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Detecting a Bad Breast Cancer Bill

The law also calls for a media campaign that will encourage young women “to be aware of their personal risk factors.” Sounds harmless and educational, right? But this approach ignores decades of established science that tells us there’s practically nothing a young woman can do to reduce her risk of breast cancer. One of the country’s leading federally funded breast cancer researchers, Dr. Leslie Bernstein, puts it best: “The most I could ever tell a young woman would be that she should drink in moderation, exercise, and breast-feed babies if she is able.” Bernstein, director of the division of cancer etiology at the City of Hope, opposed the bill, telling a bill sponsor that the law “cannot help reduce the burden of breast cancer in young women.”Genetic TestingThe bill also encourages young women of specific higher-risk populations, including African-Americans and Ashkenazi Jewish populations, to ask their doctor about getting genetic testing. Again, this has the potential to do more harm than good. The field of genetic screening is in its infancy, and widespread testing raises more questions than it answers. For instance, a finding of genetic mutation, while terrifying, not only offers little information, it may lead some women to overreact. Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, explained in a letter to ACS volunteers that some women with positive results may choose a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy, a procedure wherein both breasts are removed to prevent a cancer they do not, and may never, have. He wrote that “many of these women will in reality have mutations of no significance.” In addition to unnecessary, disfiguring and risky surgery, “there are already scientific data to show that many women ... will suffer significant emotional and mental harms” just from finding out they have the gene mutation.Environmental FactorsThe bill authorizes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “provide education, through written materials, identifying evidence-based methods to lower the risk of breast cancer in young women through changes in lifestyle including diet, exercise, and environmental factors.” However, despite claims by environmental activists, there are no known environmental causes of breast cancer other than high doses of radiation, an exceedingly rare cause in young women. Yet groups such as the innocuously named Breast Cancer Fund suggest that chemicals such as bisphenol-A found in plastics are a risk factor for breast cancer. A bill calling for education about environmental factors gives credibility to these unfounded claims while taking our eye off the prize: pharmaceutical advances that have been proven not only to cure breast cancer in many women but to prevent it in high-risk women. Such approaches should be the centerpiece of any breast cancer legislation and educational campaigns.Feel-good approaches like those offered in Wasserman Schultz’s popular legislation will do more harm than good. No doubt, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s courageous personal story is inspiring. But we shouldn’t mistake her courage for expertise.Jeff Stier is an associate director of the American Council on Science and Health.

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