Policy-ish

Politics, Breast Health Have A Long History Together

The firestorm generated by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations on mammography quickly moved to Capitol Hill this week where members of Congress took to the floor to express their outrage. But historians and medical newshounds with long memories might remember this is hardly the first time politics and breast cancer have become entangled.

Breast cancer shows up on a mammogram.

hide captionThe white arrow points out cancer in this mammogram.

NIH via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Barron Lerner of Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and the author of "The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America," knows that history all too well. In an interview with Kaiser Health News, he harked back to the "early 1990s, when there was some suggestion that if you did something called a bone marrow transplant, or stem cell transplant - which was a very aggressive treatment for metastatic breast cancer - that women live longer."

Lerner says the studies were extremely preliminary but when word got out, women demanded the procedure because they thought it could save or prolong their lives. "The power of that lobby was so strong that insurance companies began to pay for the procedure, even though it was still experimental and its value hadn't been proven," he says.

Once the studies were done at the end of the decade, the treatment wasn't found to be any better than standard chemo, Lerner says.

He also remembers the in 1998 when "a report came out criticizing mammograms, Congress actually voted to rebuke that scientific report." The vote count? 424-0.

Congress — or even regular people —often see new medical studies and rush to judgment. "But if you don't look at the data and you're acting based on your heart, or your gut instinct, you often make the wrong decision," Lerner says.

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