Komen’s funding of research drops; writer looks at charity’s message vs. science

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Amid the controversy over the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation’s changes in funding for Planned Parenthood, Reuters’ reporters Sharon Begley and Janet Roberts took a look at the organization’s financial statements.

Their analysis shows that the charity has “cut by nearly half the proportion of fund-raising dollars it spends on grants to scientists working to understand the causes and develop effective new treatments for the disease.”

In 2008, it spent 29 percent of its donations on research awards. In 2011, that number was down to 15 percent.

Reuters reports that, according to the 2011 financial statement, “43 percent of donations were spent on education, 18 percent on fund-raising and administration, 15 percent on research awards and grants, 12 percent on screening and 5 percent on treatment.”

Meanwhile, AHCJ member and independent journalist Christie Aschwanden writes that the real scandal lies with the organization’s “science denialism.” She says it has perpetuated the “notion that breast cancer is a uniformly progressive disease that starts small and only grows and spreads if you don’t stop it in time” – breast cancer’s false narrative.

Aschwanden points out that Komen’s insistence that women be “screened now” and that early detection saves lives, as proclaimed in its ads, “flies in the face of basic cancer biology” as well as places blame on people who have metastatic breast cancer. The piece is well worth a read, especially to find out what Komen’s own chief scientific adviser says about the organization’s message.

And, for a re-cap of the Komen saga, ProPublica has put together a handy timeline of Komen’s “Shifting Story on Planned Parenthood.”

One thought on “Komen’s funding of research drops; writer looks at charity’s message vs. science

  1. Elaine Schattner, MD

    It seems misleading not to point out (as does the Reuters’ piece) that the absolute amount of dollars Komen has contributed to research has increased over the past decade. That said, the Reuters article includes several statements that are biased and/or untrue.

    For example, the authors write, in a single unqualified paragraph: “Although screening mammography detects breast cancer earlier than waiting for symptoms to appear, it does not decrease mortality from breast cancer as scientists, advocates, and public health experts had hoped.”

    In 2009 the USPSTF found, upon extensive review of old data (from the 1980s through ~2003) that a small number of lives were saved upon population-based screening. Mammography has improved significantly since 1990, such that it involves less radiation and – when performed by trained specialists using appropriate tools – is more accurate than it was back then. Meanwhile at least one major study, from Sweden, demonstrated a benefit of mammography screening in women over the age of 40. Most oncologists and breast surgeons attribute the approximately 35% decline in mortality from breast cancer since 1985 to a combination of early detection and better treatments. (It is hard for epidemiologists or anyone to sort out what percent is due to treatment and what percent is due to screening.) To state that improved survival comes mainly from better cancer drugs is mistaken, as much as it would be incorrect to attribute all the benefit to screening.

    Why I write this, here, is that the language of “science denialism,” as used above, is quite strong. Leaders in health care journalism, as AHCJ includes, can be powerful in directing the public’s opinion. I’d hope that editors and media “watchdogs” are open-minded to the possibility, at least, that mammography might be beneficial. But if journalists routinely dismiss positive findings on mammography, and herald negative findings without scrutiny, women will be misled. Informed medical decisions require a nuanced and fair discussion of current information, including mention of problems with the data, on both sides.

    In my opinion, and I call it that as others might theirs – because it amounts to an informed interpretation of imperfect science, mammography is responsible for saving thousands of middle-aged women’s lives each year in the U.S. and, at the minimum, sparing them the harmful effects and costs of (short) life-long treatment for metastatic disease. If there were an effective way to prevent breast cancer, or a better screening tool, that would render mammography obsolete. Until then, it seems worthwhile to focus on the quality and safety of mammography in different places, and how that could be improved, rather than just criticizing the procedure to no end.

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