Pink is the new black this October, which marks the 30th anniversary of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. NFL players are clad in bright pink shoes and wrist bands. American Airlines employees are wearing pink uniform accents and serving complimentary pink lemonade. Police departments across the country are patrolling in pink cruisers. It’s all for a great cause. The money and awareness raised through this campaign helps to fight an insidious disease that will kill more than 40,000 women in the U.S. this year.
But the feel-good spirit is clouded by ongoing debate around the value of breast cancer screening, which is sure to be reignited by the recent announcement of new guidelines by the American Cancer Society. A recent study by JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that more frequent mammography screening results in the “widespread overdiagnosis” of breast cancer, and one its authors opined that, because of the harms caused by false alarms and unnecessary treatment of non-life threatening cancers, we should be doing fewer screenings, not more. This logic is based on data that shows more screening is associated with detection of small cancers but not with serious late-stage cancers or the overall death rate due to breast cancer.
The controversy over too much or too little mammography is completely missing the point. The real problem is our one-size-fits-all approach to breast cancer screening. It doesn’t work—especially not for the nearly 50% of women in the U.S. who have dense breast tissue.