidemic — like the cause of virtually every problem — is man polluting nature. Thus we have television shows like "Epidemic of Breast Cancer — Environmental Causes?" on CNN Earthwatch and magazines like the Mother Jones with a terrified-looking woman on the cover wearing a gas mask as a brassiere.

Exactly what is supposed to have caused the imaginary epidemic is not clear. Other than the lack of any such epidemic, the problem with the environmental connection is that the exact insult is in dispute. Greenpeace says it’s synthetic chlorines, because Greenpeace dislikes chlorine. Others blame pesticides, power lines, radioactive fallout from nuclear testing, hair dyes, or bovine growth hormone — in short, whatever they dislike. When pressed, almost all will admit there’s no definitive proof linking their favorite bogeyman with breast cancer, but each will also tell you, why wait for definitive proof when there are so many women dying?

Well, maybe because it’s not nice to wrongly terrify 51 percent of the population.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on cancer and on the media.