A new study, published this week in the British Medical Journal, revealed that having routine mammograms makes no difference in whether a woman's life is spared from breast cancer. The study followed nearly 90,000 women over a 25-year period. Half of the women were randomly assigned to mammogram testing, and the other half were not and were instructed instead to perform breast exams at home. An identical number of breast cancer deaths was found in each group 25 years later -- mammogram or no mammogram. Researchers found that the only difference was more women who had mammograms were "overdiagnosed" and underwent unnecessary surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments.
This isn't the first time doctors and ordinary folk have debated whether mammograms can actually help save lives. Skeptics say screening too early or frequently is expensive and can place a physical and psychological toll on women. Others argue that the amount of radiation present in a mammogram can "break open" an existing tumor and, obviously, cause more harm than good.
I understand the need for these studies. At the same time, I am relieved that my mother, who was recently told she had a lump in her breast after a routine mammogram, was able to find out it was benign and have it removed. She definitely experienced a month of stress and anxiety while wondering "what if?" But "what if" works both ways -- it could have been malignant. It could have been detected too late.
I would much rather have doctors find everything that could be wrong and then rule out possibilities. On the other hand, a colleague's mom found a lump in her breast that wasn't picked up by a routine mammography months prior. She found it herself AND it turned out to be breast cancer. It's possible that the lump wasn't there at the time of her screening, but it's also possible that the mammogram didn't detect it.
Either way, the takeaway here is that there doesn't seem to be one single and surefire way we can detect breast cancer early enough to prevent tragic results. Mammograms alone don't seem like they're going to cut it. They should be thought of as just another way of helping to detect breast cancer -- but not the only way. We should all be diligently performing breast self-exams at least once a month.
How do you feel about the controversy over mammograms?
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