(NaturalNews) It's a long-simmering question that has now turned into a full-blown controversy: What is the real value of mammograms if 33 percent of the cancers found during the procedure aren't deadly but lead to poisoning chemotherapy or worse, breast removal, anyway?
A new study that examined three decades' worth of government health data that as many as one-third of cancers that were found via routine mammograms may not be life-threatening, raising once again the question about the value and benefits of traditional breast cancer screening.
Researchers said that, based on the data examined, more than one million women could have been wrongly over-diagnosed with breast cancer, thereby exposing them needlessly to the angst that comes with the diagnosis, as well as the traditional healthcare treatments for the disease.
"It's a lot of women. It's a very substantial harm," said Dr. Gilbert Welch of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice in New Hampshire, according to Reuters.
As expected, proponents of mammograms from the medical-industrial complex have already begun criticizing the study's findings, which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Proponents essentially have said that, while mammograms aren't perfect, their benefits still outweigh the risks.
Welch, who conducted his study in conjunction with Dr. Archie Bleyer of St. Charles Health System in Oregon, has made over-diagnosis a primary focus of his research. Earlier, in a separate study, he concluded that as many as one million men had been over-diagnosed with prostate cancer since the introduction of the heavily used PSA test in 1986.
His conclusions contradict the deeply institutionalized belief within the medical community that cancer screening is always good because it saves lives - but the idea that this is gospel is increasingly being challenged by studies like those performed by Welch which are taking a hard look at the harms of such screening.
"We're not the first to suggest this, and it has come at a very huge human cost - the cost of telling a large number of women they have cancer and treating women for cancer with chemotherapy and radiation and surgery," Welch told Reuters.
Some adjustments have been made, but not enough
Though the medical-industrial complex has lashed out at every opportunity, research appears to be taking its toll on institutionalized treatment orthodoxy.
In 2009, for instance, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, a government-supported advisory panel, issued new guidelines suggesting women begin routine mammogram screenings at age 50 instead of 40, "in part because the tests have such high false positive rates and the benefits in lives saved did not outweigh the worry and anguish caused by the false positive results," said Reuters.
The panel's conclusion, based in large part on a review of published studies, went against years of accepted norm regarding the need for routine breast cancer screenings beginning at age 40. The recommendation triggered a vocal backlash from doctors, advocacy groups and even vote-seeking lawmakers who insisted the tests saved lives and were therefore worth any risk of false positives that may occur from time to time.
The medical-industrial complex even fought back with a study of its own. A supposedly independent panel of advisors in Britain who ostensibly reviewed data from 11 studies supported critics of the task force, saying that for every 10,000 50-year-old women asked to get a mammogram over the next two decades, screening would prevent 43 deaths and result in 129 cases of over-diagnosed breast cancers, thereby preventing one death for every three over-diagnosed cases (though we're not sure how the math adds up on that one).
To this day, the matter remains far from resolved.
Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the deputy chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, told Reuters the new study's results were an "interesting conversation starter," but not the final word on the matter.
"It points out issues that many if not all experts agree on, but the degree of the number of women have been impacted and the true impact of the negative side of mammography is something that other researchers would disagree with," he said.
Are the figures for real cancer diagnoses adding up?
In their study, Welch and Bleyer examined how well mammography worked as a screening tool.
To reduce the rate of death from cancer, they figured that screening needs to not simply find more cancer in its early stages but also reduce the number of cancers that are discovered late, when treatments aren't as likely to be effective.
Using government health and census information, the researchers compared breast cancer diagnosis between 1976-1978, before mammogram screening was widely used, with data from 2006-2008, when mammogram screening had become routine and well-established.
They discovered that the implementation of mammography in the U.S. doubled the number of cases of early stage breast cancer detected each year, "but the rate at which women are diagnosed with late-stage cancer has only fallen by eight percent," said Reuters, citing the study's data.
"You see with mammography a dramatic increase in early-stage disease, but you don't see much compensatory decrease in late-stage disease. That means you are finding a whole lot of early cancers that were never destined to become late-stage," Welch said, adding that mammogram screening isn't likely doing very much to catch cancers at an even earlier stage, when they can be more successfully treated.
The research team estimated that 1.3 million women in the United States had been over-diagnosed over the last 30 years. In 2008 alone, they estimated the figure to be 70,000 over-diagnosed cases, or 31 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed.
"I can't discount that there may be a tiny fraction of women who are helped by screening, but we can say it is very small - much smaller than conventional wisdom," he said.