Karen Vogt’s breast cancer journey began like many others, with her breasts painfully squeezed into a mammography machine. At age 52, it was far from her first mammogram, but this scan would be the most consequential by far. It revealed microcalcifications, little areas of breast tissue speckled with deposits of calcium that her radiologist worried were suspicious for a nascent cancer, especially since these specks hadn’t been so conspicuous twelve months earlier. A biopsy proved that the radiologist’s suspicions were warranted. Vogt had a small cancer in her left breast, a ductal carcinoma in situ, as her doctors called it. Stage 0 cancer. What should she do?
This week, medical researchers published a study showing that when women are diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer, no matter what treatment they receive, their life expectancy is equivalent to women who were never diagnosed with breast cancer. This finding further fuels debates about whether we are screening for and/or treating breast cancer too aggressively. Last year, in fact, a study came out suggesting that even in women 50 years of age and older, annual mammographies are not the life-savers that they were made out to be by medical experts. According to these studies, for every woman like Vogt with a cancer detected by mammography, hundreds more will go through the painful test without any cancer being detected and dozens will experience the harms of “false positive” test results, a term medical experts use to refer to abnormal findings which do not turn out to be a cancer. And just this week, a study was published showing that stage 0 breast cancers are better off untreated
Yet despite increasing evidence of the significant harms of mammography, compared to its relatively modest benefits, many American women dutifully continue to receive annual tests. Why do they remain enthusiastic about mammography? In large part because many women who were harmed by mammography believe the opposite. By identifying non-invasive lesions, like the DCIS discovered in Karen Vogt, mammography has created a community of women incorrectly convinced that the test saved their lives.
Has overuse of mammography created a false epidemic of breast cancer “survivorship?” (To read the rest of this article, please visit Forbes.)