New study challenges benefits of mammograms 

An analysis of seven studies conducted over several decades on the effectiveness of mammography has concluded that mammograms have no significant effect on the survivability of breast cancer patients.

The analysis, first reported in the Oct. 20 issue of The Lancet, a British medical journal, questioned previous medical claims that early detection of breast cancer reduces the risk of death by 30 percent, and reduces the need for mastectomy and harsh follow-up treatments.

The studies have divided cancer experts around the country, but few, if any, are recommending that women discontinue regular mammograms.

For women of a certain age the studies are disheartening since many women rely on mammography as a diagnostic tool to detect cancer early.

Three breast cancer experts in Montana express skepticism with the studies and believe women should continue getting regular mammograms as part of an overall breast health program.

Sue Miller, program manager for the Montana Breast and Cervical Program in Helena, says the new analysis sends a confusing message to women. Mammography is not the end-all and be-all of cancer detection, she admits, but despite the recent analysis there’s no compelling evidence that regular mammograms are useless. In fact, she says, there is plenty of evidence to show that mammography is an excellent tool for finding tumors before they can be felt.

Noelle Glidewell, who runs the Breast and Cervical Program in Missoula, Ravalli and Mineral counties, continues to rely on American Cancer Society and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines which recommend annual mammograms for women over 40, clinical exams and monthly self-breast exams. “It’s amazing. You talk to so many women and a mammogram was the first discovery of their breast cancer and it saved their life,” she says. “You can bend stats to say whatever you want them to say. From one study I would definitely not change our recommendations.”

Kathy Miller, a veteran mammography technologist at Hamilton’s Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital, says that mammography gives women a three-year jump on tumor detection. Tumors so tiny they can only be detected by mammography, in other words, will take three years to grow large enough to be felt. That gives women a good head start on beating the disease.

“Early detection is your best chance for survival,” she says. “[Mammography] is our only diagnostic tool.”

Mammography, like all science, is ever-changing, says Sue Miller. “In 10 years, it will look different.” At the most, mammograms save lives. At the very least, regular mammograms, clinical exams and self-exams promote awareness, which isn’t a bad thing.

“I don’t know that women can draw a conclusion from that study,” Miller says. “I think the public is going to have to be more discerning, for sure. Times continue to change.”

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