The Great Mammogram Debate

| Women's Health

mammogram

Beginning around the age of 40, women are advised by the American Cancer Society to start getting regular mammograms, or screenings for breast cancer. However when (or if) you start getting mammograms is a personal decision. New studies show that regular mammography screenings may reduce deaths from breast cancer by 28 percent. The study also showed that to prevent just one death from breast cancer, 368 women would need to get mammograms. As a woman, getting regular mammograms can be a life-saving proactive measure to take in detecting breast abnormalities. Breast self-exams (BSE) are also good ways to detect abnormal changes within your own body. Doctors recommend that women start regular breast self-exams at the age of 20, and feel for hard lumps or changes in the size or shape of the breast.

But, mammograms are sensitive tests. Sandhya Pruthi, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic reported that oftentimes doctors cannot distinguish between malignant and non-life-threatening breast cancers. This means that women are sometimes diagnosed with a cancer, and thus treated for a cancer, that may not have negatively impacted their overall health in the long run. It is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of women diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (the presence of abnormal cells inside a milk duct in the breast) are actually over-diagnosed because of mammography screenings. Not all ductal carcinomas in situ will become invasive breast cancers, but women diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ are often treated with hormone therapy, a lumpectomy or mastectomy. The Susan G. Komen website reports that the standard procedure is to treat every case of ductal carcinoma in situ as if it might turn into invasive breast cancer.

mammogram

Dr. Nancy Keating, who spoke to CBS about the findings of 50 years of breast cancer research, says that screenings are important when based on an individual's medical profile, medical history and genetic factors. The findings from those 50 years of research showed that post-menopausal women benefitted the most from mammograms — regular mammograms lowered deaths due to breast cancer by 32 percent for those women.

And, according to the National Cancer Institute, mammograms miss about 20 percent of breast cancers, usually due to high breast density. Another part of the screening that oftentimes worries women is the exposure to radiation, but the benefits of detecting potential cancers far outweigh the very small amount of radiation a woman is exposed to in one screening.

Overall, the benefits of mammograms justify the continuous push for women to regularly get screenings. But, the decision to get screened depends on your medical profile and medical history. For women who are at a higher risk for breast cancer (women with a first-degree relative who had breast cancer, women who are overweight, and women who are over the age of 50) regular mammography screenings can be enormously beneficial. There is an ongoing debate about whether or not the benefits outweigh the risks in mammography screenings. But, breast cancer is treatable with early detection, and early detection requires constant vigilance. Breast self-exams and mammograms are the two tools at your disposal. As always, consult your primary doctor before mammogram screenings. Your doctor alone can parse through your medical profile and help you make the best decision for your health!

>> Read more: Self Breast Exam Horror: You Found A Lump