We need something better than mammograms

You’ll likely never hear a woman describe mammograms as fun, pleasant or comfortable. They’re anything but that. But we’re constantly bombarded with the necessity of having these screenings for early detection of breast cancer.

Machine used for mammograms

While that may be true, you’d think by now in this high-technology, fast-paced world we live in, someone would have come up with a more gentle way of early detection than smashing our breasts flat. Surely, no woman had anything to do with the invention of those monstrous machines.

For a short period in 2009, there was hope that big changes were on the horizon when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended “sweeping changes” in breast cancer screenings guidelines. Well, there were changes but alas not in the method. Breasts still had to be smashed in order to get an accurate image.

The USPSTF instead recommended that routine screenings of average-risk women begin at 50 rather than 40, which had previously been the standard. It also recommended that screenings should end at the age of 74 and that they only be conducted every two years rather than annually.

Of course, these recommendations do not apply to women with high risk of breast cancer such as history of the disease in their families. And the recommendations don’t apply to women when a suspicious lump or other symptoms show up. 

The American Cancer Society on the other hand, sticks by its initial guidelines: Begin screenings at 40 and have them annually.

The USPSTF also suggested that those breast self-exams women are taught to perform have little value. That doesn’t really compute since women should be the most familiar with their own breasts. They know when something’s different even if they don’t perform the self examinations. 

The Mayo Clinic, which offers the screenings to women beginning at age 40, recommends that women make their own decisions about when to start mammograms and how often only after consulting with their own doctors. Together they can explore the risks and benefits of any of the options.

What are the benefits?

Obviously, the biggest benefit of mammogram screenings is when cancer is detected and appropriately treated early before it has a chance to spread.

Studies have shown that mammograms reduce breast cancer deaths by 15 percent.

What are the risks?

False-negative results: These are when breast cancer is actually present but not detected by the screening. Findings show that approximately 20 percent of the cancer is missed by screenings. Treatment is delayed and women are left with a false sense of security.

False-positive results: These happen when mammograms are determined abnormal but cancer is not really present. As a consequent, more testing is done such as diagnostic mammograms, ultrasounds or biopsies, which are costly. As could be expected, women are in a heightened state of anxiety and distress while thinking they probably have breast cancer.

Unnecessary treatments: Sometimes happens when cells are found that likely will never cause symptoms or life-threatening situations but are treated anyway. 

Exposure to radiation: While low exposures happen from routine mammograms, repeated x-rays to the extreme could be sufficient to cause cancer. It’s a  bit disconcerting when the person executing the x-rays always step behind that little shield for protection. We're told the dosage for annual images is so small, it’s acceptable.  However the technicians who perform the act numerous times every day are more exposed.

What if ...?

It seems like women would be better served with more research done on what causes breast cancer in the first place. Armed with such information, emphasis could be placed on preventative measures for avoiding the cancer rather than detecting it once it’s there.

And wouldn’t it be nice if we could find less invasive ways to treat breast cancer effectively. If you’ve ever watched someone, or experienced it yourself, go through chemo-therapy and radiation to get rid of cancer, you know how it zaps people. They certainly don't have much gusto then.