Can getting a routine, screening mammography, as recommended by most medical organizations, including the American Cancer Society, beginning at age 50 and then every one or two years thereafter, actually do more harm than good? Perhaps. According to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a third of all tumors discovered during routine mammography screenings will actually not result in illness and these screenings over the past 30 years have led to the overdiagnosis of 1.3 million American women.
According to study author Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, the benefit of mortality reduction is probably smaller, and the harm of overdiagnosis probably larger, than has been previously recognized. Some, including Dr. Daniel B. Kopans, a senior breast imager at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, find this malicious nonsense, and see it as a way of denying women breast cancer screening. This may be easy to say for a man who makes his living doing this kind of testing.
The researchers say they re not telling women to stop being screened, but rather are trying to make women aware of the shortcomings of mammograms. And no one has proposed that woman should not get a mammogram for diagnostic purposes, meaning to evaluate a problem such as as a lump in the breast. The study refers only to routine annual or biannual screening for no specific reason, which the researchers found to discover far more nonthreatening abnormalities than early, dangerous cancers.
And even though the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force changed their recommendation to women in 2009, advising them to begin screening mammograms at the age of 50 and get them every other year, nothing is really going to change just yet, according to ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross. Women and their doctors have been advised, urged, to get your mammogram to save your life for the past forty or so years, so nothing s going to change that policy in the near term. The message of this study is that maybe a woman should discuss the risks and benefits of routine mammograms with her doctor before just going ahead as she has always done before.