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Study Questions Value of Mammograms

  • Carol Pearson

Do mammograms save lives? That's the question being asked after a major new study -- one of the biggest ever -- released its results. Since then, doctors and others have weighed in.

Mammograms are often considered the most powerful weapon in the war against breast cancer, but results from one of the largest studies ever done question their value. The study involved 90,000 women and spanned a quarter of a century.

The women were divided into two groups. The first got regular mammograms, while the second group received physical breast exams only. After 25 years, the researchers found an equal number of women died from breast cancer in both groups.

Breast surgeons like Negar Golesorkhi said mammograms are imperfect tools in finding tumors, particularly for women with dense breasts.

"When we look for cancer on a mammogram in dense breast tissue, we’re looking for a polar bear in a snow storm so it would be very difficult to find," said Golesorki.

The study also found the screening led to unnecessary surgery, chemotherapy or radiation treatment because tumors found were not always life-threatening.

Author Cornelia Baines said the study's message is loud and clear.

"It isn't screening that's helping women," she said. "It's better therapy and probably increased awareness."

So what to do? A routine mammogram caught an aggressive form of breast cancer for 54-year-old Beth Shulman.

"I'm 100 percent sure that it did save me," said Shulman.

Other women, like Zuli Palacio, had routine mammograms that failed to catch three, fairly advanced cancerous tumors.

"Even a month before it was detected, I went for a mammogram and they told me, 'You're fine. Go home,'” recalled Palacio.

A breast cancer specialist found the tumors that mammograms missed. After chemotherapy and surgery, Palacio is cancer-free.

There are a lot of questions about the Canadian study. It's the only major study that doesn't show that mammograms save lives, according to Richard Wender, from the American Cancer Society.

"When you put all of the trials together, there’s a unanimity of opinion that the best way to avoid a premature death is to have a mammogram regularly, for all women 40 and older," Wender told VOA.

The question remains: how can women with breast cancer find it early enough to save their lives?

The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammogram screenings starting at age 40. The group may recommend women with dense breasts also have an MRI when the society revises its guidelines later this year.