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Therapeutic Touch Pseudoscience: The Tooth Fairy Strikes Again

When tested, therapeutic touch (TT) practitioners failed to detect the human energy field they thought they could feel. Experimental setup from Rosa et al., from JAMA, 1998, 279 (13)

When tested, therapeutic touch (TT) practitioners failed to detect the human energy field they thought they could feel. Experimental setup from Rosa et al., from JAMA, 1998, 279 (13)

A study out of Iran titled “Therapeutic touch for nausea in breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy: Composing a treatment” was recently published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. It is a great example of the Tooth Fairy science that permeates much of the research in complementary and alternative medicine. In Tooth Fairy science, researchers attempt to study a phenomenon without first determining whether it exists.

What is therapeutic touch?

Therapeutic touch (TT) is a type of energy medicine; practitioners claim to be able to:

  1. sense a patient’s “human energy field” with their hands,
  2. manipulate the energy field by moving their hands near (but not touching) a patient’s skin surface, and
  3. thereby improve the patient’s health.

TT was the delusional invention of a nurse and a theosophist, and it has no scientific basis. Scientists can detect and measure minute energies down to the subatomic level, but they have never detected a “human energy field.” And when TT practitioners were tested on their ability to detect such a field, they failed miserably.

Therapeutic touch is pure vitalism, the belief in a soul or animating force,” writes Paul Ingraham, “exactly like the Force in Star Wars, and just as fanciful. Auras and life energy do not exist and cannot be felt, let alone manipulated therapeutically.”

Despite the combination of extreme implausibility and a total lack of evidence, TT is taught to nurses in many otherwise reputable institutions, and there are more than 90,000 practitioners worldwide. There is even a Therapeutic Touch International Association that claims TT is evidence-based. It is not.

TT practitioners believe they are helping patients. That belief is reinforced by seeing patients improve due to the natural course of illness, suggestion, and the “placebo” or nonspecific contextual effects of the provider/patient encounter. They allow confirmation bias to overcome scientific reality, and they do poorly-conceived research seeking further confirmation. Since the studies are designed to show that TT works rather than to ask if it works, they find evidence that is convincing to believers but not to the scientific community as a whole. (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine

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CAM use and chemotherapy: A negative correlation

It turns out that the use of certain forms of CAM makes it less likely that breast cancer patients will receive the chemotherapy they need.

It turns out that the use of certain forms of CAM makes it less likely that breast cancer patients will receive the chemotherapy they need.

So-called “alternative” medicine is made up of a hodge-podge of health care practices and treatments based on beliefs that are unscientific, pre-scientific, and pseudoscientific. These modalities include practices as diverse as homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, reflexology, reiki and other forms of “energy medicine” based on vitalism, chiropractic, and naturopathy, and that’s a short list of the quackery that falls under the rubric of the term “alternative medicine.” Unfortunately, this unscientific, pre-scientific, and pseudoscientific hodge-podge of treatments rooted in nonsense is rapidly being “integrated” into real medicine, thanks to an unfortunately influential movement in medicine whose members have been seduced into thinking that there might be something to them and view “integrating” them into medicine as means of practicing more “holistic” and “humanistic” medicine. This “integration” started out by being called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) but now among believers the preferred term is usually “integrative medicine,” largely because it eliminates the word “alternative,” which implies (correctly) that the modality is not real medicine, and “complementary,” which implies a subsidiary status, a status of being nice to have but not essential.

Particularly harmful is the hostility towards conventional medicine that often strongly correlates with use of alternative medicine. Indeed, some people even choose to rely on alternative medicine instead of real medicine to treat cancer. Unsurprisingly, the results of such a decision are generally not very good. Actually, they are almost always terrible. Very, very terrible indeed. Not surprisingly, the use of alternative medicine is associated with bad outcomes. Cancer patients who might have survived die because of it. It’s not as though it hasn’t been studied either, although the main studies I’m aware of tend to look at the bad outcomes in patients who choose alternative medicine. There is another question, and it’s one that a new study published in JAMA Oncology last week seeks to answer. It’s a study that briefly made the news, producing headlines like:
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements

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Reclassifying thyroid cancer and the willful misunderstanding of overdiagnosis

This is a panel showing some of the pathologic criteria for distinguishing invasive encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid carcinoma from noninvasive. This is real science. Sayer Ji's rant is not.

