Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Breast Cancer Health Center

Font Size

Mammography: 'Gold Standard' Could Use Some Polish

WebMD Health News

March 12, 2001 (Washington) -- If nothing else, a new report on mammography from a top-level scientific panel shows this 'gold standard' of breast cancer detection has become a bit tarnished. Though the 40-year-old technique of X-raying the breast definitely saves lives, critics say many reforms are needed to bring the widely used tool into the 21st century.

"The perfect screening tool would find every breast cancer at a point where intervention would guarantee that a women would not die," Robert Smith, PhD, director of cancer screening services for the American Cancer Society, tells WebMD.

He says that mammography is a highly effective way of finding breast cancers, but it doesn't work for everybody. For example, it's more accurate in older women than in younger women.

"I still hold out hope that 20 years from now we'll consider mammography a barbaric, ancient technique," Ruth Shaber, MD, women's health leader for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, tells WebMD.

Shaber worries that mammography directs potentially dangerous X-rays into vulnerable breast tissue. "Here we're shooting more radiation at [the breast], that's been proven many times to cause cancer in other tissues," she says. The risk of getting breast cancer from a mammogram runs between one in 100,000 and one in a million.

Even so, Shaber encourages women to have the procedure starting at age 40, and depending on the patient's risk factors, every year or two after that. It's one hedge against an epidemic that strikes 180,000 women annually in the U.S. and kills 40,000 a year.

Like Shaber, many experts may be ambivalent about the overall benefit of mammography, but so far, the numbers in favor have carried the day. Studies show the technique has been able to reduce the breast cancer death rate by 30% in women aged 50-70 by finding tumors early, when they're more treatable.

That's primarily why the highly regarded Institute of Medicine concluded, in a report released last week, that mammography is still the best way to detect and prevent breast cancer, even though the authors of the report note that there are 17 other promising technologies under development, albeit none have proven to be equally effective.

1 | 2 | 3

Today on WebMD

Breast Cancer Overview
From self-exams and biopsies to reconstruction, we’ve got you covered.
Dealing with breast cancer
Get answers to your questions.
woman having mammogram
Experts don’t agree on all fronts, but you can be your own advocate.
woman undergoing breast cancer test
Many women worry. But the truth? Most abnormalities aren’t breast cancer.
Breast Cancer Treatments Improving
Resolved To Quit Smoking
Woman getting mammogram
Screening Tests for Women
ovarian cancer overview slideshow
serious woman
what is your cancer risk
10 Ways to Revitalize Slideshow