Is the Mammogram the Best Indicator of Breast Cancer?
The mammogram has long been touted as the best way to detect breast cancer in women. Recent studies have challenged its rates of both false positives (falsely detecting cancer) and false negatives (failing to detect cancers). It may be that mammogram accuracy is not as high as doctors once thought.
How Early is Too Early to Have a Mammogram?
A mammogram uses low-level X-rays to examine breast tissue to find cancer. The Cancer Institute recommends that women over the age of forty get a mammogram every two years. Twenty-nine percent of women between the ages of thirty and forty have had mammograms. Problems with mammogram technology and errors on the part of the x-ray technicians reading the results, may make the mammogram a less effective tool than we thought, especially in younger women.
Most women have mammograms not because they have any symptoms, but for routine screening purposes. In younger women, the accuracy of screening mammograms has been especially questioned. Women under forty are much more likely than older women to receive false positive results—they’re more likely to be told that they have signs of cancer, only to later find out that these results were incorrect. In women who had mammograms for diagnostic purposes—because they found a lump in their breast, for example—results are much more accurate.
Problems with Mammogram Technology and Radiologists
The mammogram is not perfect. Dense breast tissue, hormone therapy, and even ordinary shadows can significantly reduce mammogram accuracy. Unfortunately, up to fifteen percent of breast cancers simply cannot be detected by mammograms.
Additionally, mammogram results are subject to human error. Radiologists make mistakes; sometimes they just don’t correctly interpret the information from mammograms, especially in tricky cases. Computer programs designed to help spot cancers can give false positive results, meaning that more women will be called back for more screening, or for biopsies. Doctors who have years of experience reading mammograms are much less likely to give inaccurate results, so it’s worth finding an experienced physician.
Abandon the Mammogram?
Mammogram accuracy may not be as high as we hoped, but that doesn’t mean the procedure should be abandoned altogether. Women under forty may want to rethink whether they truly need to get regular mammograms—unless they have a strong family history of breast cancer. Studies show that breast self-examination is the best tool against breast cancer. It can never be replaced by mammograms. Above all, make sure you examine your breasts monthly and always report any lumps or irregularities to your doctor. He or she can help you decide if a mammogram is necessary.
For women over forty, mammograms are still recommended every two years in addition to monthly self-examination. Don’t think that the mammogram is some sort of magic bullet. Like anything else, it has its strengths and its flaws. The procedure has saved the lives of thousands of women, but its false positives have left many women frightened and anxious while its false negatives have had even more dire consequences.