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By Lisa Greene October 31, 2007
SUMMARY: Rudy Giuliani used cancer statistics from a conservative journal to compare the U.S. and the U.K. but the stats are wrong and the underlying comparison is faulty at best.

Rudy Giuliani has made his fight with prostate cancer part of his campaign president. But critics say he's using misleading data to bash Democratic proposals for health-care reform.

Giuliani, who was treated for prostate cancer, says he's lucky to have had the disease in the United States.

"I had prostate cancer, five, six years ago. My chance of surviving prostate cancer, and thank God I was cured of it, in the United States, 82%. My chances of surviving prostate cancer in England, only 44% under socialized medicine," Giuliani says in a new campaign ad.

Giuliani's campaign defended those numbers Wednesday, which they got from a quarterly magazine published by a conservative think tank. But the figures aren't accurate. National survival rates show a gap between the two countries, but it's not nearly as large as Giuliani says it is. And experts say the two figures can't be compared anyway because of differences in how the rates are measured.

The ad caused a stir in medical circles after the group that did the research issued a statement condemning the misuse of its numbers.

"I find it personally distasteful to have Mr. Giuliani exploiting cancer patients to make a political statement," said Andrew Vickers, associate attending research methodologist at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

The figures Giuliani uses do raise a larger question about how prostate cancer is treated in the two countries. But that difference has nothing to do with socialized medicine, Vickers said. "It's a difference in medical philosophy," he said.

In the United States, 5-year survival rates are over 99 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. If Giuliani's figures were correct, treatment in the United Kingdom would be truly awful - about the same as they were in the U.S. fifty years ago.

But in the United Kingdom, the Office for National Statistics says the country's 5-year survival rate is nearly 75 percent.

That's still substantially lower than in the United States, but many medical experts agree that even this comparison is misleading.

That's because in the U.S., men are routinely screened for prostate cancer. But many men develop prostate cancer as they get older, even though the cancer grows so slowly it never needs treatment. Vickers has done studies showing that in autopsies, about 40 percent of 70-year-old men who die for other reasons also have prostate cancer.

That means many U.S. men diagnosed through screening would never need treatment. That, in turn, artificially inflates the U.S. survival rate compared to the U.K., where more men are treated only after they develop symptoms.

For the U.S., the plus side is screening may save more lives, Vickers said. But the benefits are open to debate, since it also means men who would never have gotten sick from prostate cancer are exposed to serious side effects from its treatment, such as impotence and incontinence.

A Giuliani spokesman said Wednesday the campaign will continue to use the ad, and pointed out that the author of the article, who advises Giuliani's campaign, still says the figures are accurate.

"The bottom line is, the mayor is illustrating a point that you are essentially better off in the U.S. system than the European system,'' said campaign spokesman Elliott Bundy. "You are better off in a system of competition and choice rather than a government-mandated health care system."

A more accurate comparison between the countries would be to look at mortality rates, said prostate cancer epidemiologist Lorelei Mucci, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. In the U.S., about 15.8 of every 100,000 men die of prostate cancer, while in the U.K., the figure is 17.9 deaths.

"They're essentially quite similar," she said.

Giuliani's campaign has said he got the figures from City Journal, a magazine published by the Manhattan Institute.

The Journal, cited a 2000 report by the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that supports health policy research. But the fund disputes the Journal's use of the report, which doesn't cite survival rates.

"I think it was just an error on the part of a staffer," said fund president Karen Davis. "The numbers basically aren't right."

The fund did a 2004 study showing the U.S. generally in the middle of the pack compared to five other countries, including the U.K., on various health measures.

"It doesn't mean private insurance is good, and it doesn't mean public insurance is bad,'' Davis said. "We really need a more open approach to find out who's doing well at what."

Vickers, who moved here from Britain several years ago, said Giuliani's ad was irresponsible.

"As a prominent individual who is a cancer survivor, I would think it's more incumbent on him to be accurate in the way he uses cancer statistics," he said.

Still, even if the comparison is faulty, Mucci said, she gives Giuliani credit for speaking up.

"It had been really a silent epidemic, until the past few years,'' she said. "Now, so many men are coming out and talking about having this disease, it's putting a public face on it."

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Our Sources

National Cancer Institute U.S. cancer statistics

Office for National Statistics U.K. cancer statistics

Cancer Research U.K. U.K. cancer incidence

Times interview, Oct. 31, 2007, Andrew Vickers, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Times Interview, Oct. 31, 2007, Lorelei Mucci, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health

Interview, Karen Davis, the Commonwealth Fund City Journal The ugly truth about Canadian health care

Times e-mail interview with Bridget Sweeney, press officer, the Manhattan Institute

A cancer ad gone wrong for Rudy