Screening Mammograms: Moving Beyond the Hype

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Should the latest study detailing mammograms’ effect on the incidence of breast cancer deaths change how you approach this screening tool?


    News flash: Millions of American women having regular mammograms each year are never going to die of cancer. And many of those women will have biopsies that turn out to be unnecessary. Some will even be treated for cancer, when their cancer would never have killed them. 


    Attention, folks: Despite the recent media hype, this isn’t news. 


    Sure, a new study came out in April providing more data to the ever-growing body of evidence that perhaps screening mammograms aren’t the life-saving tool we always thought they were.

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    Or, to summarize it another way, mammograms save lives – just not enough of them to warrant their expense to the general population: financial, physical, and emotional.


    Back in 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPTF) recommended the medical community step back from its recommendation of yearly mammograms for all women beginning at age 40. The USPTF suggested a less aggressive approach: mammograms beginning at age 50, and then only every other year.


    Why? Because the balance of benefit vs. cost for screening mammography was way out of line. Many fewer women had their lives saved via mammogram, vs. those who received unnecessary treatment – from a callback mammogram, all the way through chemotherapy, in some cases.


    The USPTF study resulted in a tremendous outcry from women who’d discovered their breast cancer via mammograms; as well as from the American Cancer Society, and even from Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), whose department had directed and funded the USPTF study. And the USPTF’s new guidelines were never widely adopted.


    Still, the subject had been raised - just how worthwhile are mammograms, anyway? And the scientific studies continued, including the one released just yesterday, April 1.


    Do you want to read the fine print about how many women have their lives saved, vs. how many receive “unnecessary” callbacks and treatment? Be my guest. 


    But here’s my quick and dirty opinion on the subject, for what it’s worth:


    Have a yearly mammogram beginning at age 40 if

    A) you’re at increased risk of breast cancer; or

    B) you want to do everything possible to identify cancer early – even if that means mammogram callbacks with their accompanying emotional angst; and an increased risk of over-treatment. 


    Relax your schedule of screening mammograms if

    A) your breast cancer risk is normal;

    B) you’re willing to gamble that you won’t be one of the very few women whose life is saved by a yearly screening mammogram beginning at age 40. And honestly? The odds are extremely high that you’ll win that bet. 


    Want to read more?

    “Mammograms Don’t Save Lives” – So Why Have One?

    Screening Mammograms Save Lives – But At What Cost?

    You Should Have a Mammogram. You Don’t Need a Mammogram. Which Is It?

  • Do You REALLY Need a Regular Mammogram?

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    Beck, M. (2014, April 01). More doubts about mammograms' value are raised in large study. Retrieved from

Published On: April 02, 2014