As someone who has known breast cancer survivors personally, the thought of refusing a yearly mammogram just doesn’t feel right. Early detection is what is making the death rates from breast cancer plummet, right?
According to a new study by Dr. Archie Bleyer in the New England Journal of Medicine, maybe not. Bleyer’s research has led him to conclude that women may be grossly over-diagnosed. He believes the reasons for breast cancer’s diminishing death rates may be not from early detection, but more effective treatments. Even more surprising, Bleyer told CNN he believes passionately that mammograms might be making women sick — maybe even killing them.
His study suggests that nearly one out of every three women diagnosed with breast cancer has a tumor that is so tiny and growing so slowly it would never cause any problems even if it weren’t treated.
The problem is doctors can’t tell in advance whether a tumor will be harmless or deadly, so they have to treat them all, and some of those treatments, such as chemotherapy, can increase a woman’s risk for leukemia and other diseases.
The new study also finds that mammograms aren’t catching some truly dangerous tumors that later turn out to become advanced cancer.
The study, written with Dr. Gilbert Welch at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, examined national data on mammograms from 1976 to 2008. They found that during this time, aggressive mammography led to catching twice as many early stage breast cancers, but they estimate “31% of those cancers were slow-growing and never would have made the woman sick.” Thus they believe that breast cancer was “over-diagnosed” in 1.3 million women over the last 30 years.
Having just emerged from election season, women’s health is a touchy subject – especially in light of the Right’s push to defund Planned Parenthood. Could certain groups use this information to push for more difficult access to necessary health screenings for women? I don’t think anyone wants women to be subjected to unnecessary medical intervention, but something about the study just doesn’t feel right. It’s probably because, as a woman, you are constantly reminded of the importance of a yearly mammogram after age 40. CNN reports that The American College of Radiology issued a statement saying the report was “deeply flawed and misleading.”
I’ll be interested to see what other kinds of research and information surface as a result of this study. But for now I think I’ll continue to listen to my gynecologist and start my yearly mammograms at 40.