A new study released this week suggests that there is a link, (a fairly significant-sounding link actually), between breast cancer and oral contraceptives. What the study has going for it is that it was published in the very legitimate, peer-reviewed journal Mayo Proceedings, from the Mayo Clinic. But while we are not inclined to question the integrity of the Mayo Clinic, we do think there are some serious questions to be considered about the report.
First, the report's lead author, Dr. Chris Kahlenborn, is associated with the "The Polycarp Research Institute," (TPRI) whose website includes this statement of itself:
"TPRI will support research efforts that improve the spiritual condition of men and women, and will not promote methods or intentions that are inconsistent with the ethical and moral guidelines of the Catholic Church…"
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For the purposes of the Mayo article, Dr. Kahlenborn lists his email as firstname.lastname@example.org, and his mailing address as "Department of Internal Medicine, PO Box 263, Hollidaysburg, PA." Seem strange to you that a doctor associated with a "Department of Internal Medicine" would prefer his email at his nonprofit instead of at his hospital or medical school? Well, one reason here might be that there is no hospital in Hollidaysburg, PA. Another might be that that mailing address is actually the EXACT SAME address that TPRI lists on its website. From the looks of it, Dr. Kahlenborn just felt like being associated with a "Dept. of Internal Medicine," so he made one up.
Another co-author, Dr. Francesmary Modugno, was a computer science specialist (that's actually her PHD), who got a Master's in Public Health in 1998 and has since fervently devoted her research to trying to establish a link between contraceptives and breast cancer.
The other two co-authors, however, do not show as clear signs of activism: Dr. Potter is an established biostatistician, and Dr. Severs, a professor emertius of Penn State University, is even cited by the ACLU as a co-author of a study denying the link between abortion and breast cancer.
So what to make of this new study? First, it seems quite reasonable to hold it suspect on the grounds of Dr. Kahlenborn's and Dr. Modugno's apparent ideological commitment to establishing such a link. And regardless of any ideological commitment to establishing this link, it seems reasonable to hold any medical research institution suspect which explicitly states that their research will not deviate from religious dogma.
Consider this article from PATH which suggests the opposite, or try a Google search of "contraception" and "breast cancer" to see what else you come up with — most research suggests that the link between hormonal contraception and breast cancer is inconclusive, or that it is a minor link in some specific circumstances. The National Cancer Institute for example has a sober-minded fact sheet published on the issue. Or from the WHO's website:
Concerning breast cancer (and hormonal contraception)…even if the association is causal, the excess risk for breast cancer associated with patterns of use that are typical today is very small…
This new paper's author makes some alarmist sounding statements, particularly in the press release regarding the paper in which he says, "The risk association was 44% over baseline parous women (having been pregnant) who took OCs prior to their first pregnancy." It sounds scary, and it has far-right groups not only reiterating the claims (like Dr. Janet Smith's "One More Soul"), but twisting them further. LifeSite.net turns that 44% into "over-all risk increase for breast cancer of 44 percent." Bad reporting certainly. But bad science too?
The verdict on whether this is bad science is still out, and I'll leave that to more expert voices who will hopefully revisit this issue soon on our website. In the meantime, it is safe to say that doctors with clear ideological persuasions making bold claims like this tend to undermine their own work, regardless of its quality. If there really was such a risk for breast cancer (remember, major medical organizations don't seem to think so), the public would deserve to know, but they need the news from a source they can trust.
And the fact that right-wing media outlets pick up questionable research and blatantly misreport it, making much more far-reaching claims than the actual research, is…? Well, I guess by now it's just expected, and that's why we're asking questions.