CHICAGO -- On the eve of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a new survey suggests that raising awareness of the disease is a misplaced priority.
Most women consider themselves knowledgeable about the disease, which is expected to kill 40,000 women in the United States this year. But their "knowledge" often includes more myth than fact, the survey found.
"We're surrounded by pink ribbons and other messages about raising awareness," said Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, which commissioned the survey. "But these popular efforts lull the public into a false sense that adequate progress is being made.
"There's a lot of misinformation," she said. "In order to take meaningful action, we need to educate, not just raise awareness."
While many believe that heredity is the cause of most breast cancer, only 5 percent to 10 percent is caused by genetic mutations that can be inherited, she said.
"Women need to understand that just because they don't have a family history, that doesn't mean they're not at risk," said Visco, a former attorney and 20-year breast cancer survivor.
The survey, which is being released today, the first day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, found that 7 out of 10 women surveyed believe that eating fruit and vegetables can help prevent breast cancer. In reality, there's no good evidence that is true.
Most women (and nearly two-thirds of those ages 18 to 24) believe that breast cancer can be prevented. In fact, there are only a few things that women can do to reduce the risk of developing the disease, such as not drinking alcohol and not taking hormones. The biggest risk factors are being female and getting older.
Nearly all the women surveyed believe that early detection is important for saving lives, and 4 out of 10 say that self-exams are the best way to find breast cancer early - the same proportion that says mammograms are the best way. Major clinical trials have shown that self-exams do not prevent death from breast cancer, though they do lead to anxiety and unnecessary biopsies.
And mammography screening, which has been shown to reduce the risk of dying of breast cancer, is less effective than most women think, Visco said. Mammograms can be inaccurate and come with costs, including the risk of being diagnosed and treated for a tumor that would never have caused problems.
"Women want to believe there's a way to find it early, and that finding it early is enough to save their life," Visco said. "I understand how scary this is. We could put out messages that would comfort people or we could tell them what the reality is. But if we don't face reality, we can't move forward and find solutions."
The National Breast Cancer Coalition's immediate priority, she said, is to make certain that the public and political candidates are informed, "so we can set the right public policy to fight breast cancer."
Visco said a great deal remains to be learned before the disease can be defeated.
"We don't know how to prevent breast cancer. We don't know how to detect it truly early. We don't know how to cure it. And we don't know enough about what puts us at risk for it."
Judy Peres writes for the Chicago Tribune.