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Mammography Pluses Top Any Harms

For older women, the benefits of getting a mammogram every two years outweigh potential harms, researchers say.

Photo of woman getting a mammogram

A new study found that for every 1,000 women ages 50 to 69 who were screened every two years, an estimated seven to nine lives were saved.

"Breast screening in this age group confers a large reduction in risk of dying of breast cancer," says study leader Stephen Duffy, a professor at Queen Mary University of London.

Continuing debate

Questions about when to start and how often to get mammography screenings are topics of ongoing discussion. In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) ignited a firestorm of criticism when it recommended against routine screening for women 40 to 49. Instead, it suggested that women discuss screenings with their doctor and decide on an individual basis.

Currently, the task force advises women ages 50 to 74 to have a mammogram every two years, which agrees with the new study, published in the Journal of Medical Screening.

Other U.S.-based organizations, including the American Cancer Society, continue to recommend that women begin routine annual mammography screening at age 40.

Overdiagnosed cancers

Besides the lives saved, Duffy's team also looked at the downsides of screening. For every 1,000 women, they found that four were overdiagnosed. Overdiagnosed cancers are those found during screening that would never have given rise to symptoms during a woman's lifetime and would not have been found without the mammogram.

The estimates about overdiagnosis can vary widely, says Virginia Moyer, M.D., chair of the USPSTF, because the data gathered by the European researchers are from observational rather than experimental studies.

About 230,000 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Cancer Society - Breast Cancer

National Cancer Institute - Mammograms

National Women's Health Information Center - Screening and Diagnosis

November 2012

What to Expect at Your Mammogram

A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. It can find changes in the breast when a lump is too small for you or your doctor to feel. Some women put off getting a mammogram because they think it will be painful, harmful, or costly. But this screening is safe, quick, and effective. And it could save your life.

The benefits and limitations of mammography depend on factors like age and personal risk. Experts have different recommendations for mammography. Talk with your doctor about any risk factors you have before making a decision about when to start getting mammograms or how often you should get them.

How does the screening work?

Ask the technician or nurse to explain what will happen before you have your mammogram. In order to get a clear X-ray picture, each breast is pressed between two plates. Two different X-rays will be done.

You will feel some pressure and perhaps some discomfort during the mammogram, but it takes less than one minute to take each picture. If you are still having periods, schedule your mammogram a few days after your period ends. Your breasts are less sensitive at this time.

What happens if they find a lump?

If a mammogram shows a lump or other breast change, you will need more tests to find out if it is cancer. Like most tests, mammograms are not perfect. In some cases, the mammogram may find something that's not cancer. But, mammograms can find cancer at an early stage, when the cancer is small and has not spread, and when treatment is more effective.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

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