When Mammograms Go Wrong: The Scary Side Effects of a False Positive

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You may think getting a false positive reading on a mammogram isn’t a huge deal. Sure, it’s stressful for a little while, but after a follow-up biopsy or other test proves that you don’t have cancer, you can celebrate. Yay, no cancer for you!

However, there are some negative side effects of false positive mammogram readings. Which is to say that the stress from a false positive is probably influencing your mental health more than you think.

In a study performed by researchers at Penn State University, researchers reviewed the medical cases of women aged 40 to 64 who had not been prescribed anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications before but who had received a false positive result on a mammogram that was later declared negative after other test results came in. Some of the women were on commercial insurance plans, while others were covered by Medicaid.

It was discovered that women who had received a false positive on a mammogram were 10 to 20 percent more likely to be prescribed a new anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication after the fact, as compared to women who received their negative mammogram result right away. Those whose false negatives required more than one follow-up test to come to a resolution were 20 to 30 percent more likely to begin taking anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication after they received their false positive result.

This research suggests a need for better follow-up care after a mammogram, including mental and emotional care, particularly after a false-positive scare. It also points to the fact that follow-up testing and the delivery of follow-up results should be handled in a more timely manner. Joel Segel, assistant professor of health policy and administration at Penn State, explains further:

“The results suggest that efforts to quickly resolve initially positive findings including same-day follow-up tests may help reduce anxiety and even prevent initiation of anxiety or depression medication.”

The study also served to pinpoint certain subsets of the population—including women with commercial health insurance, women under 50, and women who require more than one follow-up test after a false positive—who may be at higher risk of experiencing anxiety or depression following a mammogram. This information can help doctors ensure that patients are receiving a proper amount of follow-up care.


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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?
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