Critics detect hype in “Bra Detects Breast Cancer” news

At one point, the Boston Globe’s website splashed the breast-cancer-bra news on its home page. In a story devoid of vital details, the feeble attempt to explain anything fell far short. “The bra has been tested for sensitivity and accuracy in three clinical trials involving 650 subjects,” the story gushed.  Only problem:  it didn’t tell readers what the “sensitivity and accuracy” was.  It’s also confusing if not inaccurate to refer to “sensitivity and accuracy.”  It’s sensitivity and specificity that determines accuracy.  We didn’t learn anything about either in this story. (Addendum:  it has been pointed out to me that this was a wire story that appeared on the Globe site but not a story written by a Globe reporter.  It doesn’t change anything.  The story still appeared.  But the distinction – in fairness – is worth noting.)

In another story that read more like an ad than an independently-vetted journalistic gem, CBS reported, “Bra aims to detect breast cancer before mammogram.”

But the Globe and CBS weren’t alone in hyping an unproven and unapproved product.  Look at the myriad search results of stories about this PR announcement.

And on and on and on…all the stories conveniently using the company’s handout pictures and/or videos.

We asked two people at the National Breast Cancer Coalition to react to the announcement.  Annette Bar-Cohen wrote us:

“The discovery of breast changes earlier and earlier in the process needs to go along with our ability to translate that into knowledge that will actually be lifesaving.  Otherwise we will see an increase in incidence, an additional rise in overdiagnosis and overtreatment, and perhaps no reduction in mortality – no additional lives saved. So a recognition of the role of this technology in the early detection field would be good.”

Laura Nikolaides of NBCC responded:

“I am intrigued by the idea – we are always interested in any new ideas = but have found this reporting (note: she was specifically referring to the Boston Globe and CBS pieces) incredibly frustrating.  More questions are raised than are answered.  The details provided aren’t even consistent.  One report implies that a woman would wear the bra over time, on an ongoing basis, the other report claims it would be a one time thing.  Neither report says that in fact, a woman would need to have several sensors or patches applied to her breast and that the bra itself is the monitor (found this on the parent company website).  Another confusion is the temperature issue – a business report on the company says the technology is actually monitoring 9600 data points of cell metabolism that are then converted to temperature changes.

I was very interested to see the data on the clinical trials, but couldn’t get to it.  I was able to get to the parent company website, which said the trials were conducted at Ohio State, but couldn’t get any more info.   So, bottom line, is that as someone who is very interested in any new ideas on detecting early changes in the breast, I found the reporting on this new idea stunning for the lack of details on what the technology actually is, what it does, how it works, how it was validated, etc.”

Finally, I turned to one of our smart story reviewers on, Mandy Stahre, PhD, a young survivor of breast cancer having been diagnosed at age 31.  She is a graduate of the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD training and has served as a consumer reviewer for the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program.  She also wrote about the Boston and CBS stories:

“A new bra may be able to detect breast cancer six years before a tumor can be detected by imaging.  Sounds too good to be true.  After further reading we are presented with what sounds like impressive statistics referring to clinical trials with results in the 90% range for sensitivity, specificity, and accuracy. Never mind that details regarding what was actually detected seemed to be omitted.

But wait, the details get better. CBS reports “While the cost of the bra hasn’t been disclosed, the creators believe each individual report will only run $25.” This sounds wonderful! (Note the sarcasm.)  The bra could be available as soon as 2014.

Interesting, neither article contained quotes from other researchers in the field nor presented anything beyond what appears to be a press release.  A catchy video was even included on the CBS News webpage. As a reviewer for, I could not help but check off each of the ten criteria as I read both the Boston Globe and CBS News articles.  Neither article would have registered a Satisfactory rating on any of the criteria nor do these articles appear to be more than advertisements for the bra.

These stories were disappointing and I would have appreciated more scrutinizing of the evidence.  The most I could take away from these articles is there is a new sports bra on the market that can detect changes in body temperature.”

But, hey, it’a all part of the marketing blitz that we endure during Breast Cancer Awareness month.  Marketing aided by so-called journalism.

An article in TechNewsDaily was far more analytical than some of the mainstream media claptrap we saw.  It concludes:

“At this time, based on evidence currently available, I think the vast majority of doctors will agree that a woman who chooses any breast cancer screening test based on temperature measurements, instead of mammography, would be making a serious mistake that could have fatal consequences,” said (Ted Gansler, a medical doctor who is the editor of CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, published by the American Cancer Society.)

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