This is a panel showing some of the pathologic criteria for distinguishing invasive encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid carcinoma from noninvasive. This is real science. Sayer Ji’s rant is not.

If there’s one lesson that we here at Science-Based Medicine like to emphasize, it’s that practicing medicine and surgery is complicated. Part of the reason that it’s complicated is that for many diseases our understanding is incomplete, meaning that physicians have to apply existing science to their treatment as well as they can. The biology of cancer, in particular, can be vexing. Some cancers appear to progress relentlessly, meaning that it’s obvious that all of them must be treated. Others, particularly when detected in their very early stages through screening tests, have a variable and therefore difficult to predict clinical course if left untreated. Unfortunately, some people, such as Sayer Ji, don’t understand that. They like their medicine black and white, and if physicians ever change guidelines in order to align them more closely with scientific understanding, they write blisteringly ignorant articles like “‘Oops… It Wasn’t Cancer After All,’ Admits The National Cancer Institute/JAMA.”

Not exactly. An expert panel recommended reclassifying a specific thyroid lesion as not cancerous based on recent science. It’s called medicine correcting itself. Admittedly, this reclassification was probably long overdue, but what would Mr. Ji rather have? Medicine not correcting itself in this situation? In any case, when last I met Mr. Ji, he was happily abusing the science of genetics to argue that Angelina Jolie and other carriers of deleterious cancer-causing mutations don’t need prophylactic surgery because lifestyle interventions will save them through epigenetics, which to “natural health” enthusiasts like Mr. Ji seems to mean the magical ability to prevent any disease. Most recently, he has appeared on the deeply dishonest “documentary” about alternative medicine cancer cures, The Truth About Cancer, to expound on how chemotherapy is evil. His rant about the reclassification of a non-encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid cancer as not cancer is more of the same, as you will see.
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Posted in: Cancer, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Behold my power, quacks, and despair! Mike Adams publishes several defamatory articles about yours truly…

Mike Adams seems to view me this way. It started out funny, but isn't so funny any more.

Mike Adams seems to view me this way. It started out funny, but isn’t so funny any more. Of course, Galadriel was offered The One Ring and its great power, but declined it because she was afraid of what she would become. Maybe I am like Galadriel after all.

I decided to write this post for Science-Based Medicine because I’ve taken notice of recent posts Mike Adams has written about me, mainly because they are riddled with misinformation, fabrications, and lies. Even though at least two of his claims about me made me laugh out loud because of their utter ridiculousness, much of the rest of his recent writing about me has been downright defamatory, libelous even.

The stupid stuff

Before I get into the really nasty stuff, let’s look at the stupid stuff. It’s not that the nasty stuff isn’t also stupid, but here I arbitrarily decide to divide the discussion into parts about when Adams amuses me and when he disgusts me. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from Adams’ attacks on me, it’s that, apparently, I have incredible power—possibly even superhuman! I mean, seriously. Adams really does seem to think that I have massive power over what Wikipedia does and does not publish about vaccines and medicine! Indeed, as I thought last night about what to write and even ended up staying up until 2 AM to do so (mainly because I was so exhausted after a day in the operating room that I crashed on the couch between 8 and 11 PM), I was half-tempted not to disabuse him of his apparent delusions about my overwhelming power. After all, if Adams really does think that I have so much power, why would I want to reveal to him the truth that I do not? On the other hand, far less amusing are Adams’ attempts to link Karmanos Cancer Center and me to the criminal Dr. Farid Fata, a lie by insinuation that is despicable even by his low standards. What should I expect, though, from someone who’s been running scams since Y2K and posting threats against GMO scientists?

