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

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  • Ruthie Benjamin

    Thank you for writing about this in the way you did.  I saw her that day and I too have respected her and think she does an excellent job.  I didn’t listen to any statistics, I just listen to her sharing it .. but I thought she was going away .. I didn’t realize she would be back.  I was thinking it was “I’ll be gone a few weeks.”  I personally don’t like to hear people asking for donations and being pink survivors.  I’m very happy everyone caught it and survived .. and I don’t mean to sound bitter, but I’m 63 and have had 2 mammograms.  My grandmother had a mastectomy.  I have no health insurance and have not had it other than 1 year and for a few months as a provisional spouse in Australia.  My income, taking SS and part time medical transcription, allowed me a grand total of $14,000 as an income last year.  I can’t get any assistance, as that’s too high .. though I have no property, no car, nothing.  I know I’m responsible and all that jazz .. but our jobs were outsourced.  Nevertheless (ADD here), if something was found, like breast cancer, could I get treated?  In California, that was only thing I could be treated for with medicaid.  Fortunately .. with my long experience working in the medical field (administrative).

    So .. when someone asks me to donate now or wear a pink ribbon I pay no attention.  I’ve been on their sites and they want donations, but I’ve never even found a lead to help uninsured women who are on their own.  Personally, there are times I’d love to scream them away, but I can understand the bond of the women who have had to go through that, so I don’t.  I don’t think I do like that Andrea announced it then .. instead of when she’ll have to take leave.  But .. it really doesn’t matter. ♥ 

  • Rob Lindeman

    In another arena, former Florida State football head coach Bobby Bowden concealed the fact that he was treated for prostate cancer in 2007, so as to deprive other schools of a means to draw recruits away from FSU.  So perhaps we could ask, re: Andrea Mitchell, cui bono?

    • Anonymous

      Rob, I’m not sure it’s OK to compare Andrea Mitchell with Booby Bowden because Bowden was paid by pharmaceutical companies to talk about his condition. I don’t think that she would receive anything by encouraging women get checked early. It’s misinformation by what appears a well meaning cancer patient who didn’t have her facts straight. Bloggers, including myself, have criticized journalists for misleading the public with inaccurate information. I don’t think that’s what Mitchell did with her announcement. She didn’t try hog the spotlight but share what she believed to be true at the time.

      Were the facts wrong? Yes
      Was the reason behind them disingenuous? Probably not

  • Gary Schwitzer

    Just a correction/clarification:  Kevin wrote the headline that appears above.  I didn’t.  As you can see, I don’t question whether Ms. Mitchell should have made her announcement on TV.  But I – and many women who have breast cancer and others – have questioned the framing of that message. 

    My original headline was “With best wishes for Andrea Mitchell, some criticisms of her message”

    To Rob Lindeman – I blogged about the Good Morning America Bobby Bowden segment this morning, at:

    Gary Schwitzer

  • Charles Timothy Richardson

    I agree about the criticism on screening for breast cancer. As far as screening’s effect on mastectomy surgery and breast conserving treatments, recent evidence on 35,048 women in Norway screening from 1993 to 2008 showed that the breast cancer surgery and the mastectomy rates mostly increased.

    The authors concluded:
    “In the United States an increase in the proportion of breast cancer cases treated by mastectomy has been reported in recent years, mainly explained by changes in patients’ attitudes and choices.”

    I agree that more screening tests are necessary (not just for breast cancer) so that patient choice and surgical timing can be improved.

    Tim Richardson, PT

  • Rob Lindeman

    Thanks, Gary.  Read your blog post AFTER I commented here!

  • Anonymous

    As a breast cancer survivor, I felt a twinge when Mitchell implied that with early detection, breast cancer can be cured. Mine was caught early, but that does not mean I’m cured or even out of the woods. I think talking about the disease is a good thing, and I appreciate her honest discussion of her diagnosis. One thing we learn after diagnosis, however, is that diagnosis and treatment is different for every woman. It’s highly individual and must be approached as such, especially when discussed on national TV. 

  • Expat Doctor Mom

    Dear Gary

    Well said; especially your rewording of how she might have stated her feelings without misrepresenting the facts.

    Thanks for this piece!

    Rajka Milanovic Galbraith, M.D.

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