There’s a good reason we don’t take health advice from celebrities. We may enjoy watching them on screen, but if we listened to actors about medicine we’d all be drinking turpentine and dying of smallpox.
Nevertheless, they keep offering it. And the latest piece of Bad Medical Advice comes to us from actor and fourth-most-inspiring media representation of women in STEM, Ellen Pompeo.
In a segment of the Ellen DeGeneres Show aimed at raising awareness and funding for breast cancer research, the star, famous for playing a doctor on screen in Grey's Anatomy, attempted to give some off-the-cuff medical advice about ovarian cancer – and actual doctors watching the show were not pleased.
Ovarian cancer affects one in 75 women at some point in their life, and accounts for more deaths than any other cancer in the female reproductive system. This is partly because it is a near-invisible disease: it’s rare to notice any symptoms at all in its early stages, and even advanced ovarian cancer may only cause a few vague symptoms such as bloating or discomfort. Unfortunately, therefore, nearly two-thirds of women aren’t diagnosed until their cancer has reached stage III or IV – when survival rates are less than one in five – earning the disease its popular nickname, the “silent killer”.
However, early detection can raise survival rates to as high as 93 percent, so Pompeo’s advice to “ask for the ultrasound… ovarian cancer is not detected otherwise and it's a simple ultrasound and you can catch it and live,” may seem sensible at first.
But despite a few recent medical breakthroughs, there is still no way for doctors to screen for ovarian cancer, and Pompeo’s message contradicts the advice of the American Cancer Society, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Preventative Services Task Force, Cancer Research UK, and countless other organizations.
Although ultrasounds are used in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer, this is not the same thing as screening. Doctors use the scans to check the progression of the disease once its presence is already known or suspected – a screening, however, is a procedure to check for a disease in patients that show no symptoms, such as a pap smear.
Not only can transvaginal ultrasounds be painful and expensive, they’re also potentially dangerous as a screening tool. If the scan finds nothing, a woman might be reassured she is safe – when in fact the test has told her nothing. If the scan finds something, she could be in for a barrage of expensive and risky tests and surgeries to correct what is almost certainly just a benign abnormality.
At the very least, warns Gunter, Pompeo’s advice risks a breakdown in doctor-patient trust.
“The implication was very much that doctors are dropping the ball and not doing this for you,” she said. “It's fine to raise awareness but to tell people they should get a specific test... well, what's the fallout when a physician says no?”
Thankfully, Pompeo seems to have taken the message on board, tweeting a correction to her remarks a few days later.
Despite having virtually no symptoms and even fewer known causes, there are some risk factors that can increase your likelihood of developing ovarian cancer during your lifetime. For people with a family or personal history of certain cancers, or anybody concerned about their health, it’s crucial to talk to a doctor – and not just somebody who plays one on TV.