Whenever I see one of those stylized pink ribbons pasted on a car's bumper or a few thousand of them pasted on posters carried by marching women, I have to wonder. Do they have a clue? The effort is made to remind everyone of breast cancer, to get people to donate more and to get legislators to spend more. It also provides those sporting the ribbons with a sense of solidarity and a feeling of having contributed to the cause. Unfortunately, to date, it hasn't had much of an effect. Indeed, it may even have been counter-productive.

Years ago, when I was doing research at a pharmaceutical company, I came across a cartoon that someone had taped to a lab wall. It showed a man with a flat tire stuck by the side of the road. He had his wallet out and was, one by one, throwing bills at the errant wheel. The caption read: Typical example of throwing money at a problem. But don't misunderstand. There are times when a few bucks in the right pocket will do the trick. The trick in my case was getting a new drug to market. My part was establishing test protocols. Somebody else would pay a big name in the field an outrageous consulting fee and yet another member of the team would arrange a junket for a lawmaker. Bottom Line: The government says THIS is an approved pill for THAT. Does it work? Not really.

There's a classic experiment in motivational psychology that involves paying people to, in effect, tell a lie. After taking a very boring test, subjects were encouraged to tell others that it was really interesting. Paid a couple of bucks for their fib, the subjects actually came to believe the test wasn't that bad. Why would they lie for so little? But when paid a bundle for their mendacity, they never for a moment believed it. The cash was justification enough.

The lesson to take away with you are that you can accomplish all sorts of things by throwing money at people but not a jot by throwing money at science. The fact is, after providing for basic research, piles of lucre will mostly just get in the way.

After spending more than $100 billion fighting cancer, taxpayers are being told that the battle isn't going well and that any positive reports are the result of cherry picking mediocre results. Newsweek, Fortune and Penthouse contend the much-touted War on Cancer is being lost. The New York Times reports only a very modest 5% reduction in cancer deaths (compared to 74% for cardiovascular disease and 64% for stroke over the same time period) and Source Watch tells of one expert who contends that cancer sufferers live four times longer and enjoy a higher quality of life without treatment.

But let me put a human face on this. My good friend Kristin Farson, host of the Better Times After Fifty radio show (AdviceRadio.com), recently told me of her breast cancer experience. It should serve to warn women that - despite all the ribbons and money - breast cancer is still a long way from rocket science.

"Several months after I had a mammogram, I got a letter, saying I needed to come back to the imaging center and get another mammogram. While I was there, I was sent into a little room for the longest time...I crept out and heard a technician saying to the nurse, ‘Well, it's her life we're talking about here...' I knew immediately they were talking about me. I sneaked back into the dressing room with a sense of dread...sure enough the nurse told me I needed a sonogram. After that, I was scheduled for a needle biopsy in the near future. Finally, weeks later, my doctor sent me to a surgeon: they wanted to do a biopsy/lumpectomy. I went to two other doctors; everyone said, yes, I must do it right away. So 6 months after the initial mammogram, I had it. A week later, the surgeon said the lesion was malignant. When I went into his office, to be set up with an oncologist, he said, ‘I don't want to get your hopes up but one of the pathologists says the slides do not appear to be malignant. The head of pathology --- and he's a very good guy --- says it is. So they've sent it to another place for evaluation.' Moments later, as I was getting dressed, he came back all excited: There had been A MISTAKE!!!! He didn't call it that, of course. The country's leading authority on breast cancer, at a leading university medical center, said: ‘It wasn't malignant.' Now, my doctor told me in 30 years this had only happened one other time, but I can't help wonder how many women have been falsely diagnosed...."

To better understand how statistics can be distorted, compare two patients being treated with equally worthless drugs. If a malignant tumor is discovered years earlier in one than the other, then the treatment given the first will appear to have significantly prolonged that individual's life. And too, if small carcinomas (especially in the breast and prostate) are detected early and treated aggressively, what is then listed as a "cure" may have been nothing more than a false alarm. One oncologist told me that when faced with a truly lethal growth, he could at best only add a few months to a patient's life but wasn't that worth it. I don't know...especially when you consider the cost to the family and the side effects of chemical carpet-bombing.

The truth is that we still don't know the cause of most cancers. Smoking is certainly related to lung cancer but that makes it difficult to understand a death rate in men that continued to increase into the 90's when tobacco use started to decline in the 70's. What's more, females still haven't registered the same benefit as males when they give up cigarettes. Why is that? And stomach cancer has been declining since the 30's. How come? Obviously, there's still a long way to go in combating this dreaded disease and one may wonder if we've been going in the right direction?

For additional information, see the article by Reynold Spector, MD in the Jan/Feb Skeptical Inquirer.

About the Author

Stephen Mason

Stephen B. Mason is a psychologist, a former university professor, syndicated newspaper columnist and radio talk-show host.

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