The truth about mammograms

An expert sets the record straight.

Mammograms have long been recommended by doctors as the best way to detect breast cancer early. But many women are hesitant about getting them because of the exposure to radiation.

To make matters more complicated, a new study suggests self-exams may be just as good for longevity. Danish and Norwegian researchers looked at data on women between ages 30 and 89 with breast cancer and found that from 1987 to 2010, fewer women were dying from the disease after being diagnosed—regardless of whether they had mammograms or not.
The arguments against mammograms are weak. First, radiation is no reason to avoid them. “The amount of radiation in a mammogram, which is an X-ray, is very small,” says Julie Nangia, MD, director of the Breast Cancer Prevention and High Risk Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Second, manual exams from your doctor can only tell you so much. “I can miss half to two-thirds of the breast depending on its size,” she says. Mammograms are the only way to catch small tumors or those that are limited to the ducts. Plus, the large age range in the new study makes the results unreliable, she adds, because women under 40 are more likely to get aggressive cancers while those 70 and over are more likely to die from other health factors.
Even if you’re super healthy, you should still plan to get a mammogram once or twice per year once you turn 50, or 40 if a relative has been diagnosed. “Most women who get breast cancer have no family history, and many are fit and exercise regularly,” Nangia says.

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