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.