The Data Behind the New Mammogram Recommendations - Explained

Monday, January 11, 2010 by: E. Huff, staff writer
Tags: mammograms, radiation, health news

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(NaturalNews) Several years ago, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (PSTF) issued an updated set of recommendations about mammogram screenings, suggesting which and how often women should get them. Since the last time the group issued its recommendations in 2002, new study data emerged that has led to a few changes. Its new guidelines, suggesting that women over 40 only need a mammogram every two years, has led to a firestorm of criticism from professional and advocacy groups as well as politicians.

The American College of Radiology and the American Cancer Society were quick to condemn the new findings, ones that PSTF has explained made the best sense based on current published data. The group consulted the Evidence-Based Practice Center at the Oregon Health and Science University for all current, relevant information about breast cancer screenings and arrived at what it says is a well-informed conclusion concerning routine screenings for older women.

Dr. Heidi Nelson, the lead researcher at the university who compiled the information for the PSTF panel, and her team scoured all available data on the subject and constructed it for review. Fifteen outside scientists were tasked with reviewing the information prior to being presented to panel members.

One of the primary studies was a recent British study that compared 54,000 women who received routine mammograms beginning at age 40 with 107,000 women of the same age who did not receive them. The results of this comprehensive study revealed that there was virtually no difference in breast cancer death rates between the two groups.

A comprehensive analysis of all available studies, including a few that showed some benefit from routine mammograms and others that did not, led to the conclusion that there is only a minimal benefit to receiving routine mammograms.

What researchers have found is that for every 1,900 women between the ages of 40 and 50 that are screened yearly for breast cancer using mammography, one death is prevented in the following two decades. Five women would have died regardless of screenings, so out of six potential deaths, one would have been prevented.

On the other hand, the potential harm induced by mammography screenings includes excessive testing and over-diagnosis, including many false positives. Analysis revealed that women have a 10 percent change of being falsely diagnosed. A significant number of cancers detected are not even malignant, yet mammograms are unable to differentiate between harmful and benign cancers.

Over-diagnosis, which is a growing concern among medical professionals, was not properly assessed or understood in 2002 when the last recommendations from PSTF were published. Many women are needlessly undergoing invasive and harmful surgery, radiation treatment, and chemotherapy for cancers that are not even harmful.

Dr. Russell Harris from the University of North Carolina, one of the panel members, explained that mammography is only effective at diagnosing one type of cancer, the malignant, slow-growing kind that can be effectively treated when diagnosed early. This kind represents only 15 percent of deadly cancers.

Precise numbers of over-diagnosis were not easy to pinpoint since estimates ranged from six percent to upwards of 50 percent. Dr. Timothy Wilt from the University of Minnesota, however, estimated that about 30 percent of cancers detected by mammography are over-diagnosed, meaning that they were either benign or untreatable.

Statisticians from the Anderson Cancer Center in Maryland were tasked with assessing screening intervals. Based on an analysis of a large cross-section of women, the group determined that there is virtually no benefit from mammography screenings for women in their 40s. Thus they determined that these women could reduce their risk of harm from mammography by getting screened every other year rather than annually.

What do these findings ultimately reveal? First, mammography screenings come with a myriad of potentially negative side effects while offering scant benefits. Over-diagnosis being the primary concern among researchers, countless women have undergone and continue to undergo dangerous procedures needlessly. More often than not, benign tumors are improperly diagnosed at the expense of the woman's health.

The radiation involved in the screening process also contributes to increasing a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. By subjecting the body continually to low-dose radiation, otherwise harmless cancer cells are encouraged to multiply and spread.

The fact that even mainstream research is now proving that mammograms provide virtually no benefit should be a wake up call to physicians everywhere who embrace the practice. Safer screening methods like thermography confer the same benefits while eliminating radiation exposure.

Since screenings of any kind can still lead to a false diagnosis, a woman's best bet is to prevent breast cancer nutritionally. Anti-cancer foods and nutrients will prevent malignant cancer cells from ever developing in the first place. When combined with exercise and a healthy lifestyle, there is no reason why any woman should ever develop a deadly form of breast cancer.

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