Breast-cancer stats

Like everyone else, I was sorry to hear that journalist Andrea Mitchell had been diagnosed with breast cancer and happy to hear her upbeat appraisal of her prospects. And, like everyone else, I wish her well and hope for her continued good health.

But two statements she made when announcing her news gave me pause. She said that her diagnosis put her among the “1 in 8” women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. And she said that the disease can be “completely curable if you find it at the right time.”

Those commonly cited bits of information are rooted in fact -- but often misinterpreted.

The “1 in 8” figure has long served as the basis for a macabre parlor game for women: If I’m in a room with seven other gals, it spurs us to speculate, which one of us will get breast cancer? But the “1 in 8” doesn’t work that way: It’s really an expression of an individual woman’s lifetime probability of getting breast cancer. It’s also a figure that changes according to our age and can be influenced by lifestyle factors such as alcohol consumption (which boosts breast-cancer risk).

As for the timing of breast-cancer diagnosis and curability, the latest data show that a woman whose breast cancer is localized to the breast when it’s diagnosed has close to a 98 percent chance of surviving for five years beyond her diagnosis. That figure is not based on how early the cancer is found but rather on how much of your body it has invaded when it’s found. It’s a subtle but important difference. Survival rates decrease among women whose breast cancer is discovered when it is present beyond the breast.

Turns out I’m not the only one compelled (though reluctantly) to nitpick. Read this excellent and instructive blog entry by health-journalism-watchdog Gary Schwitzer for another look at these breast-cancer statistics.

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