Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
Bloomberg News: The dangers of excessive mammograms

Bloomberg News

By Bloomberg news

First Published Feb 15 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 15 2014 08:04 am

A 25-year study of 90,000 women found that mammograms do nothing to lower the death rate from breast cancer. That’s pretty strong evidence, to say the least. And it’s only the latest from many studies over the past several years indicating that mammography often doesn’t help prevent advanced cancer.

Yet women — and, even more crucially, their doctors — remain unwilling to give up annual mammograms. Five years ago, when a panel of experts convened by the U.S. government looked at the available evidence and concluded that women in their 40s should stop being screened for breast cancer, and that those aged 50 to 75 should be screened only every other year, 3 in 4 women said they simply disagreed. The secretary of Health and Human Services felt obliged to speak out against the experts’ recommendation.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

What’s going on here? A fear of breast cancer, to begin with, which is understandable. But there’s also an abiding belief that the best way to fight cancer is to find any sign of it early and root it out — despite evidence demonstrating that’s not entirely true, and that overscreening can lead to overdiagnosis and overtreatment. What’s needed is a strategy to align public perception with scientific consensus.

One easy way to do so is through language. It’s neither correct nor helpful to use the word "cancer" to describe the tiny lesions that mammograms are so good at detecting but that usually don’t turn into lethal cancer. Autopsy studies suggest that 4 in 10 women from ages 40 to 70 have these lesions without knowing it and die of something else.

Last summer, a National Cancer Institute working group endorsed the term "idle." This has the benefit of being both scientifically precise (it stands for indolent lesions of epithelial origin) and conversationally apt (a growth can be described not as "cancerous" but as "idle").

The group also recommends setting up observational registries for such lesions to make it easier to study exactly how they progress, and it says doctors should raise the threshold for deciding which of these lesions need to be biopsied.

Those last two recommendations show that medical practice can also lag the scientific consensus. In fact, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology stubbornly maintains its recommendation that women get a mammogram every year once they turn 40.

The doctor-patient relationship is by definition personal, of course. But a woman has a right to expect her doctor to be aware of the latest research and apply it to her case. In the case of breast cancer, the evidence is clear: More tests do not reduce mortality, but fewer tests may reduce anxiety.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment

About Reader Comments

Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.