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Mission Accomplished for Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

June 28, 2011

Jun. 28, 2011

Media Contact: Catherine Probst, 703-993-8813

Study shows increase in November diagnoses thanks to October awareness events

Fairfax, Va.—Each October, the color pink marks the arrival of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Media coverage, product promotions and even the football gridirons showcase the national effort to promote screenings and early detection of the cancer that 200,000 American women are diagnosed with each year. And a recent study shows that the awareness campaign has worked.

New research from George Mason University and the University of Oregon examined more than 30 years of cancer registry data to determine if October events related to National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) lead to increases in breast cancer diagnoses in the following month of November.

The study, co-authored by Kathryn Jacobsen, an epidemiologist, and Grant Jacobsen, an economist, found that NBCAM events were effective at increasing November diagnoses during the mid-1990s when the awareness movement was expanding across the United States. This was also the time when October was officially recognized by the federal government as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

According to Kathryn Jacobsen, associate professor in the department of Global and Community Health at George Mason University, breast cancer awareness was a rich subject for the study because it is one of the oldest and most well-established awareness campaigns in the U.S.

“So much has changed from 1987 when only 30 percent of women in target age groups reported having had a mammogram in the previous two years,” she says. “Communities came together—women and men—to talk about breast cancer, and screenings among the target group increased to 70 percent by 1999.”

The study, which was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Health Economics, found that before NBCAM was well-established in the early 1990s, there were large fluctuations in the diagnosis of breast cancer. Most notable to the researchers were significant spikes in 1974 and 1987 coinciding with announcements by first ladies Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan when each disclosed a breast cancer diagnosis.

“Our findings indicate that during the period before NBCAM, when breast cancer was rarely talked about, celebrity diagnoses reminded women of the risk of breast cancer and led some to seek out screening, and consequently resulted in increases in diagnoses,” says Kathryn Jacobsen.

In recent years, the researchers found little evidence of an increase in November diagnoses following October-time NBCAM events. According to researchers, this could actually be a good sign.

“In addition to showing a diminishing effect from NBCAM, the data indicate that the distribution of diagnoses over the calendar year has become more uniform,” says Grant Jacobsen, a professor in the University of Oregon’s department of planning, public policy and management. “Both of these findings suggest that women are now getting diagnosed as a result of routine screenings, as opposed to event-driven screenings.

“This is a good thing, since routine screening is likely to lead to earlier diagnoses,” explains Grant Jacobsen.

“Our study is actually good news for breast cancer advocacy. It suggests that breast cancer advocacy efforts have increased awareness of the need for regular screening among American women,” says Grant Jacobsen. “There are other associated benefits beyond initial screenings that should perhaps be expanded now that the awareness campaign is mature.”

About George Mason University

Named the #1 national university to watch in the 2009 rankings of U.S. News & World Report, George Mason University is an innovative, entrepreneurial institution with global distinction in a range of academic fields. Located in Northern Virginia near Washington, D.C., Mason provides students access to diverse cultural experiences and the most sought-after internships and employers in the country.  Mason offers strong undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering and information technology, organizational psychology, health care and visual and performing arts. With Mason professors conducting groundbreaking research in areas such as climate change, public policy and the biosciences, George Mason University is a leading example of the modern, public university. George Mason University—Where Innovation Is Tradition.

About the University of Oregon

The University of Oregon is among the 108 institutions chosen from 4,633 U.S. universities for top-tier designation of “Very High Research Activity” in the 2010 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The UO also is one of two Pacific Northwest members of the Association of American Universities.