Mamograms - There are inherent hazards!

Breast cancer impacts the lives of many women. The American Cancer Society estimates that one in every eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Although more than twice this number of women will suffer from coronary heart disease, there is immense fear of cancer even though a large fraction of breast cancer patients ultimately overcome this disease. Studies show early diagnosis leads to survival rates of almost 100%. Consequently, it is supposed to be highly beneficial for women to undergo an annual mamogram. Indeed, insurance companies promote mamograms, because they believe that it is cheaper to detect cancer in an early stage, than to cure a more advanced-stage cancer patient.

However, a recent article in the British Medical Journal (volume 338, p 447, 2009) by Gotzsche and co-workers from the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen, Denmark, challenge the current status of mamogram use. Gotzsche and his colleagues argue that "women are still not given enough, nor correct, information about the harms of screening". Typical brochures provided prior to mamograms inform women that the procedure may be uncomfortable of painful. They sometimes also state that a recall for additional tests may cause more worry. However, Gotzsche claims that the information provided neglects the most important potential harm - "unnecessary treatment of harmless lesions that would not have been identified without screening". He states that it is required by law to inform healthy people of such potential harm, and require their consent. Interestingly, this article has not seen much press in the United States, unlike other, industry pushed developments, that are more sensational.

So what is the level of harm that these researchers find?

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Updated - February 27, 2009