Earlier this week, Brittney Frankel ’12 got a surprising call from her professor and research mentor, Dr. H. Gilbert Welch: His study about the efficacy of mammography screenings, which Frankel co-authored, was about to be featured in The New York Times.
“It was really weird and unexpected but also really exciting,” Frankel said. “It’s really nice to get recognition for something I worked really hard on and think is important.”
The title of the research? “Likelihood That a Woman With Screen-Detected Breast Cancer Has Had Her ‘Life Saved’ by That Screening” Pretty self-explanatory.
Using national data on women with breast cancer, Welch and Frankel set out to investigate the truth behind survivor testimonials that tout the idea that early screening saves lives.
“We found that the largest possible chance that a woman’s life has been saved is 25 percent, which I think is really surprising and counter-intuitive to what medical culture suggests,” Frankel said.
Other probability estimates from the study indicate that mammography may only save lives in less than 10 percent of the cases detected.
According to Frankel, that number is small because there are three possible scenarios for each case of breast cancer: First, that early diagnosis and treatment actually did save the woman’s life. Second, that catching the cancer earlier or later would have had no effect on treatment. And third, that the disease would have gone into remission anyway, meaning that the woman was over diagnosed and subject to potentially harmful treatment.
“I think mammography is every woman’s individual choice,” Frankel said. “This study is by no means saying you shouldn’t get a mammogram, but that there are pros and cons to doing so and that you should know both … This is just suggesting that early diagnosis is good in some cases but not all and there are alternative scenarios.”
A government major who is interested in public health, Frankel said she first learned about public health and evidence-based care when she read Welch’s book “Should I Be Tested for Cancer?” in her writing 5 class freshman year. She got involved in his research in her junior spring after taking his public policy course the previous year.
“This project helped me realize that I loved government but I also wanted to study medicine,” Frankel said. “I realized that this was where my interests lay — in the importance of communicating medical information clearly within the medical community and also in order to have regular people understand it.”