Doubt cast over value of breast cancer campaigns

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A growing number of cancer specialists are questioning the value of campaigns to raise awareness of breast cancer. They say that women are being needlessly alarmed and are overwhelming NHS cancer clinics, and that the disease attracts a disproportionate share of NHS resources.

The Government has made breast cancer a priority and has pledged pounds 10m to improve services. Cherie Blair has helped raise its profile by becoming patron of Breast Cancer Care and is to host a reception for the charity next week at 10 Downing Street.

However, specialists say the attention given to breast cancer may be doing more harm than good. Professor Michael Baum, head of the breast unit at University College Hospital, London, says what is needed is breast cancer unawareness month. Writing in the British Journal of Radiology, he says women are bombarded with warnings that one in 12 will get breast cancer but for those under 30, who are most heavily exposed to the publicity, fewer than one in 1,000 develops the disease. A third of breast cancers occur in women aged between 70 and 85.

In discussion with specialist colleagues, Professor Baum says: "Most of us shared the somewhat sceptical view that there was too much breast cancer awareness at large and [we needed] a break from inappropriate referrals to our clinics."

His view was supported by Dr Ian Smith, of the Royal Marsden Hospital, London, who said: "I think there is too much scaremongering ... We need a better way of helping women understand the risks instead of presenting them in an alarmist way." Dr Jane Maher, director of the cancer support service at Mount Vernon Hospital, Middlesex, added: "We get a completely disproportionate number of women with breast cancer seeking help from the support service compared with other cancer sufferers ... Expectations of the NHS are unrealistically high."

Pamela Goldberg, chairman of the charity, Breast Cancer Campaign, said: "We don't want to terrify people but I don't think we are highlighting it unnecessarily. One reason why it has a high profile is the sex element and its impact on a woman's image. It is that which makes it different from colon cancer."