breast cancer pink ribbonAndrea Mitchell, 65, the NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent, announced on the air Wednesday that she has breast cancer and asserted that 1-in-8 women in America today (almost 20 15 million) have breast cancer.

“I had planned to be hiking in Wyoming last week,” Mitchell said, “but instead discovered that I am now among the one in eight women in this country–incredibly, one in eight–who have had breast cancer. Mine was discovered during my annual screening just a short time ago. Luckily for me I am one of the fortunate ones. We discovered it in the earliest stage. It had not spread, and I’m already back at work with a terrific prognosis.” (emphasis added)

I wish her well … and I’m glad for the PSA: “Screening matters. Do it.” Early detection is important.

But 1-in-8 women living in the U.S. today do not have breast cancer.

The lifetime risk of a woman in the US having breast cancer is 1-in-8.

In 2007, an estimated 6,361,000 American women were living with a diagnosis of breast cancer, slightly more than half of all Americans with cancer. That’s called prevalence, “the total number of people living with cancer at any point in time.”

The U.S. Census has estimated that there were 301,579,895 Americans — 152,967,793 of them women — in July 2007. That’s means 4 percent of America’s female population had been diagnosed with breast cancer; that’s approximately 4-in-100 or 1-in-25. Subtract the approximately 30 million who are younger than age 15 and the number changes to 5-in-100 or 1-in-20 — a far cry from 1 in 8.

I’ve not seen a single news story that has corrected her statistic. Journalism as stenography remains the rule, not the exception.

About Cancer Risk

The risk of breast cancer, any cancer, increases with age. Mitchell will be 65 next month. The breast cancer risk for women aged 60-69 is 3.45 percent or 1-in-29. In my age group, the risk is 2.38 percent or 1-in-42.

I’m well aware of these risks as I found myself launched into “high risk” in March after a questionable annual mammogram morphed into a biopsy which morphed into a surgical biopsy (lumpectomy). My diagnoses : lobular carcinoma in situ, a marker for an increased risk of invasive cancer in the same or both breasts, and atypical ductal hyperplasia, a marker for an increased risk of invasive cancer in the same breast. My risk has jumped from 1-in-8 lifetime risk to 1-in-4.

Tomorrow I have my first bilateral MRI and a followup mammogram. I’ll be having tests every six months for at least two years, according to my oncologist.

As scary as breast cancer is — seems to be — it’s not what kills most woman in America. That’s heart disease, which kills six times as many women as breast cancer.

KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
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Copyright 2011 The Moderate Voice
  • Quelcrist Falconer

    BTW, That’s Mrs Andrea Greenspan.

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    Kathy, you are in my family’s prayers immediately for robust health and healthy tissue everywhere in your body. We’ll pray too for knowing mind, calm heart.

    Appreciate the info you corrected above. Thank you

    with kind regards,
    dr.e

  • Thanks, Dr E!

  • Yes, Kathy, I do a LOT of interdemoniational prayer and your name will be included on my list

  • njbookwoman

    Thanks for your clear explanation of the statistics. Not many people really understand them.

    I do have one comment on your comparison (and marginalization) of breast cancer compared to heart disease.
    Yes, heart disease kills more women, but breast cancer can strike women at an earlier age and younger patients usually have a more aggressive type of cancer. Also, there are known risk factors for heart disease which place some control on the patient: monitor and treat your cholesterol, high blood pressure; eat a healthy diet, exercise. Compare them to the known, proven risk factors for breast cancer (age, family history, date of first menses, African American, Ashkenazi Jew) and you’ll see that these factors are really out of our control.

  • davidpsummers

    The author is quite right. I don’t think such things are beyond the ability of the average person to understand. People are too quick to accept numbers that seem to say what they want them to say without looking at them critically.

  • Thank you, Joe and David.

    njbookwoman – I appreciate your observation that breast cancer can strike the “young” while we think of heart disease as being something that affects “the old.” However, less than 5 percent of all breast cancers occur in women under age 40. And most women who have breast cancer have no genetic or other predisposition (ie “warning”). [Note: I’m not talking about people who have had genetic screening and know that they have BRCA1 and BRCA2.] There are many diseases which happen due to circumstances beyond our control — moreover, all heart disease is not preventable.

    But I think you have made an important point about our fear of cancer and our ability to make reasoned risk assessment: we fear “more” things where we perceive we have no control (cancer, flying in airplanes) and we fear “less” things where we have control (heart disease, driving our car). In both cases, in general our FEAR is misplaced relative to risk.

    Updated: Only about 0.2% of the U.S. population carries a BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 mutation. http://labtestsonline.org/understanding/analytes/brca/tab/test

    About 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are hereditary (ie, genetic-linked). In Ashkenazi Jews, three BRCA mutations in particular are more common, with one in 40 people carrying one of these common BRCA mutations.
    http://www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/8623.cfm#45818

    In addition, not all women who test positive for one of the known mutations will develop cancer, nor is there a 100 percent effective means of preventing either breast or ovarian cancer once a mutation is discovered… If, for example, such women test positive for a mutation, there are a numbers of options she can pursue to lower her risk for the disease. These options include more aggressive screening guidelines, taking preventive medications, having prophylactic surgery, or altering lifestyles to reduce risk. If, on the other hand, a woman tests negative for a mutation that is known to run in their family, she can have the relief of knowing that she is at no greater risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer than are members of the population at large and thus does not need to follow more aggressive screening and prevention guidelines.
    http://www.genetichealth.com/BROV_Genetic_Testing_for_Breast_and_Ovarian_Cancer.shtml