Breast Cancer Screening (PDQ®): Screening - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Harms of Screening Mammography
False-Negatives Leading to Possible False Sense of Security
The sensitivity of mammography (refer to the Breast Cancer Screening Concepts section of this summary for more information) ranges from 70% to 90%, depending on a woman's age and the density of her breasts, which is affected by her genetic predisposition, hormone status, and diet. Assuming an average sensitivity of 80%, mammograms will miss approximately 20% of the breast cancers that are present at the time of screening (false-negatives). Many of these missed cancers are high risk, with adverse biologic characteristics (refer to the Interval cancers section in the Breast Cancer Screening Concepts section of this summary for more information ). If a "normal" mammogram dissuades or postpones a woman or her doctor from evaluating breast symptoms, she may suffer adverse consequences. Thus, a negative mammogram should never prevent work-up of breast symptoms.
Compression of the breast is important during a mammogram to reduce motion artifact and improve image quality. Positioning of the woman is important. One study that evaluated how often pain and discomfort are felt during mammography reported that 90% of women undergoing mammography had discomfort, and 12% rated the sensation as intense or intolerable.
The major predictors of radiation risk are young age at exposure and dose. For women older than 40 years, the benefits of annual mammograms probably outweigh the potential risk, but certain subpopulations of women may have an inherited susceptibility to ionizing radiation damage. [20,21] In the United States, the mean glandular dose for screening mammography is 1 mGy to 2 mGy (100–200 mrad) per view or 2 mGy to 4 mGy (200–400 mrad) per standard two-view exam. [22,23]
Because large numbers of women have false-positive tests, the issue of psychological distress—which may be provoked by the additional testing—has been studied. A telephone survey of 308 women performed 3 months after screening mammography revealed that about one-fourth of the 68 women with a "suspicious" result were still experiencing worry that affected their mood or functioning, even though subsequent testing had ruled out a cancer diagnosis. Several studies,[25,26,27] however, show that the anxiety following evaluation of a false-positive test leads to increased participation in future screening examinations.
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