Here's Why Your Oncologist Is Angry

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It's been a tough couple of weeks for the British establishment. First the celebratory "wall of fire" on the Thames was a bust on New Year's Eve, and now they're under fire for publishing a highly controversial medical study. This week, the venerable British medical journal Lancet published a study claiming mammograms are not justified, since they do nothing to lower the rates of death among breast cancer patients, and in fact were responsible for an increase in deaths from the disease. Before the ink had dried on the article, Lancet editors were bombarded with a storm of fierce criticism from breast cancer doctors, patients and advocates.

"At best, this study is irresponsible," says TIME medical contributor Dr. Ian Smith. "It's really terrible, and sends out the wrong message to women who may be wondering about having a mammogram." Dr. Smith and other critics of the study point out that the researchers used no original data, and instead combed through other, established studies and reevaluated the statistical evidence with a clear objective in mind. "There's a saying in research: 'If you torture the data long enough, it will confess,'" says Dr. Smith. "And that's exactly what these guys did."

Despite the attention being given this study, women shouldn't worry that their breast cancer screenings are at risk of being tossed out the window; advocates of mammograms have a great deal of documentation to support their position. The medical community long ago established the benefits of mammography, says Dr. Smith; since the introduction of the technology in the late 1960s, there has been as much as a 30 percent decrease in the number of deaths due to breast cancer. And while that decline can be traced to a number of factors, including new treatment options, there is little doubt in doctors' minds that by revealing cancer in its early stages, mammograms are critical tools in fighting the disease. And with the knowledge that despite all these medical advances, 41,000 lives are lost to breast cancer in America each year, it's hard to know what these researchers could have been thinking when they embarked on their study.