“Every year, the Brain Tumor Foundation bombards the City Council with stories of loved ones lost, frightening statistics about the prevalence of cancer and pledges to “literally save the lives of your constituents.”
And each year, the Council responds, turning down food banks, after-school programs and arts groups in favor of the foundation, which provides free brain scans. The group has received nearly $2 million since 2005, making it one of the top recipients of discretionary funds, known as earmarks.
But in doing so, the Council has given the city’s imprimatur to a use of a medical tool that the National Institutes of Health has said “may not be ethical” and whose usefulness in fighting cancer scientists have passionately debated.
“This kind of public health effort gets so far ahead of the data and presumes that all you can do is help people when the reality is you can hurt them as well,” said Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a Dartmouth professor who has written frequently about the risks of cancer screenings.
In New York, council members said they were moved by the foundation’s sobering testimonials and grim numbers. Some also seemed acutely aware of the political benefits.
“You should print this: Councilman is saving people from cancer,” said Domenic M. Recchia Jr., the Council’s finance chairman. “End of story.” “
The Cancer Letter once reported on this mobile MRI (picture at left appears on The Brain Tumor Foundation website) and wrote: “Skeptics say these folks should have their heads examined. Screening experts … say there’s no evidence to support brain scans for asymptomatic people.”
For some past examples of politics colliding with evidence – and evidence losing – just on screening issues, look at what turned up just in a brief search on this blog.
Addendum on March 4: Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society blogged about the issue today. Excerpts:
“Sometimes you see a story that is just too important to pass up–even if the comments I make here are going to get some New York politicians upset with me and possibly with the American Cancer Society.
But when you see something that defies logic and evidence, and involves millions of dollars that could be put to much better and more effective use, then I believe we have the responsibility to say something, even if it is at our peril.
I plea with New York to spend the money where it is needed for things that work, whether it is food, shelter, parks or proven cancer screening. Just don’t waste money on something that doesn’t stand a reasonable test of medical effectiveness. It simply doesn’t make you look good–or responsible as stewards of the public purse or the public’s safety. And if someone is injured as a result of this unproven screening, it could prove very costly as well.”