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Mammograms don’t prevent cancer deaths

March 22, 2017 (Updated: October 2, 2019)
Lily Moran

Everyone’s heard that, after 40, women should be getting periodic mammograms. However, new research suggests that mammograms aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. As a diagnostic tool, it turns out that mammograms may not change the odds you will develop late-stage breast cancer, compared to having no mammogram at all. Considering the entire point of mammograms is to catch breast cancer early and avoid late-stage breast cancer, that’s worrying.

Indeed, they may increase the risk of harm through overaggressive treatment of over-diagnosed problems. And the test itself comes with its own set of risks. The simple fact is, there are far more accurate, less risky, ways to monitor your chances of breast cancer.

The Test Everyone Hates

No one enjoys a mammogram. They’re invasive, uncomfortable—sometimes painful—and occasionally embarrassing.

But they’re worth it to protect against breast cancer, right?

Well, it turns out the data isn’t quite so clear cut.

A study in Denmark came up with some very startling results. After mammograms were made available to every woman in the country, some researchers took a look at how they changed health outcomes.

You see, the rollout in Denmark was uneven. Some parts of the country gained access to screenings much earlier than others. Which, you’d expect, would create a staggered timeline of health outcomes.

Turns out, not really.

Regardless of when mammograms were introduced, every region saw the exact same development of advanced breast cancer. Mammograms didn’t make a lick of difference.

The only thing that was different was early diagnosis of breast cancer. But, likewise, that didn’t make a whit of difference in the eventual health outcomes of women.

That suggests that mammograms succeed in overdiagnosing breast cancer—far above the necessary amount. One survey of mammograms conducted in the US over the past 30 years found that up to 1.3 million women received a diagnosis of breast cancer when, in reality, they weren’t truly in danger of developing anything dangerous.

Most of those women underwent expensive, difficult, dangerous procedures to deal with their “cancer.” Some had radiation or chemo. Some had mastectomies. All were scarred—unnecessarily. And all were exposed to dangers that they would have been better off avoiding.

It might all be worth it if, at least, this overdiagnosis was preventing more breast cancer. Unfortunately, as the newest research out of Denmark suggests, it probably doesn’t.

How To Care For Your Breasts

To be clear, I’m not recommending that you entirely cut mammograms out of your health screenings.

As you know, early detection is the best way to avoid bad outcomes. I’m a big believer in that, in all situations.

The difference with mammograms, though, is that too many doctors don’t know what they’re looking for.

The most common overdiagnosis of breast cancer is DCIS—or ductal carcinoma in situ. This is a cyst that’s commonly found in the breast.

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Most doctors treat it aggressively—like it’s a ticking time bomb. It’s not. DCIS only has a 3% chance of turning into a deadly cancer.

For comparison’s sake, about 12% of women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Those are much worse odds than the chance that a DCIS will develop into cancer.

While DCIS does show some pathology, it rarely needs treatment. It appears that the body usually does a fine job of dealing with this minor problem—or the cancer itself is so slow-moving, it’s more dangerous to disturb it than to leave it alone.

In fact, in recent years, DCIS has most commonly been compared to prostate cancer. Just as in the case of prostate cancer, there are dangerous, aggressive forms. But the vast majority of cases are best left alone.

The default of most doctors is to treat every lump, cyst, bump, or abnormality as cancer in its earliest form. And all that overdiagnosis—and overtreatment—of cancer, when it isn’t present, does damage. Treating cancer early is always good. But jumping the gun and treating something that may never become cancer does more harm than it prevents.

What’s the answer? Simple—take control of your own health.

That means you can get mammograms. But, if the doctor sees something worrying, don’t just acquiesce to whatever treatment he or she recommends.

Instead, find out exactly what they’ve found. Is it a fast-growing tumor, or a simple cyst? Is it DCIS?

You should get other tests done—some of which aren’t invasive at all. For instance, you can have your blood checked for CTC, or circulating tumor cells. While not widely practiced yet, this test checks for cancer cells that have broken off tumors and are floating in your bloodstream.

Infrared tests to check for increased blood flow to an area are completely non-invasive, and a better early indicator of cancer. Angiogenisis—the formation of new blood vessels—is necessary to feed a tumor, and will show up in thermal images.

Likewise, you can check your blood for inflammation markers, like CRP (C-reactive protein). CRP indicates elevated levels of inflammation. While there are many causes of inflammation—and you shouldn’t jump to conclusions—however, cancer will always elevate your CRP.

So if your CRP is elevated, it’s worth exploring the underlying causes.

If your doctor insists that a lumpectomy or mastectomy is the best course of action, followed by radiation or chemotherapy, seek a second opinion first.

Remember—this isn’t a case of better safe than sorry. You aren’t taking an extra dose of vitamin C because the cold is going around. You’re undergoing an inherently dangerous surgery or actively poisoning your body.

Don’t blindly follow the advice of the first doctor you see. Seek second opinions. Do what’s best for you.

In the case of DCIS, the best thing to do is often nothing. Only change your stance when you see evidence that your mass isn’t benign—and not before.

References

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