That was a heck of the title, eh? My little pun on the "6 P's" ;)
Of all medical diseases, few are surrounded by as much politics as breast cancer. After all, who doesn't want to advance the treatment of breast cancer? The problems arise when feel good political ideas triumph over evidence based medicine and you end up with legislation which is almost sure to cause as many problems as it solves.
Enter the boldly titled "Breast Cancer Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act of 2009" (EARLY Act) introduced by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fl). For whatever reason, Rep Schultz is one one of the single most obnoxiously partisan members of congress and gets on my every last nerve when I come across her on television. Schultz's bill seeks to spend $45 million over five years to start educational campaigns that would include promoting regular breast self-exams to secondary school students, even though the this has been proven ineffective and quite possibly harmful in clinical trials.
Breast self-examination may seem an innocuous and intuitive way to assist the self-detection of breast cancer except for the fact that IT DOES NOT WORK when applied on large populations of non-selected women. All young women have dense lumps and bumps in their breasts tissue which represent fibrous breast tissue or benign cysts that become symptomatic with their menstrual cycles. Recommending breast self-exams to this group of women will cause fear, many expensive negative imaging studies, false-positive results of various screenings, and many unneeded biopsies.
There's some math you need to think about with these younger women. The probability that a woman who is age 15 years will develop invasive breast cancer by age 40 years is less than one-half of one percent (0.497%). This can be compared to a 5% probability that a 50 year old woman will develop breast cancer by age 70 years (5.62%). The American Cancer Society reports that during 2000-2004, only 5% of new cases and 3% of breast cancer deaths occurred in women under 40 years of age. For women aged 20-24, there were only 1.4 cases per 100,000 women. The goal of an effective screening program is to find disease and save lives. Unfortunately, at the end of the day there is no effective method of detecting breast cancer in a healthy population of women under 40.
Other then family history, we're currently left with little other then some of the expensive genetic tests (like BRCA1 & BRCA2)to try and select out people for closer surveillance. Despite the strong association between BRCA mutations and breast cancer (where as many as 85% would be expected to develop invasive breast cancer), only 5-10% of all breast cancer patients have BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations. This again gets back to the difficulty in effective screening.
Leslie Bernstein PhD of the City of Hope Hospital in California published an open letter to legislators considering this bill to explain why this is a poorly aimed directive and likely to cause more problems then it solved. The letter can be read here. A better public policy goal in my opinion would be to mandate insurers and Medicare to cover breast MRI for screening in high risk women.