What affects our perceptions of health risks?

Earlier today, I read two articles in a leading newspaper which caused me some concern because of the way they were written.  The first was about the 30% increased risk of contracting breast cancer when a woman has more than three units of alcohol a day.

I can’t comment on whether the figures quoted in the study about the effects of alcohol are correct as I’m not conversant with them, but the most concerning aspect for me was that the article stated “The increased risk associated with a daily consumption of three or more drinks is similar to that from smoking a pack of cigarettes or taking HRT …”

When I read the article I was shocked because I know that taking HRT does not increase your risk of contracting Breast Cancer by 30%. I then decided to check further and the facts are that of the 44,000 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed each year , around 4.5% of them could have been caused by HRT (an extra 2000 cases).  And incidentally, having a hysterectomy and then taking HRT reduces that increased risk by around 50%.

There were 30.2 million women in the UK according to the 2001 census, which means that if the population level stayed the same (which it doesn’t)  an extra 1.43% of us run the risk of contracting breast cancer each year.  However, this is a simplistic way of looking at it because we all know that there are certain factors that increase the risk, such as obesity, diet and genetics.

I don’t wish to force anybody to take a view on whether HRT is good or bad, it is decision each of us must make for ourselves based on our own understanding of the balance of risk involved.  However, I do know that this article implied that if you drank (more than three units of alcohol a day), smoked and took HRT then you had a 90% chance of contracting breast cancer, which we know is not the case.

I then came to the second article about the drug Herceptin, where the implication from the headline and the text was that those 44,000 women who had breast cancer would all benefit from taking the drug.  However, Herceptin is only appropriate for 2% of those breast cancer sufferers (less than 900 women each year).

It is no wonder that we all live in fear for our health when we are bombarded with such conflicting information.  Perhaps it’s time to end the confusion!

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