Of course, I am not naïve enough to believe that Adams doesn’t actually know damned well that I don’t have that level of influence on Wikipedia. Rather, it’s all a sham, a con man’s patter, to convince his readers that I’m a major player in a conspiracy to manipulate health articles on Wikipedia from behind the scenes. He uses such fabricated stories as tools to fire up his gullible and stupid followers. Does Adams even realize how ridiculous his articles come across with their overwrought language? In fact, I laughed out loud when I read that Arianna Huffington and I “are not directly murdering children, but they are doing everything in their power to kill any truthful discussion about vaccine damage (that might save children)” and then this:
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Posted in: Announcements, Health Fraud

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Acupuncture does not work for menopause: A tale of two acupuncture studies

Women looking for relief from hot flashes will be disappointed if they think acupuncture will help them.

Women looking for relief from hot flashes will be disappointed if they think acupuncture will help them.

Arguably, one of the most popular forms of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) being “integrated” with real medicine by those who label their specialty “integrative medicine” is acupuncture. It’s particularly popular in academic medical centers as a subject of what I like to refer to as “quackademic medicine“; that is, the study of pseudoscience and quackery as though it were real medicine. Consider this. It’s very difficult to find academic medical centers that will proclaim that they offer, for example, The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy). True, a lot of integrative medicine programs at academic medical centers do offer homeopathy. They just don’t do it directly or mention it on their websites. Instead, they offer naturopathy, and, as I’ve discussed several times, homeopathy is an integral—nay, required—part of naturopathy. (After graduation from naturopathy school, freshly minted naturopaths are even tested on homeopathy when they take the NPLEX, the naturopathic licensing examination.) Personally, I find this unwillingness of academic medical centers that offer naturopathy to admit to offering homeopathy somewhat promising, as it tells me that even at quackademic medical centers there are still CAM modalities too quacky for them to want to be openly associated with. That optimism rapidly fades when I contemplate what a hodge-podge of quackery naturopathy is and how many academic integrative medicine programs offer it.

If you believe acupuncturists, acupuncture can be used to treat almost anything. Anyone with a reasonable grasp of critical thinking should recognize that a claim that an intervention, whatever it is, can treat many unrelated disorders is a huge red flag that that intervention is almost certainly not science-based and is probably quackery. So it is with acupuncture; yet, that hasn’t stopped the doyens of integrative medicine at the most respected medical schools from being seduced by the mysticism of acupuncture and studying it. I can’t entirely blame them. I must admit, there was a time when even I thought that there might be something to acupuncture. After all, unlike so many other CAM interventions, acupuncture involved doing something physical, inserting actual needles into the body. However, as I critically examined more and more acupuncture studies, I eventually came to agree with David Colquhoun and Steve Novella that acupuncture is nothing more than a “theatrical placebo.”
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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You’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. How soon do you need treatment?

Breast Cancer Surgery
A new year is upon us yet again, and Science-Based Medicine has been in existence for eight years now. It seems only yesterday that Steve Novella approached me to ask me to be a contributor. Our part-serious, part-facetious predictions for 2016 notwithstanding, one thing about 2016 is certain: I will almost certainly encounter some form of cancer quackery or other and deconstruct it, probably multiple forms. In any case, a topic I’ve been meaning to write about is based on a couple of studies that came out three weeks ago that illustrate why, even if a patient ultimately comes around to science-based treatment of his cancer, the delay due to seeking out unscientific treatments can have real consequences.

When a patient with breast cancer comes in to see me, not infrequently I have to reassure her that she doesn’t need to be wheeled off to the operating room tomorrow, that it’s safe to wait a while. One reason, of course, is that it takes years for a cancer to grow from a single cell to a detectable mass. The big question, of course, is: What is “a while”? Two studies published online last month attempt to answer that question. One study (Bleicher et al) comes from Fox Chase Cancer Center and examines the effect of time to surgery on breast cancer outcomes; the other (Chavez-MacGregor et al) is from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and examines the effect of time to chemotherapy on outcome. Both find a detrimental effect due to delays in treatment.
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Posted in: Cancer, Surgical Procedures

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Choosing Wisely: Changing medical practice is hard

OK, so Choosing Wisely isn't quite like this, but it's still very important.

