Oct. 21, 2009— -- A firestorm of controversy erupted today when a top official with the American Cancer Society let slip that the benefits of breast cancer and prostate cancer screening may have been oversold.
The epicenter of the controversy is statement by Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the ACS. Brawley made the statement in an interview with the New York Times about a Journal of the American Medical Association analysis of breast and prostate cancer screening, which raised questions about claims that screening saves lives.
Brawley said the questions raised in the journal article were legitimate, and he said the ACS was in the process of reworking its message on breast and prostate cancer screening. According to the Times report, he said the benefits of screening had been "exaggerated."
When ABC News contacted the ACS for an interview with Brawley, it was told that he was attending a family funeral and was not available for comment.
The ACS did, however, release a prepared statement under Brawley's name:
"While the advantages of screening for some cancers have been overstated, there are advantages, especially in the case of breast, colon and cervical cancers. Mammography is effective – mammograms work and women should continue get them... The American Cancer Society stands by its recommendation that women age 40 and over should receive annual mammography, and women at high risk should talk with their doctors about when screening should begin based on their family history."
Brawley also addressed prostate cancer screening in his statement.
"Since 1997 the American Cancer Society has recommended that men talk to their doctor and make an informed decision about whether or not prostate cancer early detection testing is right for them. This recommendation also still stands."
It's not known if the clarifying statement from ACS will calm the situation, but it is clear that such a statement may have been needed.
"[Prostate cancer] screening and treatment of prostate cancer has been widely accepted in the United States and many other countries because it really works," said Dr. William Catalona, director of the Clinical Prostate Cancer Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "In the U.S. there has been an 85 percent decrease in the percentage of prostate cancer cases that present with advanced-stage disease and a 40 percent reduction in the age-specific prostate cancer mortality rate during the PSA screening era... I continue to recommend PSA screening to my patients."
And when asked to comment on Brawley's published statements in the Times, Dr. Larry Norton, deputy physician-in-chief for Breast Cancer Programs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York said Brawley and the ACS were sending the wrong message. While he agreed that mammography is far from a perfect screening tool, Norton told ABC News, "The simple fact is that if a woman wants to reduce her chances of dying of breast cancer, she should choose mammography."