The American Cancer Society has for years been a vocal supporter of cancer detection methods such as the mammogram. Now, it may be changing its tune.
Last week, Gina Colata of the New York Times reported that the ACS "is quietly working on a message... to emphasize that screening for breast and prostate cancer and certain other cancers can come with a real risk of overtreating many small cancers while missing cancers that are deadly."
This new message is due in part to new studies, such as the one published Wednesday, that shows a 40 percent increase in breast cancer diagnoses - but only a 10 percent decrease in later stages of cancer. If mammograms were as effective as claimed in helping to detect breast cancer early, then why is there such a small decrease over time in later stages of cancer? There is a gap here that suggests that mammograms may not be catching many deadly cancers.
An article in Alternet refers to other studies conducted by the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Denmark and in the British Medical Journal that suggests an increase in overdiagnosis as a result of stressing mammogram programs. What this means is that many women may be detected with a cancer that shows no symptoms or will lead to death but still end up getting expensive treatments for lesions that go away or never progress. It's a difficult issue being raised here, but one that glares us in the face in light of these results: mammograms aren't necessarily preventing or curing fatal forms of breast cancer and they aren't helping the 40,000 women a year who die of the disease.
Still mammograms have shown to be effective in detecting cancer in the last few decades and it's important not to rule out the procedure entirely. Like all medical related issues, it's important to be fully aware of all the risks and benefits of a mammogram.