Mammogram screening risks and benefits

-Dr.Dianne McCallister, Chief Medical Officer at Porter Adventist Hospital

A study published in the Lancet journal showed while mammograms improve survival from breast cancer, they also mean more unneeded tests were done.

Another study about a year ago looked at the appropriate age to start mammograms, with some surprising new recommendations.

As we end breast cancer awareness month, we want to sort through these studies and what they mean to all of us.

The study in Lancet just reinforces many previous studies that show that early detection of breast cancer makes it more treatable - and therefore less women die from breast cancer when they routinely get mammograms.

Mammograms are screening tests.

They are designed not to miss any abnormalities so that we can detect all breast cancers possible.

However, they will also find abnormalities that turn out not to be breast cancer - leading to biopsies and treatment of lesions that were not cancer.

In this study - 1,300 women's lives were saved due to the mammograms, but 4,000 women had some sort of treatment on lesions that may not have been needed.

The upside of doing this screening is that we find almost all breast cancers, the downside -that women will have more treatment.

It is a calculated risk we take because we know that breast cancers, caught early, are more treatable - and so we save lives.

How will this study change treatment

It is unlikely that this will really change the way we do mammograms - because it reinforces that early detection is life saving.

It does, however, make the point that when we get testing, we are taking the chance of having biopsies that we would not need otherwise.

This is something that the medical field needs to better explain to patients.

New Mammograms Recommendations

There is a way of looking at any screening test that looks at how many false positive results/treatment/cost are incurred for every life saved.

Based on that, the new recommendation is to postpone mammograms for most women until the age of 50 - the current recommendation is to start at 40.

Breast cancer experts have concerns with this - mainly because breast cancers found in pre-menopausal women are more aggressive and so more important to find early.

The take home message is that mammograms are very important to have done - they save lives.

Most doctors still support starting mammograms at age 40 every other year and then going to every year at age 50 - this is because early detection is so important in breast cancer survival.

However, you need to talk to your physician and get the right recommendations for you.

If you have a family history of breast cancer, you may need to begin mammograms even earlier.

You need to fully understand the recommendations and upside and downsides to them.

Dr. McCallister is on 7NEWS at 11 a.m. every Wednesday. If you have a topic or question you would like her to discuss, email .

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