Useless Medicine: Mammograms
Useless Medicine: Mammograms
The downsides of mammography usually outweigh the benefits
Are you confused about whether to have a mammogram? Join the crowd. Everywhere you turn, there’s conflicting information about mammography screening.
The American Cancer Society says one thing, and the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) says another. Bureaucrats and politicians—who have no medical background whatsoever but are eager to appease—join the fray with impassioned pronouncements.
What get lost in all this noise are the hard facts. Let’s look at some of the latest scientific research on routine mammography screening.
Research Shows Mammograms Lead to Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment
The Cochrane Collaboration, a well-respected international organization that examines the science behind various medical interventions, reviewed seven randomized clinical trials (involving 600,000 women) that compared mammography screening with no screening. They discovered:
- Three studies showed that routine mammography screening did not significantly reduce the death rate.
- Four studies, which the researchers said had “suboptimal randomization” (a design flaw), showed a significant reduction.
- The combined data revealed that routine mammography screening conferred a 15 percent reduction in risk of death. But it also led to 30 percent overdiagnosis and overtreatment, and the absolute risk reduction was just 0.5 percent.
The researchers concluded, “It is thus not clear whether screening does more good than harm.”
Other Problems Associated With Routine Mammography Screening
Routine mammography screening also has a dark side. There is significant radiation exposure, which adds up with annual mammography screenings, and may itself increase risk of cancer:
- For every 100 women screened, 10 will be told their mammograms are suspicious and that they need additional testing.
- A woman who has a mammogram every year for 10 years has a 65 percent chance—more than 1 in 2—of having at least one false positive.
Emotional trauma aside, this opens the door for biopsies and other tests, as well as treatment of tumors that would never amount to anything.
The Cochrane group reported that significantly more of the women who had mammograms had lumpectomies and mastectomies. The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that these procedures saved lives. Ask any woman who has undergone a lumpectomy or mastectomy, and she’ll likely agree.
But she may well have had an “indolent” cancer, which studies suggest frequently regress and disappear on their own. These are the tumors that are far more likely to get picked up on yearly mammography screening, not the aggressive, rapidly spreading cancers that are responsible for most breast cancer deaths.
Benefits of Mammography Screening: Consider Your Age and Symptoms
Research has also found that routine mammography screening for women who are in their 40s or older than 75 has not been demonstrated to provide significant benefits.
As a result, in 2009, the USPSTF updated its mammography screening guidelines, stating that mammography should begin at age 50, not age 40, through age 74. It also recommended that women have mammograms every two years, rather than annually.
While I agree with the USPSTF recommendations, you should also consider whether you have symptoms. For asymptomatic women between the ages of 50 and 74, benefits of mammography screening are scant, and in my opinion, are outweighed by the risks of overdiagnosis and overtreatment.
Your Decision Should Be Based on Facts, Not Fear
Am I telling you not to have a mammogram? No. But I am telling you that the evidence of benefit is slight to nonexistent and in no way warrants the scare tactics that are widely used.
Even Otis Brawley, the Chief Medical Officer of the American Cancer Society, said, “We don’t want people to panic, but I’m admitting that American medicine has overpromised when it comes to screening. The advantages to screening have been exaggerated.”
The bottom line: Do your research and make your own decision based on facts, not fear.
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For more than 30 years, Dr. Julian Whitaker has helped people regain their health with a combination of therapeutic lifestyle changes, targeted nutritional support, and other cutting-edge natural therapies. He is widely known for treating diabetes, but also routinely treats heart disease and other degenerative diseases. More About Dr. Whitaker
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