Andrea Mitchell breast cancer thoughts

For the past 24 hours I’ve squirmed about whether to or how to criticize NBC’s Andrea Mitchell about her on-air announcement of her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. How can you criticize someone who is dealing with what she – and so many other women – are dealing with? But it’s now clear that some breast cancer survivors and others who know the science are critical of the message as well.

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All I am criticizing is the framing of her message. It appeared to be scripted and that script could have used some help. I have always had great respect for Ms. Mitchell as a journalist and wish her the best in her cancer treatment.

But when journalists use their national television platform to make health care claims or to give advice, those claims and that advice should be scrutinized.

Today a breast cancer survivor-blogger criticized part of what Ms. Mitchell said on the air, which was:

For you women out there and for the men who love you, screening matters. Do it. This disease can be completely curable if you find it at the right time.

Katherine O’Brien, of the ihatebreastcancer blog wrote:

Early detection is not a cure … “Completely curable” is a like a fat man wearing a hockey jersey. It covers a lot of ground. You have access to the top medical experts in the world-ask them what “cured” means in the setting of breast cancer.

On Twitter, breast cancer survivor Katie Ford Hall of the UneasyPink blog wrote to Ms. Mitchell:

Wishing you the best Ms Mitchell. When you feel settled, I’d love to talk 2 you abt the realities of bc “caught early” … What you said about breast cancer is harmful and untrue. You should correct it immediately.

I heard from several other expert breast cancer observers yesterday with concerns about what Mitchell said on the air.

One pointed out the misuse of the overused “1 in 8″ statistic, as when she said:

I am now among the 1 in 8 women in this country — incredibly 1 in 8 — who have had breast cancer.

As the National Cancer Institute explains thoroughly on its website:

Women born now have an average risk of 12.2 percent (often expressed as “1 in 8″) of being diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in their lives. On the other hand, the chance that they will never have breast cancer is 87.8 percent (expressed as “7 in 8″).

But that is a lifetime risk. Risk increases with age, so the NCI provides a more helpful way of looking at it – for all of those women watching who are of different ages:

A woman’s chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer is:from age 30 through age 39 . . . . . . 0.43 percent (often expressed as “1 in 233″)
from age 40 through age 49 . . . . . . 1.45 percent (often expressed as “1 in 69″)
from age 50 through age 59 . . . . . . 2.38 percent (often expressed as “1 in 42″)
from age 60 through age 69 . . . . . . 3.45 percent (often expressed as “1 in 29″)

Do you see how misleading the “1 in 8″ can be?

How could Ms. Mitchell have handled the message in a better way? I’d like to hear someone at a time like this – if they say anything – say something like this:

And now a personal note.
I don’t believe that journalists’ personal lives should become part of stories, but I am making this announcement to avoid the possible spread of any rumors or misinformation.

I’ve been diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. I’m confident in my course of treatment but I don’t wish to discuss details because my case may not be representative of what other women face. My decisions are mine and should not influence others just because I’m on TV.

As you can see, I’m already back at work and have been told my prognosis is terrific.

(Her ending about being grateful to physicians, nurses, family and co-workers could remain the same)

Let me reiterate: I wish Ms. Mitchell all the best. As she moves forward as a breast cancer survivor, perhaps she will take some of these criticisms of the message to heart.

Gary Schwitzer has specialized in health care journalism in his more than 30-year career in radio, television, interactive multimedia and the Internet.  He is publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.

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