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Study: Mammograms May Raise Breast Cancer Risk

Findings Apply Only to Young Women at High Risk of Breast Cancer
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 2, 2009 (Chicago) -- Low-dose radiation from mammograms or chest X-rays may place some young high-risk women at increased risk of developing breast cancer, a new study suggests.

Women, especially those under 30, who are already at high risk of breast cancer because they carry a breast cancer gene or have a family history of breast cancer may want to consider other screening methods, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), that do not involve exposure to radiation, the researchers say.

The researchers pooled results from six studies that looked at the effect of exposure to low-dose radiation on women at high risk of breast cancer.

A total of 9,420 women at high risk of breast cancer were included in the studies.

Among the findings:

  • High-risk women were two-and-one-half times more likely to develop breast cancer than women in the general population.
  • High-risk women who had mammograms or chest X-rays before age 20 were two-and-one-half times more likely to develop breast cancer than high-risk women who were not exposed to low-dose radiation.
  • High-risk women who had mammograms or X-rays after age 20 were one-and-one-half times more likely to develop breast cancer than high-risk women who were not exposed to low-dose radiation, but that finding could have been due to chance.

"For young, high-risk women, it is important to screen for breast cancer," says Marijke C. Jansen-van der Weide, PhD, of the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands.

"But they should weigh the risks and benefits with their doctors to come up with a screening strategy," she tells WebMD.

If alternative screening methods are not available, Jansen-van der Weide recommends having mammograms every other year, starting at age 30.

The results were reported at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

Results Apply to Few Women

Mary C. Mahoney, MD, of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and vice president of public information for the RSNA, stresses that that the findings do not apply to the general population.

Also, the results apply to a very small number of breast cancer patients - "only 5% of all breast cancers," Mahoney says.

High-risk women have a mutation in a damage-repair gene, which makes them more susceptible to the effects of DNA-damaging ionizing radiation.

"These tumors are biologically different, much more susceptible to radiation," Mahoney says.

Jansen-van der Weide says further studies in which women are followed over time are needed to more accurately estimate cancer risks from radiation exposure.

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