A Look At the Risks Versus Benefits of Mammograms

The risk is minimal due to radiation, but women should still consider alternatives.

Women who pay attention to their health, particularly as they age, generally enjoy health and longevity over those who don’t. This is a fundamental factor in all discussions around preventive health and healthcare economics (i.e., availability of health insurance that covers preventive care).

But the subject of breast cancer screenings, in particular mammograms, has had its share of controversy in recent years. It’s a highly studied subject, with mountains of data from which to draw advice. And yet there is a mixed picture of what and when for women at lower and higher risk. Higher risk includes women with genetic predispositions/family history of breast cancer, use of hormone replacement therapy, as well as women whose environmental and behavioral factors including smoking, alcohol use, high body mass index and sedentary lifestyles, which increase their risks.

With so much data available, why is there a mixed bag where it comes to mammograms? And if there are risks to this diagnostic procedure – primarily due to radiation exposure that is part and parcel of mammography – are there natural breast screening procedures that might be less risky?

Some facts can help you sort through the question:

All women should look for early signs of breast cancer. According to Breastcancer.org, about 1 in 8 women U.S. women (12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetimes (the risk to men is much lower, with a lifetime risk of 1 in 883). About 41,760 women in the U.S. will die in 2019 from breast cancer.

A mammogram is an important diagnostic tool.  Early detection of breast cancer has reduced the rate of death among women who are diagnosed with the disease (risk reduction of about 25% to 30%). The vast majority is identified by the most-used screening and diagnostic, which is the standard in-office mammogram. Mammograms are X-ray imaging of breasts, where the breasts are compressed between two opposing firm surfaces that spread out the tissue. While insurance coverage varies, women with average risk (e.g., no family history) should begin yearly screenings at age 40. 

The risk is minimal, but not every woman is the same.  X-ray imaging involves the use of radiation, the amount of which is generally considered inconsequential. However, a study funded by the National Cancer Institute, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, and Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (“Radiation-induced Breast Cancer Incidence and Mortality from Digital Mammography Screening: A Modeling Study,” Miglioretti, et al., 2016) found “women with large breasts may have a greater risk for radiation-induced breast cancer” because of “dose variability from screening.”  The study conclusions say that about 125 out of 100,000 women receiving radiation in mammograms each year go on to develop breast cancer from the examination, resulting in 16 deaths. While statistically small, these findings compel some women to look for alternatives to mammograms

Alternatives and complements to mammograms exist.  When a patient detects a lump from a self-exam, a breast ultrasound can be used to determine if it is solid or filled with fluid. This is non-invasive, as is a thermography technique that has the benefit of being radiation free. Thermography is a method that takes pictures based on the temperature differences in tissue; cancerous areas tend to be warmer due to higher levels of blood flow and metabolism associated with cell growth. 

These alternatives are not considered replacements for mammograms as much as complements that carry lower risks, particularly for women who want more frequent monitoring.

Contact us today at 805-560-7602 to schedule your appointment and achieve the peace of mind that comes with early health awareness and prevention.


Disclaimer: The content on this page and on this website is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek out the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any concerns you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking professional medical advice because of any information you have read on this website.