By Dr. Mercola
Recently, the Harvard School of Public Health shook the cancer industry when it published research showing that mammograms may not only be inappropriate for breast cancer screening, but may actually contribute to significant overdiagnosis of cancer that otherwise would have remained harmlessi.
According to lead author Mette Kalagerii :
"Mammography might not be appropriate for use in breast cancer screening because it cannot distinguish between progressive and non-progressive cancer...
Radiologists have been trained to find even the smallest of tumors in a bid to detect as many cancers as possible to be able to cure breast cancer.
However, the present study adds to the increasing body of evidence that this practice has caused a problem for women—diagnosis of breast cancer that wouldn't cause symptoms or death."
When the scientists also suggested that women need to know the potential harm of mammography errors, the American College of Radiology and Society of Breast Imaging were quick to accuse Harvard's study of being flawed.
But as more and more women come forward with stories of how they've lost their breasts and undergone grueling cancer treatments as a result of overzealous screening, it's apparent the Harvard team knows what they're talking about.
A Case in Point...
The Harvard study, released April 3, 2012, reinforces the story of one of the literature researchers that work for this newsletter, whom I mentioned in an article on cancer last year. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, and scheduled for several months of chemotherapy and radiation when she sought a second opinion at a renowned cancer institute. There, she learned chemo was inappropriate because her type of cancer doesn't respond to it.
"Since chemo is poison, why would we want to poison you for no reason?" the oncologist told her.
Now she's agreed to let me tell the rest of her story—one that is a perfect example of what Dr. Kalager was alluding to. Because of its flaws, mammography can lead to an overzealous search for possible cancer, overdiagnosis and, ultimately, unnecessary medical procedures for something that, left alone, may never have developed into cancer at all.
Of course the breast imaging industry wasted no time firing off a scathing response to the researcher's commentsiii. But as I said, my employee's story illustrates the study's central thesis exactly: that a growing body of evidence is showing that mammography may be doing more harm than good for a great number of women.
A Teeny Tiny Dot—Followed by a Slew of Procedures
From the year she turned 40, this employee never missed a mammogram. Like many women, she mistakenly believed it was the most appropriate way to prevent breast cancer. She didn't work for me then, so she didn't know that radiation from mammograms can actually CAUSE canceriv,v. But in 2008, everything changed.
"I had no lumps, no problems, it was just my regular screening," she told me. "But after my 2008 mammogram, the technician said she'd seen something on it and needed to do an ultrasound right away. So that's what we did. But when she was done, she left and came back with another tech, who did a second ultrasound. Then they both left and came back with the radiologist, who did a THIRD ultrasound. After a lengthy exam, the radiologist announced he was scheduling me for an MRI with dye immediately."
The radiologist explained that he saw a tiny calcification in her breast, and since the ultrasound couldn't tell him whether it was cancerous, he needed to do the MRI. The MRI was done, but that report wasn't clear either, listing a final diagnosis as simply "suspicious." The radiologist wasn't satisfied.
"He called me at home and said he needed to do a stereotactic biopsy right away," she said. "Scared, I agreed to it. It was a biopsy from hell, indescribably painful. In the middle of it, the radiologist commented that my 'breast density' prevented him from getting a good sighting on where to do the biopsy. I thought he was referring to all the weight I'd gained in the past few years."
The biopsy came back negative. But her ordeal wasn't over. She was next sent to a surgeon, who determined that she needed a lumpectomy, despite the negative lab report. So a lumpectomy it was—and that, too, came back negative.
Surgery or Needle Biopsies Can Actually CAUSE Cancer
"I was so relieved," she told me. "But when I went back for my post-op checkup, there was a small lump at the surgery spot. I didn't know at the time that there all kinds of studies about how the slightest injury or cut, as well as surgeries and biopsies can actually cause cancervi—I just heard that on ABC News recentlyvii. I also didn't know about other studies showing that injuries like my biopsy not only can trigger invasive cancer, but that mammographic compression can spread itviii .
"So when the surgeon said the lump was probably only a hematoma, I went home and ignored it. The lump was still there when it was time for my 2009 mammogram, and I pointed it out to the tech, who looked at it, felt it, and said it might just be scar tissue. When she came out and said everything was fine and I could go home, I asked if she was going to do an ultrasound on the lump, but she said no, there was no need."
'No Evidence of Cancer'
The written mammogram report reiterated the tech's verbal report, saying there was "no evidence of cancer" in her breast. In 2010 she showed the tech the lump again, and again the tech said everything was "fine."
