Oh boy, here we go again: Numerous stories are piling up under the news search term: “New Bra Detects Breast Cancer.”
The brassiere, according to a news release that was relied upon heavily by news outlets, is being developed by researchers at Colombia’s National University. It’s being pitched as an early warning system for breast cancer by measuring body temperature, and interestingly, also has been described as an extension of Colombia’s rich fashion history.
How does it work? The claim is that if breast tissue temperature is too high, the wearer will be notified by yellow or red lights. A yellow light means run the internal warning system again. Red means get to a doctor ASAP. Green means everything is OK. That’s the claim.
Most importantly, the researchers say the bra is still in prototype stage and requires more extensive studies, but you’d never guess it from the breathless media coverage. Some examples:
TeenVogue was drawn into the hype with its story, “This New Bra Could Help Detect Breast Cancer Early,” even though teens are not targets for screenings, nor are 21 year-olds, the median age of TeenVogue readers. Most breast cancers are diagnosed in women age 50 and over.
The breast cancer health news watchdogs I contacted had a near- universal response to the multiple stories dedicated to this new tech: “Ugh.”
Technique is not a reliable stand-alone screening tool
Breast cancer surgeon and HealthNewsReview.org contributor Deanna Attai, MD, says thermography was never meant to be a stand-alone test for breast cancer screening, despite it being used that way. Attai. “Obviously, without more details regarding the technology and studies, we can’t come to any conclusions” about the latest version of the cancer-detecting bra, she says. Detecting differences in temperature is touted by those who believe thermography technology can detect changes much earlier than standard screening. But the sensitivity and specificity are too low for it to be of use for general population screening, Attai says. Sharing an anecdote from her practice she adds, “I have a series of patients who presented with locally advanced breast cancer and normal thermograms. I’ve also in 21 years of practice never seen a thermogram report that didn’t recommend correlation with mammogram, ultrasound and/or MRI, clinical correlation, and six-month thermography follow up.”
Attai cited a study published in The Breast Journal in 2014 that summarized results from another thermography tool – the NoTouch Breast Scan. The study of 121 women found that “the device does not accurately predict malignancy in women with suspicious imaging abnormalities,” according to the report. “The higher sensitivity mode results in an unacceptable number of false positives, precluding its use.”
Science or sensationalism?
And epidemiologist Mandy Stahre, PhD, MPH, an occasional reviewer for HealthNewsReview.org and a breast cancer survivor, was disappointed by the quality of the reporting:
“Deja vu all over again. Ugh, I read six different articles all with the same misleading headline “New bra can detect breast cancer,” she said.
“Not a single independent story — all of them lifted from the same new release,” she noted. “No quotes from outside scientists unaffiliated with the research. Where’s the skepticism associated with the clinical trial data?”
Fear-mongering and a tech-focused culture
Gayle Sulik, PhD, author, analyst and founder of the Breast Cancer Consortium, noted the potential for making women feel more anxious about their cancer risk.
“Women already overestimate their breast cancer risk. Such a device encourages women to focus on risk even more, every day, as they look to their electronic bra to find out if they’ve been given the “green light” to get on with their lives or the “yellow or red light” to indicate a need for more testing or a physician’s consultation,” she explained.
Sulik cited an analysis in the BMJ called Why cancer screening has never been shown to “save lives”—and what we can do about it and expanded on that idea.
“The data from mammography screening suggest that quality treatment based on the best available evidence that is targeted to the specific pathology of the cancer is what has the greatest potential of reducing the chances of dying. Against this background, why are we messing around with an electronic bra to take breast temperature? And even if there were a reason to do so, the small observational study cited in support of the bra’s efficacy as a breast cancer detection tool would be insufficient to warrant its adoption at any level.
“What I see in a sensational product like this is exploitation of a general assumption that new technologies are always for the greater good. Clearly, they are not.”
Where’s the evidence? Are these actual scientists?
Christine Norton, a co-founder of the Minnesota Breast Cancer Coalition who sometimes reviews news stories for HealthNewsReview.org, and a 25-year breast cancer survivor, calls it “irresponsible reporting” to write about a potential product as being medically important in the absence of clinical trials. She adds:
“Every publication referred to those involved with developing the bra as scientists or “a group of scientists.” This designation is puzzling since the only specifics were that the bra was developed by electrical engineering students at a university in Colombia. Of course good ideas can come from anyone but…deeming them scientists adds unwarranted credibility to the product.”
“The so-called scientists began work on the bra only 9 months ago. There is no mention in any article of any clinical trials to validate the specificity and sensitivity of the bra’s ability to detect breast cancer.”
TeenVogue stated the bra “…might actually save your life.” The product was developed with input from only 189 women and was never tested in clinical trials yet a publication has already determined it may save your life.
Is this a health story or a fashion story?
Sulik says the media should be addressing these issues, “not suggesting in some trite way that this latest ‘fashion meets science’ scenario is going to save the day.”
Maybe TeenVogue found the story a fit for their niche publication because early coverage tied the bra to Colombia’s long history of fashion design.
It’s a little more surprising that Tech Times took that bait, too, with this little gem:
“But the cancer-detecting bra would be the first to combine fashion and science. Only after minutes of use, its three small lights will deliver a diagnostic reading: a green light means no problem; a yellow light means there is a need to perform another test, while a red light cautions the wearer that a doctor’s exam is needed.”
As mentioned, this isn’t the first time the news media helped hype an unproven cancer-detecting bra. Gary Schwitzer, HealthNewsReview.org publisher, reminds us that he’s seen it all before. In a 2012 post he wrote about that year’s breast cancer screening bra and how news media acted as partners to help hype the product.
And going back to 2009, he called out the news media for promoting another cancer-fighting bra. The “Rad Bra” was marketed as a breast defense system that protected breasts from harmful cancer-causing radiation.
We thought the cancer detecting bra had been tried on long ago and finally put to rest with the mothballs. In 2008, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute asked what happened to the cancer detecting bra, called the “Chronobra,” that had been touted in 1998. A pathologist who created the Chronobra told the JNCI interviewer he was still trying to find a way to measure positive outcomes from the device.
In one form or another, the cancer-detecting bra keeps coming back.