Myths about breast cancer screening

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There’s a lot of confusion surrounding mammography screening guidelines, and breast imaging experts say it’s negatively impacting the number of women getting potentially life-saving tests.

The experts at Intermountain Healthcare recommend that women begin getting mammograms at age 40 (or earlier if they have a family history of breast cancer) and continue as long as they’re healthy.

But, the number of different screening recommendations and professional organizations that are advising patients on the best breast cancer practices are far too many, and it’s causing confusion, says Brett Parkinson, MD, imaging director and medical director at Intermountain Healthcare.

Here are the top eight myths regarding screening mammography and breast cancer, along with Dr. Parkinson and Intermountain’s recommendations.

Myth #1: The harm outweighs the benefit. There are some concerns that false positives (which lead to more in-depth screening) cause unnecessary discomfort and stress.

Intermountain Healthcare says: Since the death rate from breast cancer has decreased almost 40 percent in the last 30 years, isn’t it better to err on the side of caution?

Myth #2: Breast cancer is over-diagnosed. Another dangerous myth is that 10 to 50 percent of breast cancers are over-diagnosed, meaning some tumors may not be lethal if left untreated.

Intermountain Healthcare says: There is no documented case of invasive breast cancer that has regressed without treatment. Plenty of evidence shows that treating cancer early increases the chance of recovery dramatically.

Myth #3: False positives cause harm. When a woman is called back from screening for additional tests, it’s not a false positive examination. Those examinations are interpreted as “incomplete,” not positive. A false positive is when a test says a woman has cancer and she doesn’t.

Intermountain Healthcare says: Yes, there is additional stress with further screening, but as mentioned before, that is better than not catching breast cancer early.

Myth #4: Imaging radiation leads to cancer. There are some who are concerned additional radiation exposure will cause what you are trying to prevent.

Intermountain Healthcare says: The level of radiation exposure is very small…much smaller than the number of women who will develop breast cancer (one in eight, to be precise).

Myth #5: Dense breast tissue diminishes effectiveness. True, older technology was not as effective in screening women with dense breast tissue.

Intermountain Healthcare says: Although screening is less sensitive in dense tissue, it still picks up most breast cancers. And now that 3-D mammography is available, doctors can find even more cancers in women with very thick tissue.

Myth #6: Screening is not cost-effective. The myth that screening isn’t cost-effective merely is not true.

Intermountain Healthcare says: What isn’t cost-effective is finding late-stage breast cancer, one that will be expensive to treat, debilitating for the patient and most often terminal. You can find five early breast cancers for the same price as treating one late-stage cancer. Even if you don’t consider the quality-of-life benefit, the math is stark and compelling.

Myth #7: Screenings every other year are adequate: The final myth is that it’s okay to screen women every other year instead of annually.

Intermountain Healthcare says: The American Cancer Society’s position paper on mammography screening, published in JAMA in October 2015, says mortality increases by 20 percent when screening occurs every other year instead of every year. That’s an important number to remember.

If you have questions about breast cancer or other cancers, join Intermountain Healthcare experts on Tuesday, October 9 as they discuss prevention and treatment on KUTV and Intermountain Healthcare’s Ask the Expert. Tips and suggestions will be offered throughout the day on Channel 2, with nurses, doctors, and other medical experts providing interviews during news and other broadcasts.

If you have questions, a panel of experts will be answering your phone calls from noon to 5:30 p.m. at 1-435-251-3123. You can also submit questions via Facebook and Twitter using #kutvasktheexpert.

For more information visit intermountainhealthcare.org/asktheexpert.

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