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The Impact of False-Positive Mammograms on Women

April 29, 2013
Plain English Version

Mammograms may show small, early-stage cancers that can be easier to treat. When the signs turn out to be benign and non-cancerous it is called a false positive.

A new Danish study of women who received a false positive diagnosis reports that, six months after they learned they did not have cancer, they felt changes in their mental state. They reported having more anxiety, feeling more pessimistic and having more problems with their sleep and sex lives. Women who did not have false positive diagnoses and who had normal mammograms did not have these feelings.

The effects lessened over time, but were still there three years after the first screening.

This sets the stage for a continuing debate over how often women should have mammograms.

The American Cancer Society recommends that, beginning at age 40, women get screenings every year. A U.S. task force said, beginning at age 50, women should get screened once every two years.

The author of the Danish study said more attention should be paid to the harmful effects of screening programs. Of false positives, he said, “If women had cancer, they cried. If it was not cancer, they cried too.”

An expert said the study was one of the first to follow the effects of false positives on the mental health of women over time.

The rate of false positives is an issue. In Scandinavia, the rate of false positives for older women is 20 to 25 percent. In the U.S., the rate is about 50 percent. Both figures are for women who have had at least ten mammograms.

A U.S. doctor said, “Saving lives is our goal. Mammograms can find early cancers. It is not perfect, but it is the best tool we have.”

However, the more mammograms you have, the greater the chance that you may receive a false-positive diagnosis.

Patients have to talk with their health providers to decide what is best for them.

Source: The Los Angeles Times

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