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Letter: Recent brief on breast cancer misled readers

At the beginning of October, an article appeared in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute titled "Randomized trial of breast self-examination in Shanghai: Final results."

The accompanying editorial was titled "Routinely teaching breast self-examination is dead. What does this mean?" The journal's press release was titled "Study finds no evidence that teaching breast self-examination saves lives."

Presumably based upon this press release, The New York Times published the article "Study doubts breast self-exams cut deaths."

The Times makes the leap from the conclusion that there are problems with teaching breast self-examination to questioning the efficacy of BSE itself, and delivers the message to women--don't bother.

On Oct. 2, The Chronicle picked up this story from The New York Times wire service and printed it in the News Briefs section. What happened to this story between the original research article and what The Chronicle published?

Here are two sentences from the final paragraph of the research article. "This was a trial of the teaching of breast self-examination, not of the practice of BSE. It should not be inferred from the results of this study that there would be no reduction in risk of dying from breast cancer if women practiced BSE competently and frequently."

Breast self-examination is a contentious issue, however, and despite the headlines, most health care providers are not advising their patients to quit examining their breasts for irregularities. Reporting science issues to a non-science audience is difficult, and most of the time The Chronicle staff does an excellent job.

However, in this instance by condensing a complex issue into 50 words-or-less and relying on an outside source without investigating its veracity, they have done their readers a disservice.

When stories directly impact our health and welfare, The Chronicle editors need to take greater responsibility for the accuracy of the information they print.


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