A Call for Honesty

By all accounts, an important part of motivating people to action is to use eye-opening facts and inspirational language. But all too often, well-meaning attempts to motivate give in to the temptation to go just a bit further, and wind up stretching credibility. That’s why a blog post by Jody Schoger appearing this week online at Oncology Times is such a welcome discussion.

Schoger, herself an active voice in cancer survivorship, particularly breast cancer, calls out a report from a leading breast cancer organization. The report, “Ending Breast Cancer: A Baseline Status Report,” was in essence marching orders for a conference to discuss the group’s mission “to end breast cancer by January 1, 2020.”

“I was startled by assertions like this: Despite public perception to the contrary, the US has made little progress toward ending breast cancer.

“To understand what the public thinks or doesn’t think about progress in treating breast cancer is something that should have been measured to make that claim, but it wasn’t.”

Public perception in only half the story. Then she challenges the rest of the claim: that “little progress” has been made against breast cancer, a key aspect of the report, doubtlessly repeated to inspire those attending the conference to do more. As Schoger points out, that claim is belied by the facts, which she quotes from Siddhartha Mukherjee’s recent book:

“On the trip home from the conference I opened Emperor of All Maladies again. Mukherjee says this: ‘Between 1990 and 2005, breast cancer mortality had dwindled an unprecedented 24 percent.'”

Indeed, the mortality rate for female breast cancer has been a very positive development, and yet it’s a statistic not a lot of people are aware of. Hence, the report’s claim of “little progress” went unchallenged until now.

Schoger also takes issue with the report’s very foundation.

“Who wouldn’t be against ending any cancer, not to mention breast cancer, the thief that steals Mothers and wounds sisters?

“The implication there is obvious (i.e., read: big bad pharma, giant corporations, hospitals, etc.) and overly simplistic. Is this the kind of appeal we really need to combat an illness that – as Siddhartha Mukherjee writes – ‘evolves as we do?'”

In the end, Schoger comes to a conclusion that is at once refreshing and ironically is itself inspirational.

“We don’t need rhetoric to motivate women to get on this bus, nor do we need buckets of pink merchandise to ‘buy’ into an illusion that those pennies per dollar are directly fueling innovative breast cancer research. We need fewer images, less posturing, and more leadership.”

Strong words, and it will be interesting to see if others in the community weigh in. Even if they don’t, Ms. Schoger, who I’ve come to respect and enjoy as a reasonable voice in activism, has issued a challenge to her peers, and it deserves our attention.

About David Sampson

I am the director of medical and scientific communications for the American Cancer Society national home office.
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3 Responses to A Call for Honesty

  1. Pingback: Some inspirational reading for the Memorial weekend | Pharma Strategy Blog

  2. breastcanceradvocate says:

    We are glad Jody Schoger was able to attend NBCC’s conference and that she was so pleased with the quality of the presentations. We are, however, sorry that she misunderstood what was presented in our Breast Cancer Deadline 2020 Progress Report. We stand by our statistics, obtained from the National Cancer Institute SEER database (mortality statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics). The decrease in mortality rates was in fact discussed in Mortality and Survival, section 2.5, and the data is presented graphically on page 19. In reading the report you will see we acknowledge the actual changes in rate and raw numbers. Moreover, our report looks at progress in breast cancer in an overarching context and we address broader issues of breast cancer, such as the lack of impact from screening on the incidence of late stage breast cancer (steady since 1975). We understand that you may have a different perspective, but as a group that represents thousands of women who have had breast cancer and their families, we stand by our conclusion: There has been little progress in preventing breast cancer or in preventing deaths from breast cancer, despite significant resources directed at the disease over the last several decades. While you imply otherwise, our message and our work are not at all simplistic: we address the Deadline with a complex, strategic plan to achieve it. We trust our members and those decision makers who are truly interested in ending breast cancer as a mission and not a slogan, are capable of taking on the complexity required to meaningfully push toward that goal.

    • sallygchurch says:

      It’s interesting that you feel that preventing deaths from breast cancer has not improved when the SEER and American Cancer Society statistics clearly show otherwise.

      I looked at the mortality statistics from the ACS Breast Cancer Facts and Figures and sure enough on Page 6, mortality in the US from this disease has been steadily declining:

      The original source is here for reference: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@nho/documents/document/f861009final90809pdf.pdf

      Looking at those numbers, I would say that things are improving and would disagree with your conclusions.

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