Overdiagnosis of Breast Cancer Is Real — But How Common Is It?

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Although mammography is a great instrument for finding breast cancer and saving lives, scientists now have some evidence suggesting that this screening tool is not helpful 100 percent of the time. It is believed that about one-third of women whose cancer is detected by a mammography are being over-treated for tumors that would not have been fast-growing or life-threatening, even without treatment.

According to a 2016 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the goal of mammography is to detect small tumors before they get big enough to cause symptoms. By that logic, “effective screening should therefore lead to the detection of a greater number of small tumors, followed by fewer large tumors over time.”

The study did indeed find that mammography led to a larger number of small tumors being found, but the number of large tumors found over time did not decrease as hoped. What happened instead is that more small tumors than before were detected and treated, often unnecessarily. Of the 162 cases of small tumors found during the study, only 30 were expected to grow into something more threatening. This means that the other 132 women were overdiagnosed and received treatment they probably would have been fine without.

Doctor helping patient get a mammogram

Some people think it’s better to be safe than sorry, and we certainly don’t blame them. But there’s also something to be said for the extra worry and stress these 132 women went through after their mammograms, not to mention the money and time they spent on treatment. In some cases, mammograms and any subsequent unnecessary treatments can cause more physical and emotional health issues than the cancer itself.

After a suspicious mammogram or feeling a lump, try not to jump to the conclusion that you’re going to need a radical treatment. Instead, talk to your doctor about the risks, get a second medical opinion, and try to make an informed decision about what treatment (if any) is right for you.

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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?