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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Got Cancer? Here Come the Marketers!

By Heather Millar


This is only my third October as a member of the “breast cancer community” and I’m already tired. I’m not sure how I’m going to face year after year of Breast Cancer Awareness Month marketing. Last week, I was away on a press trip to a wine region and was poured a glass of pink wine (white Zinfandel). “This is our pink ribbon vintage,” the server proudly announced.

Really? Breast cancer wine? Had no one informed the winemaker of the large amount of evidence that alcohol consumption increases breast cancer risk? Surely that must be some sort of marketing snafu. Yet I love wine. So I have decided in favor of moderation over abstinence. The white Zin was good. But still.

It’s exhausting to realize that your cancer diagnosis makes you forever a marketing opportunity.

I was reminded of this by a couple stories made the headlines while I was away:

First, many major news outlets carried a story saying that taking the  Centrum Silver multivitamin reduces a man’s risk of cancer, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Many stories trumpeted the language from the news release, that the 11-year study of nearly 15,000 men found that taking the vitamins reduced cancer risk by 8 percent.

Sounds pretty amazing, right? And the day after the study was released, Pfizer, the owner of the Centrum brand, took out full-page ads trumpeting that their multivitamins are “Most doctor recommended; Most preferred; Most studied.” This led some journalists to worry that they hadn’t covered the story critically enough.

So let’s unpack that number. Excellent coverage by the Associated Press explained it this way: For every 1,000 men per year in the study, there were 17 cancers among multivitamin users, and 18 cancers among those who took placebos (i.e. sugar pills). That’s not nothing, but it sounds a little less impressive that “8 percent reduction!” doesn’t it?

I’m all for vitamins, and I take them. But I think we’ve got a long way to go before we can say that they prevent cancer.

Also last week, there was a bit of excitement over a sillier story: Supposedly, a “futuristic sports bra” can detect early signs of breast cancer. The bra, which has yet to be proven and is not close to being on the market, has microwave antennae woven into the fabric. Based on the idea of “thermography,” these sensors allegedly can detect slight temperature changes that might indicate increased blood flow to the beginnings of a tumor.

Bring on the future! I’d much rather wear a sports bra than have my breasts squished in a mammogram machine. And what harried news editor could resist a story about a cancer-finding bra?

But wait a minute, an excellent analysis at Health News Review, an organization that fact-checks medical news, finds remarkably few details about the studies that supposedly back up this new invention. Almost none of the media hype quoted people in the breast cancer field. And the Food and Drug Administration has found that thermography is not an adequate substitute for mammography.

So I guess I won’t be cancelling that mammogram appointment after all.

New ideas and marketing are part of the necessary hurly-burly of a capitalist society. Just don’t pin your hopes on the latest hype. Look for science published in peer-reviewed journals that backs up marketing claims. Don’t believe every statistic and every glowing advertisement.

We cancer patients may be tired of being marketing targets, but we have to keep our wits about us. I would hate to think that any woman would cancel her mammogram because of a sports bra. Until there’s better evidence, that’s a dangerous idea.

What do you think? Have you come across anti-cancer claims that are misleading? Let me know.

Photo: Hemera

Posted by: Heather Millar at 1:00 am


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