Millions Of Women Getting Unnecessary Breast Cancer Treatment; Researchers Say Mammograms To Blame

mammograms breast cancer overdiagnosis

A new study has yielded some surprising news about breast cancer in the United States: namely, that mammograms are responsible for a rapid increase in breast cancer overdiagnosis. The study, published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that breast cancer was overdiagnosed in approximately 1.3 million American women in the past 30 years, including 70,000 women in 2008 alone.

According to Canada’s CBC News:

Researchers used federal surveys on mammography and cancer registry statistics from 1976 through 2008 to track how many cancers were found early, while still confined to the breast, versus later, when they had spread to lymph nodes or more widely.

Mammograms currently account for over 60% of the breast cancers diagnosed. But researchers who participated in the study say that these early-stage diagnoses could be more dangerous than helpful. Dr. Archie Bleyer of St. Charles Health System and Oregon Health & Science University said:

Instead, we’re diagnosing a lot of something else — not cancer. And the worst cancer is still going on, just like it always was.

The study found that mammograms more than doubled the number of early-stage cancers detected: from 112 to 234 cases per 100,000 women. Nearly 1.4 million cases of breast cancer are diagnosed worldwide each year. Here in the US, we have one of the most aggressive approaches to screening for the disease (as well as for raising awareness about it). The researchers who conducted the study concluded that better screening doesn’t decrease the mortality rate for women with breast cancer; better treatment does.

The study, which I’m betting will be pretty controversial in the medical field and in the media, isn’t necessarily saying that mammograms are bad or that catching a cancer at an early stage is unnecessary. But the doctors who conducted the study explained that mammograms often find an abnormality that might not be truly cancer or truly malignant. This causes women to go through medical treatments, like chemotherapy or surgery, that they might not actually need.

With an approximate 1.3 million women who have been treated unnecessarily for breast cancer, this brings up many more questions and concerns about screening and treatment in the United States. Unnecessary treatment is expensive, time-consuming, emotionally and physically taxing, and could cause strain in all aspects of a woman’s life from her family life to her relationships to her employment.

I understand the perspective and justification that it’s better to be safe than sorry, but with the information from this study, perhaps doctors and treatment centers should be looking a lot more closely at what constitutes “safe.” Unnecessary treatment is clearly bad for women as well as families, doctors, hospitals, insurance companies…pretty much anyone involved with breast cancer treatment on any level.

Photo: Shutterstock

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    • Lastango

      It’s many years ago that I first started to read about this sort of structural problem. Breast cancer had become a politically correct cause, and what can be called the “breast cancer industry” established itself around the issue. The money poured in. Politicians fell all over themselves to show they cared. But then the critics noticed something: early detection wasn’t lowering mortality rates. This was not well-received, because early detection was a big part of what the industry was selling.

      There are a lot of people with a vested financial and career interest in maintaining the existing system — especially its claim on the funding stream — and you have a point when you say there’s going to be resistance to change.
      Disclaimer: I’m not taking a position on this particular piece of research. I’m commenting on how the breast cancer movement has become an entrenched interest. It has many friends, and it will fight for its own survival for reasons that have nothing to do with healthy outcomes for women.

      • Dalton J. Jameson

        You are correct. This information was has been available since 2002 when the findings
        of Danish scientists who reanalyzed original screening mammography studies were
        released. And yet for the past decade, women have still been told again and
        again things like “early detection is the best prevention” or
        “better safe than sorry”. Neither bumper sticker slogan is remotely
        accurate and there is substantial evidence to support the total elimination of
        asymptomatic mammograms. Unfortunately, considering all the brainwashing that
        has been done by those with vested financial interests, it will likely be at
        least another decade before the public fully understands the extent of this travesty.