You’ve probably heard about the importance of getting your mammogram for years, but are they really necessary after all? A recent study and an article in The New York Times have come to a potentially startling conclusion: Mammograms may not be as beneficial as they were previously proclaimed to be. So should you bother?
Why Not Get a Mammogram, Just to Be Safe?
The biggest potential problems with mammograms (besides the intense discomfort and exposure to radiation!) are their ability to detect cancers that don’t actually need to be treated at all, and their likelihood of giving a false positive result—all without actually reducing the death rate. The study showed that cancers too small to feel (that were therefore only detectable by mammogram screening) didn’t pose enough of a threat at the time of screening to warrant aggressive treatment or even the stress of a second mammogram or biopsy.
According to the 25-year Canadian study that involved women ages 40-59, one in 424 women was over-diagnosed and unnecessarily treated for cancer, and the mortality rate was the same for the group that received mammograms and the one that did not. So there was no obvious benefit to going in and having a mammogram every year or two, plus there was the added risk of unnecessarily enduring a biopsy, surgery, or chemo. While these treatments may have their place, they’re probably not the solution to every cancer, and the stress that comes along with them can wreak havoc on your body, too.
Some of these cancers are very small and slow-growing (or never grow at all) and they’re not exactly dangerous. Some may even go away on their own, never to be felt or become a source of stress and anxiety. What could have been nothing and allowed you to continue with a long life without treatment could be turned into something that involves surgery, chemotherapy, prolonged stress, and draining your bank account.
But how do you know if the suspicious spot that showed up on your mammogram is something to worry about? How will you know if it’s going to grow rapidly, shrink, or disappear? Could you take a wait-and-see perspective and live, stress-free, knowing there was cancer in your breast? The stress of that alone could be crippling to your health.
At the other extreme, there are women who have gone in for a mammogram where nothing was detected, only to find out months later that they actually did have cancer. Those false-negative results could possibly delay diagnosis if women were depending exclusively on mammograms to detect that something was wrong. They may neglect self exams and fail to find a lump once the cancer progresses.
Could mammograms be doing more harm than good?
The Benefits of Early Detection
Though the mammogram statistics aren’t perfect, some women’s lives may have been saved by early detection and the subsequent treatment. A Swedish study found a 30 percent reduction in breast cancer mortality when women were invited to be screened. Women from 50-74 years old were invited to have a screening every 33 months, and women ages 40-49 were invited every 24 months. Those aren’t perfect results, but they do suggest that mammograms are useful.
Cancer.org stands behind these results, but states the benefit for women in their 40s is much higher than for women in their 50s and beyond. Women in their 40s saw a 29 percent decrease in breast cancer related mortality when they received regular mammograms, but the 50-69 age group only saw a 10 percent reduction.
The article in The New York Times mentions that The American Cancer Society has gathered a group of experts to go over some of the mammography studies (including the Canadian study) and some of the data shows a 15 to 20 percent decrease in breast cancer mortality with regular screenings. If you take 1000 women in each age group—40-49, 50-59, and 60-69—one in her 40s will avoid breast cancer mortality with the help of mammograms, two in their 50s, and three in their 60s.
Those odds don’t sound too favorable for mammograms, but what if you or a loved one was that one, two, or three in a thousand women?
It’s a Personal Decision
So are mammograms almost useless? Maybe, but maybe not. It seems to boil down to your age, risk factors, and honestly, which study you choose to believe. They definitely don’t have super high success rates at preventing breast cancer deaths, so maybe they’re not the best defense or even necessary at all. If only the lumps that can be felt really matter as the Canadian study suggests, maybe self exams are enough for most women. We can’t say for sure, but we recommend putting some thought toward the data, considering your personal risk factors, and deciding what’s best for you rather than blindly following the guidance of the media that says regular mammograms are a must for every woman above a certain age. Stay informed and draw your own conclusions.
You have to do what you feel is best for your health. If your risk factors for breast cancer are higher than average, regular mammograms may be necessary not just for your physical health, but to put your mind at ease. Though the mammograms may be shockingly less effective than we’ve been led to believe, you may feel that one more chance at catching a dangerous tumor early is worth going through with the screenings.
Of course, you should always practice preventative care through a healthy, alkaline diet, quality sleep, and a low-stress lifestyle (meditation and taking time to relax can make a huge difference in your stress levels!). Also check out our article about the five foods that increase your risk for breast cancer and five foods that decrease it.