The cancer question

This video of Sen. Al Franken “schooling” an opponent of health reform proposals has been making the Internet rounds over the last few days.

“The fearsome Harvard math major punished conservative economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth for claiming that Democrats’ reforms would jack up bankruptcies for medical reasons,” the Minnesota Independent reported.

Clearly, Franken was a senator prepared for combat, though conservative blogs have jumped on Franken’s comeback for Furchtgott-Roth’s attempt to point out that the U.S. has better cancer survival rates than European countries.

“That’s because we find easily survivable cancers to count as ones that we survive,” he said. If you’re tallying cancer survival rates, shouldn’t the “easily survivable” ones be counted?

Well, yes, except Franken’s response claims the U.S. figures are cooked. He’s referring to this “study” by Betsy McCaughey, the health care reform opponent who is, perhaps, best known as the person who started the “death panels” controversy.

There is a more recent — perhaps more scholarly — evaluation of cancer survival rates. A London researcher found the highest survival rates were found in the U.S. for breast and prostate cancer, in Japan for colon and rectal cancers in men, and in France for colon and rectal cancers in women.

The same study also found wide differences in survival rates among U.S. states, especially when race is considered.

Another study, this one from Canada, found that poor people in Canada had better survival rates for breast and prostate cancer than some U.S. states. Hawaii narrowed the gap, however. Hawaii mandates employer-provided health care.

While partisans are quick to jump on any factoids that prove their side is correct on the health care issue, FactCheck.org suggests there are too many variables to make the statistics meaningful one way or the other:


Dr. Marie Diener-West, a professor of biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, told us that it would be a stretch to draw too many conclusions from comparing survival rates. “Part of the problem with the comparison is that it might not actually be comparable populations,” she said. “It could be [one is] an older population, it could be they have more comorbidities [other conditions] that are affecting their survival in addition to cancer, there could be occupational differences. There are many different factors that could be playing a role.” Diener-West pointed out that the uninsured, for instance, are generally poorer and may have different diets, different lifestyles and different exposure to tobacco and other drugs than the privately insured. And when you compare across countries, of course, you’re also looking at two different gene pools.

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