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Mammograms Can Be More Stressful Than Cancer

Stresses Over Mammography Plague Breast Cancer Survivors

To Know or Not To Know continued...

"The problem with mammograms and doing breast self-exams or clinical exams is the only thing you're looking for is bad news," says Bev Parker, director of the Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization hotline. "I think we all want to shy away from that."

But by undergoing annual breast cancer screening, Parker says women can know that they're safe for another year.

Wendy Mason, helpline manager for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, agrees and says uncertainty can be much more stressful than the mammogram itself.

"The not knowing is more bothersome to a lot of the women because if they know what's wrong, at that point they can make plans for next steps and start actively doing something -- whether it's treatment or follow-up," Mason tells WebMD. "I think the not knowing causes a lot more sleepless nights."

Mason says that although breast cancer survivors may have a higher level of anxiety about mammograms, they are also keenly aware of the risks of not getting one.

"They wouldn't consider not going for a mammogram because they know that early detection is going to give them the best chance for successful treatment," says Mason.

Although every breast cancer case is different, Mason says the risk of cancer recurrence is greatest within the first two years after diagnosis and that risk decrease with time. Women are considered breast cancer free if no new or recurrent cancers are found within five years after their initial diagnosis.

Taking the Stress Out of Mammograms

The study also found that support from doctors, friends, and family plays an important role in mediating the stress women feel about mammograms.

Strong support from their doctor reduced stress among women who never had cancer, but increased stress levels among women with a history of breast cancer. Researchers say that association doesn't necessarily mean that the doctors caused their patients' symptoms, but the patients' distress may have stimulated the doctors' concern.

Mason says that finding underscores the point that open communication between the doctor and patient is critical to easing women's fears about breast cancer screening.

Cheryl Perkins, MD, senior clinical advisor at the Komen Foundation says asking questions at the time a mammogram is scheduled can help allay women's fears up front. Those questions should include:

  • What can you expect during the procedure itself?
  • What is the follow-up plan?
  • How much time is required to receive your results?
  • How accurate are those results likely to be? What is the risk of a false-positive result?
  • What would be done depending on those results?

For family and friends of women who are fearful about a mammogram, Parker says it's important to listen and remind them of the positive side of breast cancer screening.

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