Anyone who has ever been called back to the doctor for a “suspicious” mammogram result knows the utter fear and anxiety that strikes the moment you receive that call. Even though the doctor’s office makes it seem perfectly routine to come back for another round of screening for an area that “didn’t quite show up on the original mammogram”, there is nothing routine about how your feelings at that point. According to new research though, more than half of all women will go through this unnecessary scare.
Reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, over 50% of healthy women who have an annual mammogram will get at least one false positive result during a 10-year period. In addition, 7 to 9% will undergo a biopsy that also turns out to be negative. Because of this, the researchers concluded that having a mammogram every other year instead of every year would cut the risk of a false positive by about a third. But on the flip side, this could result in catching cancers at a later stage, and we know early detection is always best.
So what do we do? Should we continue to get mammograms every year once we reach the age of 40 (or earlier if we are considered high-risk by our doctor) and hold our breath every time the phone rings during the following two weeks while waiting for results? Or should we go less often, knowing that mammograms are not always reliable and accurate anyway?
Rebecca Hubbard of the Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle told Fox News:
I think it gives us quantification of risks and benefits so when individuals consider how frequently to screen they can think of what their risk of cancer is and what their risk tolerance is for potentially getting a false positive.
It’s an interesting debate, and anyone who has ever been through this or knows someone who has, understands the feeling. In addition to such a high number of false positives from mammograms, there are also so many stories of women who have had clean mammograms only to be diagnosed with cancer a few weeks or months later. All of this makes many of us wonder how much we can really rely on mammograms to begin with.
Despite this and the fact that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that women should start routine mammograms at age 50 rather than 40, in part because of the high false positive rates and the anguish caused by this, other cancer advocacy groups, like the American Cancer Society, still recommend that we start at age 40.