What if you found out from a mammogram that you had breast cancer - but a few months later were told it had gone away? Sounds pretty unbelievable - but a study published recently by the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that this might be true.
Scientists from Norway and the U.S. compared how many new breast cancers were found among Norwegian women ages 50-69 who were screened every two years between 1996 and 2001 as part of a national screening program. Because there was no screening program between 1992 and 1997, the scientists compared those first results to a different group of women who had not had regular screenings. Everyone in both groups received screening mammograms at the end of a six year period.
Researchers know that starting a screening program tends to cause a sharp rise in the numbers of breast cancers that are found in that population. What frequently happens is that asymptomatic and previously undetected cancers come to light.
In this study, then, the scientists thought that the number of breast cancers found when the previously unscreened group received their mammogram at the end of six years would be similar to the cumulative number seen in the screened group, as the groups of women were otherwise very similar. Instead, they found the opposite: that the number of breast cancers was much lower in the previously unscreened group after their initial mammogram, and remained low even after a subsequent screening.
Why? One theory is that for the group who didn't get screened for six years, many breast cancers might have been discovered if they had been regularly screened. But, since they weren't being screened, if any cancers had existed during that time, some may have disappeared on their own. When this group of women finally had mammograms at the end of six years, there were fewer cancers to be found.
Why is this important? Because when breast cancer is found, it always leads to major steps -- surgery, radiation, and/or systemic treatment. These will of course dramatically affect a woman in many ways. However, if some breast cancers are naturally destroyed by the body, there just might be a downside to early detection - a revolutionary thought.
As you might have guessed, a thunderbolt of this magnitude drew strong reaction from within the world of breast cancer research. Robert Smith, Ph.D., the American Cancer Society's Director of Cancer Screening, Cancer Control Science Department, told USA TODAY that "It's important that people not wonder if women lost their breasts for no reason. That's reprehensible conjecture."
To me and to many of my fellow advocates with the National Breast Cancer Coalition, what's most reprehensible is blind adherence to the status quo. Not to mention the possibility of performing unnecessary surgery. And injecting potentially harmful chemicals into patients.
To defeat breast cancer, we must change our thinking and challenge conventional wisdom when new findings demand it. We shouldn't run and hide from new questions raised about breast cancer. While this study's findings are still preliminary, they clearly suggest a new area for researchers to pursue. It would be reprehensible to ignore or dismiss this research out of hand.
Soon, MyBreastCancerNetwork.com will change its format and utilize many of its "regular" bloggers on an occasional basis only. I have truly appreciated the opportunity to share my thoughts with you these past two years as we all work together to eradicate breast cancer. I look forward to staying in touch with you, and with a new administration and a new Congress, am confident that there will be a lot for me to say. In the meantime, please visit NBCC's blog or our website. If you'd like to get more involved in breast cancer advocacy, why not come to Washington, DC this May and join our Annual Advocacy training conference? Visit our website for more information. Be well.