Would you avoid medication that has the potential for tremendous benefits if taking it also meant a less than 1 percent risk for a deadly side effect?
A recent headline on a story by Reuters read, “The Pill linked to breast cancer risk for younger women.”
Because I’m well under 50 and was diagnosed with breast cancer in January — and because I was on birth control pills for 15 years — I clicked on the link, my heart in my stomach.
I’ll never know why I got breast cancer, but if it was something I did to myself, at this point, I kind of don’t want to know. I tested negative for the BRCA gene mutations. I have some family history of the disease. My lifestyle choices haven’t always been perfect. I didn’t realize, however, that birth control pills might have seriously been the culprit until I saw the Reuters headline.
The first paragraph made me want to curl up into a ball and cry.
“A new statistical analysis finds that women under age 50 who were diagnosed with breast cancer were also more likely to have recently been on some versions of the Pill.”
I put away the Kleenex after reading the second paragraph.
“The increased cancer risk still translates to less than a one percent chance of developing breast cancer for most younger women, researchers emphasize, so the results should not outweigh the many benefits of taking oral contraceptives.”
By the third paragraph I glanced up at my browser to double-check that I wasn’t actually on The Onion instead of a legitimate news site.
“These results are not enough to change clinical practice or to discourage any women from taking birth control pills,” said lead study author Elizabeth F. Beaber, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington.”
I couldn’t tell you what the fourth or any of the other paragraphs said, because at that point, I clicked away — with great disgust.
Fear mongering is hardly new (hello, Fox News) and you could even argue it’s practically a sport (all eyes are on you, Washington, D.C.), but lately it seems as if it has a special relationship with breast cancer. It’s hard for me to believe that a reputable news agency like Reuters would really scare the crap out of me — and surely plenty of other women — over a measly less than 1 percent chance.
Last month Forbes had an article about how another news headline could have mislead readers into thinking a new, more expensive type of breast cancer detection wasn’t worth the price.
“Digital mammography costlier, shows no detection-rate advantages,” said a Modern Healthcare headline.
However, as Elaine Schattner wrote for Forbes, “the take-away message may lead plenty of women, doctors and journalists to think that digital mammograms are expensive and not worth it. But the study says nothing of the sort.” The truth is what the study found is that while digital mammograms may not be beneficial for women over 65, they do, in fact, add “diagnostic value … in improving accuracy of screening younger women with dense breasts.”
While everyone should be informed about the risks and benefits of medications they take and medical procedures they undergo, blowing up the slim chance of negative side effects when the upside can be so critical seems wildly irresponsible.
If birth control pills are up to 99 percent effective in aiding in the family-planning process, a woman shouldn’t necessarily be dissuaded from taking them because there’s a less than 1 percent chance that she might get breast cancer. Hopefully those who use birth control pills talk to their doctors about the pluses and minuses, but just as so many people tend to judge a book by its cover, surely there are plenty who won’t bother to click on a link and read a story because they glanced at a headline and took it as gospel.
In theory, I want to know everything about everything, but in practice I hardly ever read the fine print. Would you avoid taking Vitamin C if you knew the list of side effects were a mile long (really, they are — and “death” is on the list. DEATH!).
Let the Reuters story be a good reminder — not of the risks of birth control pills — but of the importance of talking to our doctors and reading warning labels. We shouldn’t risk missing out on something that may really help us because we read one sensational headline written by someone who maybe wants to be of help, but is really doing more harm than good.
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