If you are an adult woman or know someone who is, you’ve probably heard that annual mammograms and other age-related screening tests are important to detect breast cancer. You’ve probably heard that mammography saves lives. If this is the case, you should also know that there is no conclusive evidence that this is true. In fact, there is evidence that mammograms can be harmful, even causing breast cancer.
Routine mammograms have been recommended for women over forty since 1976, especially if there is a family history of breast cancer. Since then, recommendations have changed. (1) The American Cancer Society, Canadian Task Force on Preventive Care, and several other prominent health institutions currently recommend that women between the ages of forty-five and forty-nine have annual mammograms, then every two years over age fifty. (2, 3, 4)
If you plan to begin or continue regular mammogram screening, here are some things you need to know before you make your final decision.
1. Screening mammograms do not correlate to a lower death rate from breast cancer.
A meta-analysis published in 2013 explored the findings of seven studies of the efficacy of using mammography to reduce the rate of death from breast cancer. These studies involved six hundred thousand women from the age of thirty-nine to seventy-four. The authors’ conclusions are a bit disturbing:
Subjects of some of the studies included in the analysis were not adequately randomized and were biased in favor of screening;
-The trials that did fully meet scientific standards found no effect on death rate from breast (or other) cancer for women who were routinely screened using mammography versus those who were not;
-The numbers of radiation treatments and surgeries (lumpectomies and mastectomies) were significantly higher for women who underwent mammograms;
“Breast cancer mortality is an unreliable outcome measure in screening trials (and therefore also in cohort studies of the effectiveness of national programmes) and exaggerates the benefit.” (5)
A study published in The British Medical Journal a year later supported these conclusions. Furthermore, the authors compared breast cancer mortality with mammography and without (using physical examination only): the results were virtually identical. (6)