The True Value of Mammography Now in Question

Mammography benefit not as great as credited according to probability model

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Women have been told for years that mammography saves lives. And many breast cancer survivors credit mammograms for detecting the disease early on and helping them beat it. Well, new research calls all this into question.

H. Gilbert Welch, M.D., M.P.H., and Brittney A. Frankel, both of Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice in Hanover, N.H., have developed a model for predicting the likelihood that mammography saved the life of a woman who was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. The authors consider that the overall life-saving benefit of mammography falls below 10 percent.

"Talk to your doctor about if mammography is right for you."

The authors relied on DevCan, the National Cancer Institute's software for analyzing data, to estimate the 10-year risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer and the 20-year risk of dying from the disease.

Analyzing a number of factors, the authors found that mammography decreases a woman's mortality rate by between five and 25 percent. The authors add that the higher numbers reflect trial data from more than 25 years ago.

When all the statistics are analyzed, the data suggests that the life-saving value of mammography really is in the 5-10 percent rage.

Dr. Welch told dailyRx, "The main point is that  women and clinicians often hear stories from breast cancer survivors who say they survived the disease because of mammograms. It's actually more likely that the mammograms did not help," Dr. Welch said.

When asked about all the conflicting data regarding breast cancer screenings, Dr. Welch advises, "Everyone needs to take a deep breath and relax." It's his belief that women who feel better having yearly mammograms should continue doing so, while women who don't like mammograms are okay in not having them.

"Either one is a rational decision," Dr. Welch said.

While the study did not address this, Dr. Welch added that mammography is most beneficial to women with the highest risks, including those who have had breast cancer.

There are currently some 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.

This study was published report published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 24, 2011
Last Updated:
October 24, 2011