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Can You Trust Your Mammogram?

Follow-up Foul-ups

If your screening mammogram is abnormal or you have a lump, the next step is often a diagnostic X-ray, which takes magnified close-ups of the suspicious tissue.

The news: In theory, diagnostic mammograms should be easier to interpret than screening ones because the doctor knows where trouble may be lurking. Yet the largest study analyzing how well radiologists do on these critical exams found they missed 21 percent of cancers on average. The real shocker was the range: The top performer found every tumor, while the worst missed an astonishing 73 percent. Doctors affiliated with academic medical centers did best: They correctly diagnosed 88 percent of cancers.

Why it matters: Missing a tumor at this step could mean a delay in diagnosis — possibly a dangerous one, if a tumor isn't detected and treated before the cancer has spread.

What you should do: As with screening X-rays, the doctor who reads your diagnostic X-ray should be someone who specializes in mammograms, says Miglioretti, who led the study. Unless you live in a rural area, you should be able to find such a specialist no more than an hour or two away. "It's worth the drive," she says.

Surgical Biases

The biggest decision many women face when they're diagnosed with breast cancer is whether to have a mastectomy (removal of the entire breast) or a lumpectomy (only the tumor and surrounding tissue are cut out). In many cases, breast-conserving surgery, including lymph node testing and follow-up radiation, has the same lifesaving benefits as mastectomy. Yet your surgeon may not explain the options and consequences clearly or evenhandedly.

The news: Clinical guidelines developed by leading organizations favor breast-conserving surgery because it's less drastic. That's true whether you live in Augusta, ME, or Augusta, GA. Yet a review of 800,000 patient records found that while 70% in the Northeast had breast-sparing surgery, only 58% of those in the South did (the numbers for the West and Midwest were 63 percent and 61 percent, respectively). The review didn't look for a why, but study leader Jack Sariego, M.D., professor of surgery at Temple University, notes that the more rural South likely has fewer radiation facilities and fewer academic medical centers to promote surgical advances.

Beyond your zip code, the type of surgeon and hospital you choose may affect the recommendation you'll receive. Doctors who treat a lot of breast cancer or who work in cancer centers or academic medical centers suggest lumpectomy more often than general surgeons in the community. Surgeons trained after 1981 are also more likely to recommend a lumpectomy than older doctors, past research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has shown.

Why it matters: In a survey of 1,132 women who had either a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, almost half indicated they did not understand the risks and benefits of their choice.

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