Mammograms Lower the Breast Cancer Death Rate

Beth Brophy Health Guide
  • A new study by the National Cancer Institute finally confirms what seems like common sense to me: Mammograms lower the breast cancer death rate. According to a recent front page story in the New York Times, 20 percent to 65 percent of the decrease in breast cancer deaths from 1990 to 2000 was due to mammograms; the rest of the decrease is a result of powerful new drugs.

    I have to admit that I have found the controversy over the screening test, which involves heated arguments on both sides, ridiculous. The argument that mammograms may do more harm than good — that mammograms may lead to false positives or overtreatment for tumors that would not have spread if they had been left alone — seems weak. Given the choice between those risks, and the risk of having an undetected tumor, it’s a no-brainer. Early detection sure beats late detection or no detection. Better safe than sorry.
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    Like so many issues in health care, some of the mammogram debate revolves around money. Some experts maintained that it was a waste of resources for women 40 and older to have a mammogram every year. Other experts disagreed, arguing that without early screening, cancer treatments wouldn’t work so well.

    Despite the controversy, I started getting mammograms when I was 35, after one of my colleagues, the same age as me, discovered she had breast cancer. When I discovered my own breast cancer six years later — admittedly not through a mammogram or through a doctor’s examination — having the earlier mammograms as a baseline didn’t hurt.

    The evidence shows that even when the effectiveness of the screening test is in doubt, women will vote with their feet and take the test. Mammography rates have soared —more than 80 percent of women over 40 get mammograms now. Women like me, middle-aged and middle-class, with health insurance, don’t need a study to convince us of the benefits, especially when our anecdotal evidence is overwhelming: Women in their 30s and 40s, with no risk factors, are diagnosed every day. Poor women, without insurance coverage, often don’t have the luxury of making the same choice. That’s not right, or fair. And I don’t need any studies to prove that, either.
Published On: November 09, 2005