"But this time I didn't believe it," she said. "So I went somewhere else before I even got the report back. I had a biopsy—and learned I had Stage 3 Lobular Invasive cancer. The very day of my surgery [mastectomy] I got the letter from the radiology center saying they were 'pleased to inform' me they'd found 'no evidence of cancer' in my breast. It was so crazy I couldn't even find it in me to cry."
After the mastectomy, the surgeon wrote her a prescription for a wig and scheduled her for chemo and radiation.
"But by this time I was working for Dr. Mercola, and I was very much aware of my power to take control of my own health," she said. "So I did some proactive things right then and there, to make sure I was doing everything possible to fight this cancer."
Diet, Exercise, Lifestyle Changes
The first thing she did was take a cold, hard look at the cancer risk factors of her overall health, diet, and lifestyle.
"I don't have diabetes or heart problems or cholesterol," she said. "But I was overweight—a definite risk for both breast cancer and its recurrenceix. Also, despite Dr. Mercola's warnings on aspartame, I was addicted to Diet Coke—I knew for a fact that in clinical studies, aspartame caused breast tumors in mice, but I still drank it. It was a given that I didn't watch my diet; I didn't exercise; and I had no clue what my vitamin D3 levels were, even though I was aware that deficient levels of D3 are associated with breast cancer."
Based on my recommendations, she implemented the following immediate changes:
- Started supplementing with 10,000 IUs of vitamin D3 every day
- Gave up ALL forms of soda, both diet and regular
- Went on a grain-free diet and gave up refined sugars and flours
- Began exercising
"And then I scheduled an appointment for a second opinion on the cancer treatment," she said. "My new doctors gave me something called an OncoType Dx test, a type of DNA testx that tells you the likelihood of your cancer coming back in the next 10 years, and whether your cancer is responsive or not to chemo. That's how I found out that, No. 1, my chances of it coming back were very low; and No. 2, that my kind of cancer doesn't respond to chemo. When other tests showed no evidence of cancer elsewhere in my body, I declined radiation, so I had neither chemo nor radiation."
A Natural, Nutritional Approach to Preventive Cancer Care
The cancer hospital where my employee went offers complementary care, including the services of both a nutritionist and a naturopath—a rarity among any place in health care, let alone the cancer industry.
"And I embraced them," she said. "They told me to start exercising, and they furnished me with a wonderful anti-cancer diet that includes fresh, organic vegetables and fruits that are loaded with antioxidants. They applauded me for restricting myself on refined sugars and flours. And they also told me to GIVE UP commercial meats altogether, because of the carcinogenic ways in which they're prepared. Basically, if the food comes in a can, box or package, I'm not supposed to eat it.
Luckily, my husband is a hunter so our freezer is already full of wild meats such as elk, deer, turkey and hog. We have a lake house, so fresh fish is always available."
With the new diet, lifestyle changes, and exercise, the employee has lost over 25 pounds so far. She's also taking vitamins and supplements that include a maintenance dose of 5,000 IUs a day of vitamin D3, CoQ10, vitamin C, grape seed extract, turmeric, and vitamin B12, to name a few.
"And I'm living it," she said. "I feel better in all kinds of ways, and my lab work shows it. For example, at my last checkup, my vitamin D3 level was over 73—"a good number for cancer prevention" according to my oncologist.
"I love my new lifestyle, and my new way of eating. I've learned that many foods I'd never eaten before taste really good—the herb rosemary, for example, has a wonderful savory taste, and watercress and kale are full of flavor. I've learned how to snack too—a handful of walnuts is not only a cancer-fighter, but eaten with a glass of water, they can really fill you up. I'm never hungry, yet I'm losing weight a little at a time. And the best part is I'm cancer-free."
As she embarked on this diet, this employee got a surprise bonus.
"I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2000," she said. "But shortly after I started the grain-free, sugar-free, flour-free diet, something strange happened. I quit having aches and pains, and my fingers became unusually nimble. Then, when I went for my checkup at the rheumatologist's, something even stranger happened: my blood work showed no evidence of RA at all! Although he said there was no way to prove it, the rheumatologist acknowledged that it was entirely possible that the diet was the mitigating factor in my recovery. So now I don't need my prescription arthritis drug or even an over-the-counter pain medication. I can move and I'm pain-free. It's a miracle!"
