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Confused About Mammograms

WebMD Health News

Oct. 18, 2001 -- To have a mammogram or not? That truly is the question. Or is it? Researchers say they have confirmed their previous findings that there is no proof mammograms can prevent death from breast cancer, but the conclusion has many experts up in arms.

So, where does this leave you? And how are you supposed to know what to do if researchers and other experts can't even seem to agree on what's right?

Most doctors believe that mammograms help them find breast cancer earlier, making it easier to treat. A smaller tumor, or one that has not spread, can be treated more successfully than a missed tumor. Plus, many breast cancers are found by an annual mammogram and not during a breast exam done by you or your doctor.

And as a side note, most breast cancers are found by women at home, during a self-breast exam (so you absolutely should continue to do this every month) or during an intimate moment with your partner or while washing in the shower.

But now researchers in the Oct. 20 issue of the medical journal The Lancet say that there is no proof mammograms can help prevent women from dying from breast cancer. They say that research that has been done is weak and thus not helpful. But many experts, including the American Cancer Society (ACS), strongly disagree with this.

The ACS recommends that starting at age 40, women should have a mammogram every year to look for any signs of breast cancer.

Any doctor who would have recommended following this plan of action last week would likely continue to do so today -- regardless of the data these researchers are reporting.

It's important to note that even among these researchers, they could not agree on which data were necessary to include in their updated study, which raises a red flag in my mind that their research might not be up to par.

The take-home message here is not to get confused. Medical research can be complicated and overwhelming at times. You should use this as an opportunity to have an open and frank discussion with your doctor about what role mammograms can play in helping you find breast cancer early, in order to prevent more-serious disease.

You might ask yourself why would a media organization like WebMD bother covering a story like this if the research behind it is misleading. We have a responsibility to cover stories such as this to make sure you have a full understanding of what these studies are really saying. If we had not alerted you to this study, it's possible that you would have concluded on your own that mammograms are worthless -- without having all the evidence -- and you need to know that proper screening is just too important to leave behind.

Michael W. Smith, MD, board-certified physician in internal medicine, is a senior medical editor at WebMD. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of WebMD.

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