OK, so Choosing Wisely isn’t quite like this, but it’s still very important.

We here at Science-Based Medicine like to point out that arguably the most striking difference between science-based medicine (and the evidence-based medicine from which we distinguish it) and alternative medicine, “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or (as it’s called now) “integrative medicine” is a concerted effort to change for the better. In other words, in SBM, we are continually doing studies to improve practice. These studies take on two general forms: Comparing new treatments with old to determine if the new treatments work better and, as has become an imperative over the last several years supported by more research dollars, comparing existing treatments in order to determine which ones work better. In the case of the former, we are trying to add to our knowledge and thereby add more effective treatments, while in the case of the latter we are trying to weed out treatments that are less effective and/or less safe or that cost more money to produce the same results. Indeed, the rise of an explicit framework, evidence-based medicine, is a result of the desire of medicine as a profession to improve what it is doing. (Yes, I know this blog frequently criticizes EBM, but in the case of treatments that have science behind them EBM and SBM should be—and usually are—synonymous.) This is in marked contrast to CAM, where treatments based on prescientific vitalism never, ever go away, no matter how many clinical trials show them to be no better than placebo and basic science shows them to be ludicrously disconnected from reality.

An example of this imperative to make things better is Choosing Wisely. This is an initiative launched in 2012 in which the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) Foundation challenged specialty societies to produce lists of tests and interventions that doctors in their specialty routinely use but that are not supported by evidence. The explicit goal of Choosing Wisely was to identify and promote care that is (1) supported by evidence; (2) not duplicative of other tests or procedures already received; (3) free from harm; and (4) truly necessary. In response to this challenge, medical specialty societies asked their members to “choose wisely” by identifying tests or procedures commonly used in their field whose necessity should be questioned and discussed. The resulting lists of “Things Providers and Patients Should Question” was designed to spark discussion about the need—or lack thereof—for many frequently ordered tests or treatments.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Quality Improvement

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“Liquid biopsies” for cancer screening: Life-saving tests, or overdiagnosis and overtreatment taken to a new level?

Could a blood draw be all you need to diagnose cancer and identify the best treatment for it? Not so fast...

Could a blood draw be all you need to diagnose cancer and identify the best treatment for it? Not so fast…

I’ve written many times about how the relationship between the early detection of cancer and decreased mortality from cancer is not nearly as straightforward as the average person—even the average doctor—thinks, the first time being in the very first year of this blog’s existence. Since then, the complexities and overpromising of various screening modalities designed to detect disease at an early, asymptomatic phase have become a relatively frequent topic on this blog. Before that, on my not-so-super-secret other blog, I noted that screening MRI for breast cancer and whole body CT scans intended to detect other cancers early were not scientifically supported and thus were far more likely to cause harm than good. That was well over ten years ago. Now we have a company offering what it refers to as a “liquid biopsy” for the early detection of cancer. I fear that this is the recipe for the ultimate in overdiagnosis. I will explain.

The problem, of course, is that disease progression, including cancer progression, is not always a linear process, in which the disease progresses relentlessly through its preclinical, asymptomatic phase to symptoms to complications to (depending on the disease) death. There is such a thing as disease that remains asymptomatic and never progresses (at which point it’s hard to justify actually calling it a disease). As I pointed out in my first SBM post on the topic, at least three-quarters of men over 80 have evidence of prostate cancer in autopsy series. Yet nowhere near three-quarters of men in their 80s die of prostate cancer—or ever manifest symptoms from it. This is what is meant by overdiagnosis, the diagnosis of disease that doesn’t need to be treated, that would never cause a patient problems.

