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Are Mammograms a Waste of Time?

The effectiveness of  regular mammograms was once again called into question by a vast study that found the death rates from breast cancer and from all causes were the same in women who received the screening and those who did not.

The study, released Tuesday in the British Medical Journal, is one of the largest and most meticulous ever done on mammography, involving 90,000 women and lasting a quarter-century. Researchers looked at a group of women who had an annual breast exam by a nurse to check for lumps plus a mammogram, and another group who had the nurse’s breast exam alone. The similar death rates in both groups suggest that mammograms did little to help detection.

In fact, the study suggests that the screening may actually do more harm in some instances; 1 in 5 cancers found with a mammography and treated was not a threat to the woman’s health and did not need treatment such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation.

Critics of the report say the study has many flaws, and most importantly it does not compare the death rates between patients who had mammograms and those with no preventive screenings at all.

Dr. Sarah Cate of Beth Israel Cancer Center in New York tells the Wall Street Journal that some of the flaws of the research had to do with selecting the women for the study. The randomization was done after a physical exam by the physician instead of by age, and the age of the women were between 40 through 49. “So these women will typically have very dense breasts, and women with dense breasts have a known inability to be mammographically detected in terms of their cancer. So in those women we typically add sonograms in addition to their [mammogram] screenings,” she said.

The technology has also been criticized because in the last 20 years or so, devices have improved and become more accurate. “The mammograms were not digital mammograms. So they were typically what we call analog mammograms, which really only detect breast cancer in three out of a thousand women. … Digital mammography has become the standard of care over the last 10 years and is used to detect cancer in six out of a thousand women.” said Cate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that women between the ages of 50 and 74 years old have a mammogram at least every two years, and those between the age of 40 and 49 should talk to their healthcare provider about when to start preventative screenings.

S.C. Rhyne is a blogger and novelist in New York City. Follow the author on twitter @ReporterandGirl or on and visit her website at

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