Nearly Half of Mammograms Give False Results

A recent study found that almost 9 percent of women who get false positives receive biopsies.

Posted: 10/25/2011 11:26 AM EDT

It's true with breast cancer, that early detection can save lives.

 

But a new study suggests that more than half of American women in a 10-year period who are receiving yearly mammograms have at least one false positive result. They also found that between 7-9 percent of women were receiving biopsies from false positives and not having cancer at all.

 

Researchers from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a government-backed advisory panel, analyzed data from over 169,000 women in the U.S. to determine these findings. Reuters reported:

 

"The risks (of a false positive) are decreased by a third with biannual screening compared to annual after 10 years," [Rebecca ]Hubbard [from the  Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle] said.

 

Over the course of 10 years, screening every other year instead of yearly lowered a woman's risk of having a false positive to 42 percent from 61 percent.

 

And while the risk of a false positive from mammogram screening was about the same for women in their 40s or 50s, women who started screening for breast cancer in their 40s had a higher risk over their lifetime of having a false positive.

 

Hubbard said the findings should be used by doctors to help women make an informed decision about screening mammograms.

 

Researchers do admit that the "skipping each year" approach does have a downside — it can result in detecting cancer in later stages. And the later the stage, the more your cancer has progressed and the harder it is to treat.

 

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is the same group that announced in 2009 that doctors should stop giving yearly mammograms to women in their 40s and up the age of 50. Just a few weeks ago, they announced that the P.S.A. test — a test widely used to assess prostate health in men — does not really predict cancer and often leads to additional tests and treatments that needlessly cause pain and impotence in many healthy men.

 

Both recommendations stirred a firestorm of criticism.

 

As of now, the American Cancer Society still recommends that women aged 40 and over receive a yearly mammogram. Beginning in our early 20s, women should learn how to conduct breast self-examination. In their 20s and 30s, clinical breast examination should be a part of routine medical exams, at least every three years.

(Photo:  JIM ANNESS/MCT/Landov)

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