When teaching medical students and residents, I frequently emphasize that overdiagnosis is different from a false positive because overdiagnosis does diagnose an actual abnormality or disease. For example, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) diagnosed by mammography leading to a biopsy is a real pathological abnormality; it is not a false positive. We just do not know which cases of DCIS will progress to cancer and which will not, leading to a question of how DCIS should be treated or at the very least whether we should treat it as aggressively as we do now, particularly given that the apparent incidence of DCIS has increased 16-fold since the 1970s, all of it due to mammographic screening programs and the increased diagnosis of DCIS and early stage breast cancer has not resulted in nearly as much of a decrease in the diagnosis of advanced stage breast cancer as one would expect if early diagnosis were having an impact in reducing the diagnosis of late stage disease.

Overdiagnosis would not be such an issue if it didn’t inevitably lead to overtreatment. DCIS, for instance, is treated with surgery, radiation, and anti-estrogen drugs. Early stage prostate cancer used to be treated with radical prostatectomy, but now more frequently with radiation. Many of these men and women didn’t actually need treatment. We just don’t know which ones. This is why over the last six or seven years a significant rethinking of screening for breast and prostate cancer has occurred. There has been a backlash, of course, but the rethinking seems to have taken hold.

Not everywhere, of course. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health

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“Precision medicine”: Hope, hype, or both?

The cost to sequence a whole genome has been plummeting impressively since 2007.

The cost to sequence a whole genome has been plummeting impressively since 2007.

I am fortunate to have become a physician in a time of great scientific progress. Back when I was in college and medical school, the thought that we would one day be able to sequence the human genome (and now sequence hundreds of cancer genomes), to measure the expression of every gene in the genome simultaneously on a single “gene chip,” and to assess the relative abundance of every RNA transcript, coding and noncoding (such as microRNAs) simultaneously through next generation sequencing (NGS) techniques was considered, if not science fiction, so far off in the future as to be unlikely to impact medicine in my career. Yet here I am, mid-career, and all of these are a reality. The cost of rapidly sequencing a genome has plummeted. Basically, the first human genome cost nearly $3 billion to sequence, while recent developments in sequencing technology have brought that cost down to the point where the “$1,000 genome” is within sight, if not already here, as illustrated in the graph above published by the National Human Genome Research Institute. Whether the “$1,000 genome” is truly here or not, the price is down to a few thousand dollars. Compare that to the cost of, for instance, the OncoType DX 21-gene assay for estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer, which costs nearly $4,000 and is paid for by insurance because its results can spare many women from even more expensive chemotherapy.

So, ready or not, genomic medicine is here, whether we know enough or not to interpret the results in individual patients and use it to benefit them, so much so that President Obama announced a $215 million plan for research in genomic mapping and precision medicine known as the Precision Medicine Initiative. Meanwhile, the deeply flawed yet popular 21st Century Cures bill, which passed the House of Representatives, bets heavily on genomic research and precision medicine. As I mentioned when I discussed the bill, it’s not so much the genomic medicine funding that is the major flaw in the bill but rather its underlying assumption that encouraging the FDA to decrease the burden of evidence to approve new drugs and devices will magically lead to an explosion in “21st century cures,” the same old antiregulatory wine in a slightly new bottle. Be that as it may, one way or the other, the federal government is poised to spend lots of money on precision medicine.

Because I’m a cancer doctor, and, if there’s one area in medicine in which precision medicine is being hyped the hardest, it’s hard for me not to think that the sea change that is going on in medicine really hit the national consciousness four years ago. That was when Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs revealed that after his cancer had recurred as metastatic disease in 2010. Jobs had consulted with research teams at Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and the Broad Institute to have the genome of his cancer and normal tissue sequenced, one of the first twenty people in the world to have this information. At the time (2010-2011), each genome sequence cost $100,000, which Jobs could easily afford. Scientists and oncologists looked at this information and used it to choose various targeted therapies for Jobs throughout the remainder of his life, and Jobs met with all his doctors and researchers from the three institutions working on the DNA from his cancer at the Four Seasons Hotel in Palo Alto to discuss the genetic signatures found in Jobs’ cancer and how best to target them. Jobs’ case, as we now know, was a failure. However much Jobs’ team tried to stay one step ahead of his cancer, the cancer caught up and passed whatever they could do. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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The uncertainty surrounding mammography continues

