Thursday, September 30, 2010

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Every October the media turns attention to breast cancer awareness. The awareness seems to encompass mainly the claimed necessity for women to get a mammogram. Mammograms have been portrayed as the preventive screening tool needed to save every woman's life. The recommendations on when to start mammograms or how often to have them done has varied over the years.

For all the years I've been in clinical practice I've recommended against getting mammograms. Mammograms are X-rays. X-rays are radiation. Radiation causes cancer. Using repeated doses of radiation to find cancer seems like a perfect self-fulfilling prophecy. While we are hitting women's breasts every year with radiation the manufacturer's of the X-ray equipment, clinics, radiologists, surgeons... all get a lot of money. They've claimed early diagnosis will reduce deaths from breast cancer, yet breast cancer mortality has remained pretty stable through all the years mammograms have been done.

Now, in a recent study done in Sweden most of my beliefs have been vindicated. The study found it would take 2500 women being screened annually for ten years to save one woman's life from breast cancer. Mammography may only reduce deaths from breast cancer by two percent rather than the 25 percent that has been claimed previously. (Mammograms Offer Limited Help -- Msnbc)

The feelings about mammograms can run strong. There are a few women who had breast cancer diagnosed on the basis of the mammogram they received. They are justified in believing strongly in the power of mammograms. Probably far more women have been frightened and biopsied on the basis of false positives, and others have had breast cancer missed by false negatives.

The problems with mammograms -- the false positives, the false negatives, the radiation exposure, the discomfort of the test -- don't take away from the reality that 192,000 new cases of breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in the United States in the next year. Ignoring all screening because of mammogram problems don't help women with cancer brewing in their breasts. Early detection is vital in every type of cancer. Thermography is one alternative test that is suitable for screening purposes. It involves no radiation and is quite non-invasive. Self-exams and clinical exams are still worthwhile screening tools. Dietary changes, supplements weight management, and exercise can reduce breast cancer risks.