Breast Cancer Prevention: Is Mammography Effective?

Consider your relationship with each of nine women in your family.  Statistically speaking, one of these women is likely to develop breast cancer in her lifetime.  Breast cancer continues to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in Canadian women.  And though most people tend to think of breast cancer as that which affects only older women, it is the leading cause of cancer death in young women aged 30 to 49.  Our medical establishments respond with recommendations that women perform monthly breast self-examinations (BSE) and biennial mammograms (breast x-rays), though recent studies suggest that both of these screening protocols are scientifically unjustified.  Some medical professionals even consider these guidelines to be harmful.  Following is an outline of some of the newest research to help a woman protect her breast health. 

A recent Statistics Canada publication states that: “Mammography is an important preventive practice for the early detection of breast cancer.”  These authors, like many authors in the mainstream medical system, use the word “prevention” to imply prevention of death.  Not prevention of breast cancer.  In other words, screening for breast cancer with mammograms and self-examinations is not the same as engaging in preventive practice.  Furthermore, a recent gold-standard statistical analysis of 7 studies involving half a million women, determined that for every 2000 women screened with mammography over 10 years, death might be prevented in 1 woman.  The unfortunate consequence is that an additional 10 healthy women would be misdiagnosed with breast cancer and receive unnecessary treatment.  Screening for breast cancer can have negative consequences.

A recent scientific statistical review suggests that breast self-examination (BSE) as a screening tool for breast cancer could also be harmful.  Of nearly 400,000 Russian and Chinese women, those who conducted BSE were not less likely to die of breast cancer compared to women who did not conduct BSE.  More importantly, the women who performed BSE were twice as likely to undergo a potentially unnecessary breast surgical procedure for suspected cancer.  These results are consistent with a Canadian study (conducted more than 15 years ago), which found that BSE and even breast examination conducted by a medical practitioner did not prolong life.

Despite this evidence, an individual woman must keep in mind that scientific studies have inherent limitations.  These population-based studies do not consider an individual woman’s hereditary risk factors for developing breast cancer, or lifestyle.  They do not separate out the benefits to women with many risk factors versus the potential risks to women who are statistically unlikely to develop breast cancer.  These studies are not able to objectively evaluate whether a woman approaches her breast screening routine with fear, or with a sense of empowerment.  How might this determine the benefit or harm of a screening exam?

Discuss your concerns with a medical professional and consider having them teach you proper breast self-examination technique with the mind set that you are maintaining health, rather than searching for disease.  When evaluating the best breast cancer screening tools for you, know your risk factors and know what you can do to reduce or eliminate those risks.  Develop a breast cancer prevention plan that matches your health philosophy with appropriate breast screening tools.