Screening mammography

Mammography is a topic that, as a breast surgeon, I can’t get away from. It’s a tool that those of us who treat breast cancer patients have used for over 30 years to detect breast cancer earlier in asymptomatic women and thus decrease their risk of dying of breast cancer through early intervention. We have always known, however, that mammography is an imperfect tool. Oddly enough, its imperfections come from two different directions. On the one hand, in women with dense breasts its sensitivity can be maddeningly low, leading it to miss breast cancers camouflaged by the surrounding dense breast tissue. On the other hand, it can be “too good” in that it can diagnose cancers at a very early stage.

Early detection isn’t always better

While intuitively such early detection would seem to be an unalloyed Good Thing, it isn’t always. Although screening for early cancers appears to improve survival, the phenomenon of lead time bias can mean that detecting a disease early only appears to improve survival even if earlier treatment has no impact whatsoever on the progression of the disease. Teasing out a true improvement in treatment outcomes from lead time bias is not trivial. Part of the reason why early detection might not always lead to improvements in outcome is because of a phenomenon called overdiagnosis. Basically, overdiagnosis is the diagnosis of disease (in this case breast cancer but it is also an issue for other cancers) that would, if left untreated, never endanger the health or life of a patient, either because it never progresses or because it progresses so slowly that the patient will die of something else (old age, even) before the disease ever becomes symptomatic. Estimates of overdiagnosis due to mammography have been reported to be as high as one in five or even one in three. (Remember, the patients in these studies are not patients with a lump or other symptoms, but women whose cancer was detected only through mammography!) Part of the evidence for overdiagnosis includes a 16-fold increase in incidence since 1975 of a breast cancer precursor known as ductal carcinoma in situ, which is almost certainly not due to biology but to the introduction of mass screening programs in the 1980s.

As a result of studies published over the last few years, the efficacy of screening mammography in decreasing breast cancer mortality has been called into question. For instance, in 2012 a study in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) by Archie Bleyer and H. Gilbert Welch found that, while there had been a doubling in the number of cases of early stage breast cancer in the 30 years since mass mammographic screening programs had been instituted, this increase wasn’t associated with a comparable decrease in diagnoses of late stage cancers, as one would expect if early detection was taking early stage cancers out of the “cancer pool” by preventing their progression. That’s not to say that Bleyer and Welch didn’t find that late stage cancer diagnoses decreased, only that they didn’t decrease nearly as much as the diagnosis of early stage cancers increased, and they estimated the rate of overdiagnosis to be 31%. These results are in marked contrast to the promotion of mammography sometimes used by advocacy groups. Last year, the 25 year followup for the Canadian National Breast Screening Study (CNBSS) was published. The CNBSS is a large, randomized clinical trial started in the 1980s to examine the effect of mammographic screening on mortality. The conclusion thus far? That screening with mammography is not associated with a decrease in mortality from breast cancer. Naturally, there was pushback by radiology groups, but their arguments were, in general, not convincing. In any case, mammographic screening resulted in decreases in breast cancer mortality in randomized studies, but those studies were done decades ago, and treatments have improved markedly since, leaving open the question of whether it was the mammographic screening or better adjuvant treatments that caused the decrease in mortality from breast cancer that we have observed over the last 20 years.

Given that it’s been a while since I’ve looked at the topic (other than a dissection of well-meaning but misguided mandatory breast density reporting laws a month ago), I thought now would be a good time to look at some newer evidence in light of the publication of a new study that’s producing familiar headlines, such as “Mammograms may not reduce breast cancer deaths“.

Here we go again.
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health

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