According to the NIH, approximately 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. While technically true, this number is extremely misleading as it’s based on the lifetime risk of a woman who reaches the age of 90 years old, an age where breast cancer is exponentially more likely.
By way of contrast, the average 35 year old woman has only a 1 in 217 risk of developing breast cancer. Nevertheless, conventional health care practitioners and the American Cancer Society tend to err on the side of caution by stressing the importance of yearly mammograms for women over the age of 40.
However, recent studies illuminate that mammograms may have minimal benefit for younger women and women less at risk for developing breast cancer. Given this research and the detrimental effects excessive radiation, overdiagnosis and over treatment resulting from mammograms can have on otherwise healthy breast tissue and women’s emotional health, there is much debate about their efficacy as a diagnostic tool.
This debate became personal when my primary care physician handed me a referral for my first annual mammogram. Like most women, I was aware of the pros and cons, but didn’t want to take chances with my health, so I obliged. My caution was rewarded with what seemed like an endless series of excruciating mammograms, an ultrasound, a referral to a breast surgeon and a stereotactic needle biopsy, all of which resulted in a benign (noncancerous) diagnosis and months of needless uncertainty, anxiety and fear.
So this year, after a clean mammogram (following three years of meditation, yoga, a mostly raw food diet and a rigorous detox regime – learn about my journey here and here), when my breast surgeon recommended I schedule another six-month follow-up mammogram and begin taking anti-cancer prescription drug Tamoxifen “just to be on the safe side,” I opted instead for a second opinion. I met with health consultant and researcher Dr. Howard Jacobson, Ph.D, contributing author to Whole and Proteinaholic, who helped me challenge some of the most common myths about breast health, including the necessity for excessive mammogram screenings. Read on before booking your next one.
1. Lie #1: Read all about lie #1 here.
2. Lie #2: Annual mammograms are vital for women’s health.
Though mammograms find about 70% of existing breast cancers, they also have a false positive rate as high as 89%. You’d think that earlier detection of smaller lumps would help save lives. But the evidence says otherwise. According to The Cochrane Collaboration, an independent non-profit research group, 2000 women would have to get annual mammograms for 10 years in order to save just one life. And because of those 20,000 mammograms, 10 women will have to endure unnecessary and potentially life threatening effects of radiation from overdiagnosis and over treatment. This doesn’t even begin to take into account the emotional suffering endured by almost 50% of women who become alarmed due to “false positives” (women with no traces of breast cancer who are mistakenly told they have a problem). As a result, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that screenings start later, at age 50 since women between the ages of 40 and 49 are more likely to receive false-positive results due to substandard diagnostic tools and overaggressive treatment.
3. Lie #3. Calcifications are a telltale warning sign for breast cancer.
Breast calcifications are small calcium deposits that can develop in women's breast tissue. Many breast surgeons believe that certain microcalcifications are an indicator of breast cancer requiring an automatic biopsy if found on a mammogram. However, microcalifications are very common in most breast tissue, and are usually benign. According to BreastCancer.org, roughly 80% of biopsies of clustered microcalcifications turn out to be normal or benign. Twenty percent of these biopsies are cancerous, and of that 20%, many show no signs of tissue invasion. If you ever have a question about the accuracy of your mammogram report, or the radiologist's recommendation for what to do with the results, be sure to get a second opinion from another radiologist who has expertise and a strong record for accurately reading calcification clusters on mammograms.
4. Lie #4: If you find a lump, only a biopsy can rule out cancer.
A biopsy is a procedure to remove a piece of tissue or sample cells from your body so they can be analyzed in a lab to confirm whether or not cancer is present. Under the current standard of care, biopsies are often considered authoritative and can trigger the beginning of cancer treatment, whether surgical (lumpectomy, mastectomy) or pharmaceutical (chemotherapy). But a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that the interpretation of biopsy results can often be highly unreliable. One hundred and fiften pathologists were shown 240 samples of biopsied breast tissue and asked whether each was precancerous or normal. They got the right answer about 50% of the time, the exact same odds you could expect from simply flipping a coin.
As a result, thousands of women are being treated for cancers they don’t have, and many are going untreated for actual cancers. Given how painful and stressful biopsies are, and the fact that they can actually spread cancers that would otherwise not have spread, they should be avoided whenever possible.
Up Next: Lies #5, 6 + 7.