Asking for the evidence on claims about breast cancer risk

After Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy announcement I was passed an issue of a magazine called ‘What Doctor’s Don’t Tell You’ (WDDTY).  For those that are unaware this is a magazine that says it provides ‘health information to change people’s lives for the better’ but in reality it promotes the use of unproven alternative medicine, often as a replacement for conventional therapy.

The issue I was given had a feature about Jolie’s mastectomy stating that her risk of breast cancer is not as high as she was told, that doctors hide information from people regarding their risk and that mastectomies are not an effective way of reducing risk for women like Jolie. This rang all sorts of alarm bells so I decided to dissect the claims made in the article.  What I found was quite disturbing.

The variety of ways that the authors misused and abused scientific evidence and scientific language to make their claims was shocking. They describe family history as being the same as genetic history, telling readers that just because Jolie has had family affected by breast cancer, her risk is not as high as reported.  They reference a research paper that does indeed show this but the paper didn’t look at BRCA mutations – which Jolie carries – making the paper irrelevant to her particular breast cancer risk.

Information from published scientific work is cherry-picked. They cite studies that don’t even back up what they claim in the text and paraphrases text from studies so it looks like they support their arguments. And finally they use irrelevant and incorrect information to substantiate their claims, including stating that lymphoma is a type of breast cancer when it is a blood cancer.

The article that I dissected is by no means the worst offender in the magazine nor is it the only dangerous piece of public health information published amongst their pages.  Alan Henness was kind enough to send me copies of every WDDTY and there is ill-informed advice on vaccination, heart disease, arthritis, dementia, all cancers, colds, flu, HIV….the list goes on.

I wanted to take some sort of action about this so I wrote a letter, with the help of Sense about Science, asking for evidence about their claims.  I want to encourage others to do the same.  The more people Ask for Evidence and publish the responses they get, the more often people will find it when searching for information about treatments for breast cancer. We can’t let this kind of misrepresentation of evidence go unchallenged.

For the full version of this blog post including more detailed dissection of the article and the letter written to WDDTY please click here.

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