Mammography screening may be effective in reducing breast cancer mortality in certain populations, but it can pose harm to women who participate. The limitations are best described as false-positives (related to the specificity of the test), overdiagnosis (true-positives that will not become clinically significant), false-negatives (related to the sensitivity of the test), discomfort associated with the test, radiation risk and anxiety.
False-Positives Leading to Possible Additional Interventions
The specificity of mammography (refer to the Breast Cancer Screening Concepts section of this summary for more information) affects the number of additional interventions due to false-positive results. Even though breast cancer is the most common noncutaneous cancer in women, fewer than 5 per 1,000 women actually have the disease when they are screened. Therefore, even with a specificity of 90%, most abnormal mammograms are false-positives. Women with abnormal screening mammograms undergo additional mammographic imaging to magnify the area of concern, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging, and tissue sampling (by fine-needle aspiration, core biopsy, or excisional biopsy).
A study of breast cancer screening in 2,400 women enrolled in a health maintenance organization found that over a 10-year period, 88 cancers were diagnosed, 58 of which were identified by mammography. During that period, one-third of the women had an abnormal mammogram result that required additional testing, including 539 additional mammograms, 186 ultrasound examinations, and 188 biopsies. The cumulative biopsy rate (the rate of true-positives) due to mammographic findings was approximately 1 in 4 (23.6%). The positive predictive value (PPV) of an abnormal screening mammogram in this population was 6.3% for women aged 40 to 49 years, 6.6% for women aged 50 to 59 years, and 7.8% for women aged 60 to 69 years.  A subsequent analysis and modeling of data from the same cohort of women, all of whom were continuously enrolled in the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care plan from July 1983 through June 1995, estimated that the risk of having at least one false-positive mammogram was 7.4% (95% confidence interval [CI], 6.4%–8.5%) at the first mammogram, 26.0% (95% CI, 24.0%–28.2%) by the fifth mammogram, and 43.1% (95% CI, 36.6%–53.6%) by the ninth mammogram. Cumulative risk of at least one false-positive by the ninth mammogram varied from 5% to 100%, depending on four patient variables (younger age, higher number of previous breast biopsies, family history of breast cancer, and current estrogen use) and three radiologic variables (longer time between screenings, failure to compare the current and previous mammograms, and the individual radiologist's tendency to interpret mammograms as abnormal). Overall, the biggest risk factor for having a false-positive mammogram was the individual radiologist's tendency to read mammograms as abnormal.