Chronicles of Cancer

Chronicles of Cancer: A history of mammography, part 2

The push and pull of social forces


Science and technology emerge from and are shaped by social forces outside the laboratory and clinic. This is an essential fact of most new medical technology. In the Chronicles of Cancer series, part 1 of the story of mammography focused on the technological determinants of its development and use. Part 2 will focus on some of the social forces that shaped the development of mammography.

White House

Betty Ford

“Few medical issues have been as controversial – or as political, at least in the United States – as the role of mammographic screening for breast cancer,” according to Donald A. Berry, PhD, a biostatistician at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.1

In fact, technology aside, the history of mammography has been and remains rife with controversy on the one side and vigorous promotion on the other, all enmeshed within the War on Cancer, corporate and professional interests, and the women’s rights movement’s growing issues with what was seen as a patriarchal medical establishment.

Today the issue of conflicts of interest are paramount in any discussion of new medical developments, from the early preclinical stages to ultimate deployment. Then, as now, professional and advocacy societies had a profound influence on government and social decision-making, but in that earlier, more trusting era, buoyed by the amazing changes that technology was bringing to everyday life and an unshakable commitment to and belief in “progress,” science and the medical community held a far more effective sway over the beliefs and behavior of the general population.

Women’s health observed

Although the main focus of the women’s movement with regard to breast cancer was a struggle against the common practice of routine radical mastectomies and a push toward breast-conserving surgeries, the issue of preventive care and screening with regard to women’s health was also a major concern.

Regarding mammography, early enthusiasm in the medical community and among the general public was profound. In 1969, Robert Egan described how mammography had a “certain magic appeal.” The patient, he continued, “feels something special is being done for her.” Women whose cancers had been discovered on a mammogram praised radiologists as heroes who had saved their lives.2

In that era, however, beyond the confines of the doctor’s office, mammography and breast cancer remained topics not discussed among the public at large, despite efforts by the American Cancer Society to change this.

ACS weighs in

Various groups had been promoting the benefits of breast self-examination since the 1930s, and in 1947, the American Cancer Society launched an awareness campaign, “Look for a Lump or Thickening in the Breast,” instructing women to perform a monthly breast self-exam. Between self-examination and clinical breast examinations in physicians’ offices, the ACS believed that smaller and more treatable breast cancers could be discovered.

National Cancer Institute

Jean-Franc¸ois Millet's "Les Glaneuses" is the visual motif to encourage women to schedule regular mammograms.

In 1972, the ACS, working with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), inaugurated the Breast Cancer Detection Demonstration Project (BCDDP), which planned to screen over a quarter of a million American women for breast cancer. The initiative was a direct outgrowth of the National Cancer Act of 1971,3 the key legislation of the War on Cancer, promoted by President Richard Nixon in his State of the Union address in 1971 and responsible for the creation of the National Cancer Institute.

Arthur I. Holleb, MD, ACS senior vice president for medical affairs and research, announced that, “[T]he time has come for the American Cancer Society to mount a massive program on mammography just as we did with the Pap test,”2 according to Barron Lerner, MD, whose book “The Breast Cancer Wars” provides a history of the long-term controversies involved.4

The Pap test, widely promulgated in the 1950s and 1960s, had produced a decline in mortality from cervical cancer.

Regardless of the lack of data on effectiveness at earlier ages, the ACS chose to include women as young as 35 in the BCDDP in order “to inculcate them with ‘good health habits’ ” and “to make our screenee want to return periodically and to want to act as a missionary to bring other women into the screening process.”2


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