Breast Cancer: The Mammography Controversy

October 2, 2012
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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Breast cancer awareness month began today – and this year brings some good news for women throughout the United States.

Just weeks ago I reported on newly-enacted women’s health benefits mandated under the Affordable Care Act – among them: mammograms and well woman visits must be covered by insurance without a copayment. This means millions more women can get screened and undergo clinical breast exams.

The benefits of regular mammograms invite controversy. Some studies point to prevalence of false positives, leading to unnecessary surgical procedures and stress; other studies say cancer is over diagnosed, with little difference in the incidence of breast cancer among women that get mammograms and those that don’t. Some women feel the additional exposure to radiation is not warranted, given the odds of actually finding a tumor early.

I understand this and respect their decision to stick with clinical and self breast exams. Perhaps being the daughter of a breast cancer victim skews my perspective. My mother chose not get routine mammograms, despite a family history and prior medical issues requiring estrogen supplements. The four years between her initial diagnosis and mastectomy and her death were anything but routine.

Round after round of chemotherapy and radiation with all of the horrible side effects took their toll. Exhaustion. Nausea. Depression. Serious weight loss. All the while, trying to live a “normal” life, and enjoy whatever time she had left with her only grandchild.

It’s quite likely that watching her endure the pain and suffering that comes along with advanced breast cancer skewed my feelings towards being overly cautious. I understand the residual risks surrounding mammograms. But I get one every year, along with an ultrasound. It’s a very personal decision for every woman. For me, I would rather endure the uncertainty of a false positive for a week or two than to wait until a lump was large enough to be felt before a diagnosis was made.

Breast cancer is still the second leading cause of death for women. Chemo and radiation, along with some serious drugs, are still standard treatment for many. Whether or not to get mammograms is a woman’s individual decision. We will be hearing a lot about mammography, funding, research, and awareness during October. Whatever your personal choice may be, it’s good to know the services are available and covered for free, if you choose to use them.