Decision Making Tool: Should I Have a Mammogram?

IMAGE A mammogram is a screening test for breast cancer. These types of screening tests play an important role in maintaining good health. While some tests can be done quickly during a regular doctor’s visit, a mammogram requires an additional appointment at a special facility. The test itself is also rather uncomfortable, not to mention the stress a potential cancer diagnosis can cause. Do the benefits of mammograms outweigh these downfalls? The following will help you understand the benefits and risks of a mammogram so that you can make an informed decision about your options.

What Are the Potential Benefits of a Mammogram?

Screening tests can help identify illnesses and health problems before symptoms arise. For illnesses like cancer, early detection may allow for more treatment options and improve the prognosis.

Catch Breast Cancer Early

Mammograms may detect changes in the breast that could be cancerous up to 2 years before a lump can be felt. Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), an early stage of a type of breast cancer, can also be found with mammography. An early start to treatment may also stop the cancer before it spreads to the rest of the breast tissue or to other organs.

What Are the Potential Risks and Limitations of a Mammogram?

As a screening test, a mammogram cannot actually diagnose breast cancer. To diagnose breast cancer, other tests or procedures will need to be done to closely examine the suspicious tissue. A mammogram simply suggests that cancer may or may not be present. Limits of the test can lead to false results. The test may suggest that cancer is present when it is not. This is called a false positive. The test may also suggest that cancer is not present when it does exist. This is called a false negative.

False Positive

Sometimes, a mammogram may suggest that there is a cancerous change in breast tissue when there really is not. Benign (noncancerous) tissue can look suspicious on a mammogram. Follow-up tests to confirm what the tissue is may include additional mammograms, ultrasound exams, breast biopsies, and other medical tests. If the original mammogram was a false positive, which may happen 10% of the time, the additional medical tests and associated stress were unnecessary.

False Sense of Security

A normal mammogram does not guarantee that you are cancer free. One possibility is that the test result may be a false negative, meaning the mammogram was not able to show a cancer that was there. A clear test may also encourage a false sense of security, which may lead you to ignore symptoms that should be discussed with a doctor.

Radiation Risk

Radiation can cause cancer and is used during a mammogram. However, the mammogram uses small doses of radiation that are considered safe. Some have voiced concerns about long-term exposure with repeated mammograms. Research has not found a link between mammogram testing and cancer development. There appears to be little risk of harm from this radiation.

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