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."
In Cancer Screening, Fault the Technique, Not the Principle?
But Dr. Susan Love, president and medical director of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, says it's not that simple. Love, who is attempting to recruit 1 million women for a trial that she hopes will once and for all nail down the real cause of breast cancer and help lead the way to a way to prevent the disease, said the real issue is that the current screening tool – imaging -- is not up to the task.
"This recent paper points out the fact that we need to go beyond screening for cancers that are already there, to finding the cause and prevention of breast cancer once and for all," Love said. "Not all cancers are alike. We have focused on the risk factors, chemoprevention, and screening for the 'good cancers' that are hormonally sensitive, and generally postmenopausal, and have not done as much for the more aggressive premenopausal cancers."
The same response – that it's the screening tool, not screening, that is the problem -- was heard from some prostate cancer experts.
"The correct conclusion is that the current screening techniques are inadequate," said Dr. Mauro Ferrari of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. "PSA tests and mammograms are indeed obsolete."
But even it the screening tools are inadequate, Ferrari faulted Brawley for going public with his concerns.
"The conclusion from the new data that screening is less important than previously thought is a grotesque and ill-informed logical error, which has very grave implications for health care policy and the lives and deaths of all Americans," Ferrari said.
ACS Comes Under Fire for Screenings Stance
Meanwhile, Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, appeared to be in agreement with Brawley's thoughts as they appeared in the Times article.
"The National Breast Cancer Coalition has said for over a decade that mammography has serious limitations, has not been shown to reduce mortality in women under 50 and should be a personal decision, not a public health message," Visco said. "The American Cancer Society largely helped create the public's unwarranted obsession with screening, they will have to work very hard to help fix the current situation which, again, they caused.
"It is long overdue that we recognize that we should not be pushing for more mammography, should accept that breast self examinations do not save lives and can result in harm and, rather than try to expand screening into younger and younger ages, we should focus on figuring out which breast cancers will be harmful and how to deal with those," she added.
Dr. Patricia Ganz, director of cancer prevention and control research at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, agreed that the medical community should take a hard look at breast cancer screenings.
"[M]aybe we shouldn't start screening women until they're post-menopausal," she said. "Most of the non-serious pre-cancers and very early, small cancers would probably disappear as hormone levels drop... I think there are too many women with pre-cancers and very early cancers that are being overtreated."
Brawley is, however, not without his supporters. Dr. Daniel Hayes, a breast cancer expert from the University of Michigan, said, "I thought Otis Brawley's comments were very courageous and thoughtful."
Moreover, Hayes pointed out that this "is a sea-change for ACS, which has always promoted screening, with or without supporting data. Otis has induced a new culture into ACS, and he will take heat for it -- so he needs to be quoted accurately and his intent -- to induce evidence-based medicine into ACS guidelines -- needs to be understood, without seriously diluting the beneficial effects that screening does have."
For full discussion of this issue, see full expert commentary at: http://www.medpagetoday.com/HematologyOncology/BreastCancer/16538