What You Need to Know about Mammograms

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Mammograms — X-ray pictures of the breasts — are a valuable but imperfect tool for detecting breast cancer. The death rate from breast cancer has dropped dramatically in the last 20 or 30 years, but most of that progress is due to better treatments, not mammograms. While a mammogram can definitely uncover hidden cancers, recent research suggests that the X-rays don’t save as many lives as once thought.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine that followed over 40,000 Norwegian women suggested that aggressive use of mammograms could, at most, reduce the death rate from breast cancer by 2 percent — a benefit so small that it’s hard to measure. If true, over 10,000 women would have to be regularly screened to save a single life.

Not all experts agree that the benefits of mammograms are so meager, however, and even the harshest critics believe that screening helps some women. At its best, mammography can find aggressive tumors while they’re still treatable. Mammograms can also detect slow-growing tumors that could have safely been ignored.

How Often Should I Have a Mammogram?

Experts disagree about the best timing for mammograms. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening every two years after the age of 50 for women at average risk of breast cancer. It doesn’t necessarily recommend mammograms for women 75 or over, but it doesn’t discourage them either.

The American Cancer Society, taking a more aggressive approach, recommends yearly screening for all women over 45 and screening every two years after age 55 (with women at higher risk starting at 40 or when their doctor recommends it).

In the end, women and their doctors should decide together about the timing and frequency of mammograms.

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