Women endangered by high rate of false-positive mammograms

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: mammograms, false positives, health news

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(NaturalNews) According to mainstream medicine, mammograms are the key to surviving breast cancer because they supposedly catch the disease early for quick treatment. What this advice invariably leaves out is evidence that exposure to the radiation used in the tests may actually cause breast cancer in some women.

For example, a study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) concluded annual mammography screening significantly increases breast cancer risk in women with a genetic or familial predisposition to the disease (http://www.naturalnews.com/027641_mammograms...).

Now there's another reason to be concerned about the push for women to have yearly mammograms. In a new study by University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) research shows that among women who receive a decade of annual mammograms, more than half of those women will be called and told the gut-wrenching news that their tests are positive when they are actually cancer-free. The victims of false-positive results -- not a malignancy -- are then subjected to more tests. In fact, one in twelve of these women will undergo invasive, potentially breast-scarring biopsy surgery.

"This study provides accurate estimates of the risk of a false-positive mammography and breast biopsy for women undergoing repeat mammography in community practice, and so provides important information about the potential harms of undergoing regular mammography," states Karla Kerlikowske, a professor of medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine. Karla is also the co-author of the study, which was just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

False-positive mammogram results are rampant

The research, led by Group Health Research Institute of Seattle for the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium, investigated false-positives in mammography by studying the records of approximately 170,000 women between the ages of 40 and 59 from seven regions around the United States. Almost 4,500 of these research subjects were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.

The study found that women who started having mammograms at age 40 instead of 50 were far more likely to have false-positive findings that resulted in more expensive and needless medical tests, including biopsies.

Just by changing breast screening from every year to every other year, the researchers documented that a woman's risk of having a false-positive finding dropped from 61 percent to 42 percent (about a third) over the course of ten years. What's more, they found that if radiologists would simply review a patient's previous mammograms it "may halve the odds of a false-positive recall."

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force guidelines now recommend biennial mammograms starting at age 50 and continuing until age 74. However, many doctors still recommend annual mammograms, often beginning at age 40.

The new study concluded that after a decade of yearly screening, a majority of women will receive at least one false-positive result. Out of these, 7 to 9 percent will face having a biopsy and the risks that involves -- from anesthesia complications to scarring to infection -- although these women are, in fact, cancer-free.

And what about the argument that yearly mammograms are needed to catch cancer early enough to cure? The researchers found that women screened every two years were not significantly more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage cancer.

"We conducted this study to help women know what to expect when they get regular mammograms over the course of many years," study leader Rebecca Hubbard, PhD, an assistant investigator at Group Health Research Institute, explained in the media statement. "We hope that if women know what to expect with screening, they'll feel less anxiety if - or when - they are called back for more testing. In the vast majority of cases, this does not mean they have cancer."

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