False Mammogram Results Are More Common Than You Think

No one enjoys having their breasts kneaded and squeezed and flattened like fresh dough at a bakery, but hey, the pain of a mammogram is worth it to know you're cancer-free, right? Except of course, when a lump DOES show up and you're treated for breast cancer when you don't really have it.


An unsettling new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that we may be relying on mammogram results way too much. And because of that, more than half of all newly diagnosed breast cancers in the US could be wrong.

Meaning, lots of women are subjected to needless anxiety and treatment they don't really need -- not to mention pricey medical bills.

Now is an excellent time to ask, WTF? Are mammograms now hurting us rather than helping?

But calm down and don't cancel your appointment just yet. Because like so much in life, the answer isn't just "yes" or "no" -- as with many things in the realm of science and health care, it's complicated.

"I agree that we've overstated the value of screening mammography to some degree,"” says Dennis Holmes, MD, a breast cancer surgeon and researcher and interim director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "This is partly due to the fact that chemotherapy is now more effective at improving the survival of women with larger breast cancers, which reduces the harm of delayed detection."

Still, not all breast cancers are the same. Some subtypes are more aggressive and more likely to spread, but it's impossible to tell which subtype you have until you've been diagnosed and biopsied. 

"Skipping mammograms increases the chance that detection of these tumors will be delayed, which raises that chance they you'll need aggressive treatments," explains Dr. Holmes.

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Although this study may set off alarm bells in our heads, "it's unlikely to change general screening recommendations," Dr. Holmes tells us. But, it SHOULD prompt a discussion between you and your doctor: a discussion about when to screen, and how to deal if something abnormal does shows up.

"Every woman should perform a breast cancer risk assessment and adopt a screening plan that reflects her personal lifetime risk," Dr. Holmes advises.

What you can do

If you're at average risk of breast cancer, your ob-gyn will probably suggest you start having an annual mammogram at age 40. If you're at low risk, lucky you: You may get to start mammograms later in life or less often.

And high risk women may need to begin screening before age 40, possibly with a breast MRI that provides more detailed images. 

"Only by knowing her personal lifetime risk of breast cancer can a woman and her physician make an informed decision about screening," says Dr. Holmes. "Genetic counseling and testing should also be considered if your personal or family history suggest the presence of a hereditary breast cancer gene mutation."

But let's say you do go for a mammogram. And the findings ARE wonky. Is there anything you can do to protect yourself from unnecessary treatment?

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Seek a second opinion at a nationally accredited breast center or cancer center, advises Richard Reitherman, MD, PhD, medical director of breast imaging at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.

"Women should have the information to make an informed decision that makes sense to them," explains Dr. Reitherman. "There are many variables which lead two people to make different decisions based on what they value in their personal lives.

"We should let them decide what they want to know about their own bodies. The job of each of us in health care is to stop trying to dumb it down."

Meanwhile, instead of worrying excessively about breast cancer, "continue breast cancer screening and channel your anxiety into activities that have been shown to reduce risk," says Dr. Holmes.

You've heard it before but it bears repeating. Exercise on a regular basis. (Ideally, 30 minutes, five days a week, but do what you can.) Eat your fruits and veggies. (Five a day!) And keep trying to drop that extra weight you've been carrying around.

It's not just your breasts you're protecting after all, but your life.


Image via Voyagerix/Shutterstock

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