CHICAGO - On the eve of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a new survey suggests raising awareness of the disease is a misplaced priority.
The vast majority of women already consider themselves quite knowledgeable about the disease, which is expected to kill 40,000 women in the United States this year. But their "knowledge" often includes more myth than fact, the survey found.
"We're surrounded by pink ribbons and other messages about raising awareness," said Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, which commissioned the survey. "But these popular efforts lull the public into a false sense that adequate progress is being made.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there," Visco added. "In order to take meaningful action, we need to educate, not just raise awareness."
One "stunning" example of such misinformation, she said, is that people still believe heredity is the cause of the majority of breast cancer cases, although in reality only 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancer is caused by genetic mutations that can be inherited.
"Women need to understand that just because they don't have a family history, that doesn't mean they're not at risk," Visco said.
The survey, which is being released today, also found that 7 out of 10 women believe eating enough fruits and vegetables can help prevent breast cancer. In reality, there's no good evidence that is true.
n The majority of all women (and nearly two-thirds of those age 18 to 24) believe breast cancer can be prevented. In reality, there are only a few things women can do to reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of developing the disease, such as not drinking alcohol and not taking hormones. The biggest risk factors are being female and getting older.
n Nearly all women believe early detection of breast cancer is important for saving lives, and 4 out of 10 think self-exam is the best way to find the disease early - the same proportion that think mammograms are the best way. But large clinical trials have shown that self-exams do not prevent death from breast cancer, although they do lead to anxiety and unnecessary biopsies.
Even mammography screening, which has been shown to reduce the risk of dying of breast cancer, is less effective than most women think, Visco said. Mammograms can be inaccurate and come with unadvertised costs, including the risk of being diagnosed and treated for a tumor that would never have caused problems.
"Women want to believe there's a way to find it early, and that finding it early is enough to save their life," Visco said.
The National Breast Cancer Coalition's immediate priority, she said, is to make certain the public and political candidates are informed, "so we can set the right public policy to fight breast cancer."
Visco, a former attorney and 20-year breast cancer survivor, said a great deal remains to be learned before the disease can be defeated: "We don't know how to prevent breast cancer. We don't know how to detect it truly early. We don't know how to cure it. And we don't know enough about what puts us at risk for it."
Because public policy is essentially a political issue, she said, the coalition has launched the Breast Cancer Caucus (www.breastcancercaucus.org), asking all presidential candidates to outline their plans for universal health care and their specific approaches to breast cancer research, prevention and care.
"Every candidate has been asked to give us a three-minute video and to explain their position on our public policy agenda," said Visco.