Last month, an independent task force came out with a blasphemous recommendation for women: You can wait until you're 50 to get your first mammogram. And even then, you don't need to get one every year. Just every other year.
The truth is, I'm not just in favor of cutting back on mammograms. If I had my way, we'd throw the test out all together. A far more accurate test should take its place. More on that in a moment.
But first, let's look at three reasons why mammograms fail to protect women...
Reason #1: Radiation
First off, a mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. And it's an established fact (though the American Cancer Society doesn't want to admit it) that each test generates a huge dose of radiation. In fact, each "life-saving" mammogram generates 1 rad (radiation-absorbed doses) of exposure. And even just 1 rad can be harmful.
According to Dr. Frank Raucscher, the former Director of the National Cancer Institute, every rad of exposure increases your lifetime risk of breast cancer by 1 percent. That's for women ages 35 to 50. Other experts put the risk even higher. Especially if you got your first mammogram in the 1970s when each test delivered 5 to 10 rads of exposure.
Over a lifetime, you could actually increase your risk of breast cancer by 30 to 40 percent just by following your well-intentioned doctor's advice and getting annual tests.
But the radiation's not the only thing you need to know when it comes to mammograms...
Reason #2: Trauma to the breast
Anyone who's had a mammogram can tell you, it's not a fun experience. The procedure painfully compresses your breasts. And this kind of intense trauma, year after year, can liberate tumor cells that your body might have kept contained.
This isn't theory: I spent two years in surgical pathology, and had to process mastectomy specimens directly from the operating room. Many times I found a perfectly straight dotted line of small tumors extending from the main tumor mass to the skin surface...clearly the precise track of a needle bi
Reason #3: False negatives, false positives, and over diagnosis
Even the federal government's task force has admitted that annual testing only pays off for a very small number of women in their 40s. In fact, if you're younger than 50, annual mammograms most often lead to false positives and unnecessary biopsies.
In women age 50 to 74, routine mammograms often lead to "over diagnosis." This means that while mammograms do find small tumors in this age group of women, many of the tumors would never have caused a problem or "shortened a woman's life."
A recent New York Times article took this idea a step further. The article stated, "...some researchers estimate that as many as one-third of all cancers picked up by screening would not be fatal even left untreated."
The story goes on to quote Laura J. Esserman, M.D., a breast surgeon. She argues that mammograms often catch slow-growing types of cancer that may not need treatment. But they can miss aggressive, deadly types of cancer that need treatment. In fact, overall mammograms miss up to 20 percent of malignant breast cancer.
But there's one more reason why I'm against mammograms...
Reason #4: Give your body a chance to heal itself
Last year I told you about a major mammogram study conducted in Norway. Researchers followed more than 200,000 women (age 50 to 64) as part of a national breast-screening program for six years. About half of the women received three mammograms during that time. The other half of the women got a single "screening mammogram" at the end of the six-year period.
Incredibly, researchers found that breast cancer rates were 22 percent higher among the women given regular mammograms! Did the extra mammograms actually increase the rate of breast cancer? Based on my experience in pathology, that's highly possible.
But the Norwegian scientists seemed to think something else was at play here. They believe the second group of women actually did get cancer just as often. It's just that some of their cancers may have "spontaneously regressed."
What does that mean?
Well, the scientists believe the women who got just one mammogram developed just as many tumors. But their tumors went undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. And given time, some of them disappeared. In other words, the body healed itself!
Plus, in case you're wondering, this wasn't some quack-job study. It got published in the Journal of the American Medical Association..
Chances are, your doctor saw it. But how could he or she dare question the mantra preached for years about annual mammograms? Even the best internists, gynecologists, and family physicians are subject to an incredible, long-term propaganda blitz by the American Cancer Society telling us these barbaric tests save lives.
Open a debate, ask your doctor
Now, I'm not saying that women shouldn't get tested for breast cancer. But there's a far better test out there. It's called a thermogram. According to some data I've seen, this highly accurate test can detect cancerous cells up to 10 years before a mammogram. Plus, there's no radiation involved and it doesn't cause trauma to the breast. Unfortunately, it's not widely available yet. But with a little luck, we'll see mammograms go by the wayside as more and more of us learn about their shortcomings. And we'll see an increased demand for better testing.
In the meantime, if you want to learn more about thermograms and where to get one, look back at 12-11-08's Guide to Good Health article called Beware of mammograms. Take a look at the facts for yourself. Weigh your options. And talk to your doctor.