Can You Trust Your Mammogram?
By Fran Smith
Why even smart doctors miss breast cancer - and how to make sure you're getting the best care.
No matter what you know about other diseases, breast cancer is probably the one that scares you most. It is frightening, striking nearly 182,000 women this year and plunging them into a world of complicated, arduous treatment. So it's heartening to know that more women are being diagnosed early, when the odds of beating the cancer are as high as 98 percent. Prevention and treatment are becoming personalized, thanks to genetic tests and new types of drugs. And after decades of no change, the death rate has finally begun to drop — about 2 percent annually since 1990.
Yet behind these impressive statistics lies one dumbfoundingly scary fact: Just because better tools and treatment exist is no guarantee that you'll get any of them. Your mammogram could be interpreted inaccurately, a lump could be incorrectly diagnosed, and you may not receive the best treatment for you simply because of where you live, the type of surgeon you choose — or even the doctor's sex.
That's why it's more important than ever to know the right questions to ask. Breast cancer is a complex disease (some researchers suspect it's at least five genetically distinct conditions), and no single approach works best for everybody. At every step — when you have your annual mammogram or get a suspicious lump checked out or undergo treatment — you should, at the very least, receive care that meets the scientific guidelines issued by leading cancer organizations. Here's how to make sure you do.
When you get a mammogram, it's common to have a stab of anxiety about what the radiologist will find. What should also concern you: the doctor who's doing the detecting.
The news: In a new study, researchers reviewed nearly half a million mammograms performed at 44 facilities. At the best centers, doctors identified cancer when it was present just about 100% of the time; at others, that number was closer to 70%, says study leader Stephen Taplin, M.D., M.P.H., a senior scientist at the National Cancer Institute. Facilities with a breast-imaging specialist (defined here as a doctor who spends at least half her time reading mammograms) had the best record.