October 22, 2012


Do we make too much fuss about breasts? : It's good to raise awareness of breast cancer, but an agenda driven by popular opinion can get in the way of science (Max Pemberton, 22 Oct 2012, The Telegraph)

I think the reason this study made the headlines was because it focused on two things that we, as a society, are obsessed with: breasts and cancer. Although the breast cancer findings were the ones that were widely reported on, the study looked at a host of other cancers too, including prostate, bowel, lung and all cancers combined. But it was the breast cancer component that got picked up.

There can be no subject that ignites the public interest as much as breasts do. I don't mean this flippantly. It's fascinating the way that these two mounds of flesh seem to eclipse all other organs. I am baffled that some newspapers still feel it acceptable to serve up pictures of topless women as daily ''news". But our interest in breasts is pervasive and means that breast cancer, for example, gets far more publicity than, say, bowel cancer.

This is a double-edged sword. While it means it's easier to raise awareness - and money for research - in breast cancer, it can also unnecessarily worry women, and it skews and impacts on what is studied and how. Of all the organs, the breast is the most political. There are support and advocacy groups for women with breast cancer - it's something that people run marathons to raise money for, and wear pink ribbons to show their support. It receives a tremendous amount of attention and resonates deep within our collective consciousness, more so than probably any other disease.

The American researcher and physician Deborah Rhodes argues that all this attention can, if not tempered, lead to as many problems as it solves, as the agenda is driven by public opinion rather than the science. She cites the perpetual debate about routine mammography as an example, arguing that because of the vocal advocacy for routine screening programmes, despite some medics questioning their value, considerable time and money has been diverted into debating a small, relatively unimportant area.

This, she says, has cost millions and taken up years of research time, for little benefit.

Posted by at October 22, 2012 5:32 AM

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