Mammography is a Total Failure for Dense-Breasted Women
Besides the importance of diet and lifestyle in cancer prevention, my employee learned a lot of other things on her cancer journey. For example, she didn't know until recently that dense breasts have nothing to do with whether or not you've gained weight xi.
"But they have everything to do with your risk of a mammogram giving a false positive, which can lead to a slew of tests like I had, that you don't actually need, or failing to identify a lump that is cancerous, like what happened to me," she said xii.
Forty-nine percent of women have high breast tissue densityxiii, and mammography's sensitivity for dense breasts is as low as 27 percentxiv—meaning about 75 percent of dense-breasted women are at risk for a cancer being missed if they rely solely on mammography. Even with digital mammography, the sensitivity is still less than 60 percent.
The Final Diagnosis: Stay Cancer-Free with Knowledge
When my employee had her fateful 2008 experience, at least a dozen studies were already showing the association of breast density with breast cancer and the mistakes that mammography can make in both overdiagnosis and misdiagnosis in dense breastsxv. She also didn't know there was a movement afoot by other women like her xvi,xvii to force the FDA and state and federal governments to acknowledge mammography's failures, or that thousands of women like her were either being overdiagnosed and overtreated, or had their cancers missed because of itxviii.
"Now I'm the first to shout that, instead of telling you to go get your mammogram in October—Breast Cancer Awareness Month—what they should be saying is, 'Are you aware that mammograms miss up to 75 percent of some women's cancers?'" she says.
"There was a lot I didn't know when this all started—but there also was a lot I did know, things that could have helped me stay cancer-free, but I wasn't doing. I know better now, and that's why I'm glad to share my story. The bottom line is to gather all the knowledge you can. Ask your doctor if you have dense breasts. Know your other risks for cancer, too—and do something about them! "Even more important, be aware that lots of times a whole slew of tests not only are unnecessary, but could be dangerous to your health."
I thank my researcher for sharing her story with you, and hope it may inspire you to take control of your health; to really get PROACTIVE rather than waiting for disease to set in before you get that wakeup call. Maybe you'll be given a second chance, like she was. Then again, maybe you won't. Little else matters once you're in a health crisis, so why not take the time NOW to implement a few healthy lifestyle strategies that just might help you avoid getting ill in the first place.
Remember, the greatest enemy cancer has is a well-functioning immune system.
In the event that you are diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, always get a second opinion—and possibly a third and fourth. I cannot stress this enough, as false positive rates are just too high and the diagnostic criteria is too subjective. Before you make any decision about treatment, and definitely before you decide to have surgery or chemotherapy, make sure your biopsy results have been reviewed by a breast specialist who is knowledgeable and experienced in that field. The majority of breast cancer is preventable. But if you are hit with that diagnosis, don't lose hope! There is a great deal you can do to harness your body's own powerful healing abilities.
For a comprehensive guide to breast cancer prevention and treatment, please refer to this previous article, Breast Cancer Breakthrough - Cut Your Risk of Death in Half.
How Vitamin D Performance Testing Can Help Optimize Your Health
Additionally, a robust and growing body of research clearly shows that vitamin D is absolutely critical for good health and disease prevention. Vitamin D affects your DNA through vitamin D receptors (VDRs), which bind to specific locations of the human genome. Scientists have identified nearly 3,000 genes that are influenced by vitamin D levels, and vitamin D receptors have been found throughout the human body.
Is it any wonder then that no matter what disease or condition is investigated, vitamin D appears to play a crucial role? This is why I am so excited about the D*Action Project by GrassrootsHealth. It is showing how you can take action today on known science with a consensus of experts without waiting for institutional lethargy. It has shown how by combining the science of measurement (of vitamin D levels) with the personal choice of taking action and, the value of education about individual measures that one can truly be in charge of their own health.
In order to spread this health movement to more communities, the project needs your involvement. This is an ongoing campaign during the month of February, and will become an annual event.
To participate, simply purchase the D*Action Measurement Kit and follow the registration instructions included. (Please note that 100 percent of the proceeds from the kits go to fund the research project. I do not charge a single dime as a distributor of the test kits.)
As a participant, you agree to test your vitamin D levels twice a year during a five year program, and share your health status to demonstrate the public health impact of this nutrient. There is a $65 fee every 6 months for your sponsorship of the project, which includes a test kit to be used at home, and electronic reports on your ongoing progress. You will get a follow up email every six months reminding you "it's time for your next test and health survey."