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Headline Hype: Why You Can’t Believe Everything You Read

January 17, 2018

by Piri Welcsh, PhD

Our first “Headline Hype” blog post – published just a few days ago – addresses misleading information in a Newsweek article about recently published breast cancer research in Lancet Oncology.

Now, it appears the media is on a roll.

We were disturbed to learn about another media story focused on the same Lancet Oncology article. This one, “The ‘Deadly Breast Cancer Gene’ Is A Myth, Lancet Study Confirms,” written by Sayer Ji – founder of the GreenMedInfo website – includes a title, lede, and story that are not only misleading, but so scientifically incorrect that they are dangerous.

The GreenMedInfo site misrepresents the design, purpose and conclusions of the Lancet study research. The Lancet study does not confirm that BRCA genes are myths. The purpose of the research study published in the Lancet was to follow young women – with and without BRCA mutations – who have breast cancer to see if having a BRCA mutation impacts survival. The study results reveal that among young breast cancer patients, overall survival is not affected by having a BRCA mutation.

Mr. Ji incorrectly states that the Lancet study shows that BRCA mutations do not cause breast cancer and that Angelina Jolie’s surgery was “for naught.” In fact, the cited research did not study previvors (high risk individuals who never had cancer) like Jolie at all, and the Lancet research article should not be used to draw conclusions about outcomes in women without breast cancer.

In this instance, it’s important to consider how the story was sourced. The author provides no evidence to support his conclusions and, indeed, the only references or sources he offers are non-peer reviewed publications on the GeenMedInfo site, most of which (six out of eight) he wrote himself.

By contrast, a sound health journalist reviews the peer-reviewed scientific literature and consults the authors of new scientific publications and outside experts in the field. In this case, it seems the only “expert” who contributed to the GreenMedinfo story is Mr. Ji himself. He writes: “While this finding may be surprising to those who have been led to believe that the BRCA gene ‘mutation’ status is a death sentence, we have spent the past few years debunking this misinformation by looking at the non-industry funded evidence itself.”  Mr. Ji provides no references and this purported “non-industry funded evidence” he refers to is nowhere to be found.

Most important, the author mischaracterizes what the body of literature does say about BRCA mutations. Many high-quality, peer-reviewed research studies have shown conclusively that BRCA mutations are linked to an increased risk for breast, ovarian, and other cancers. None of the published, peer-review research studies has concluded that having a BRCA mutation is a “death sentence.” Rather, there are many documented benefits of genetic counseling, genetic testing and guideline-recommended medical interventions for people with inherited mutations associated with cancer risk, including increased survival.

As a scientist, I am shocked and alarmed to see how many times this egregious misinformation has been shared from the site — nearly 8,000 times on Facebook alone. Disseminating such false, misleading information can have devastating real-world consequences to people. Imagine, for example, someone using this article to argue against scientifically proven, risk-reducing options that have been shown to save lives.

We will offer a full XRAYS review of the Lancet research study and related media coverage in the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

2 Comments

  1. Michelle says:

    As someone who knew they had a BRCA mutation, I had actually scheduled a prophylactic mastectomy, then was diagnosed with breast cancer during my pre-open scanning and losing my 32 year old year old sister to breast cancer I am shocked and appalled that someone who has never had to deal with something like this can make those claims and be believed.

  2. Jill V Holdren says:

    Thanks for this response to such a ridiculous, baseless article. I think, though, that given the average risks we KNOW deleterious BRCA mutations confer, your statement on that topic is far too tepid. Deleterious BRCA mutations are not simply associated with “increased risk” for breast and ovarian cancer (among women); they are associated with enormously increased risk. The language we use around these topics matter and weak language on risk feeds the narrative that preventative surgeries, etc. are over-reactions to a mild threat.

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