Faulty Mammograms Cause High Anxiety

False-Positive Mammograms Lead to Additional Tests, Prolonged Worry

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on January 18, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 19, 2011 -- Screening for breast cancer saves many lives, but often it also causes anxiety for women whose mammograms are false-positive, requiring additional testing, a new study says.

Doctors say because many mammograms produce false-positive results -- meaning they are abnormal but no cancer is present -- women should be given more information about the risks and benefits of screening.

A study published online in the British Journal of Surgery says patients with false-positive results are likely to undergo more diagnostic procedures such as biopsies to reach a definitive diagnosis, compared to women diagnosed with breast cancer.

False-Positive Mammograms Cause Anxiety

Researchers in the Netherlands interviewed 385 women with abnormal mammograms, of whom 152 were later diagnosed with breast cancer, while the other 233 were deemed to have had false-positive tests and did not have cancer.

The false-positive results caused serious anxiety in many women that affected their quality of life, researchers say, in part because they had to return for additional testing after their mammograms indicated possible disease.


“Common sense tells us that early detection of breast cancer is good and most screening programs have been successful in reducing breast cancer deaths,” says study author Lideke van der Steeg, MD, of the department of surgery at St. Elisabeth Hospital and the Center of Research and Psychology in Somatic Diseases at Tilburg University.

Although some women “truly benefit from early detection, others experience harm and unnecessary anxiety,” he says in a news release. “The women who received false-positives in our study experienced a significant reduction in their quality of life, especially if they were prone to anxiety, and the effects of this lasted a year.”

False-Positive Results Require More Anxiety-Causing Tests

Women with false-positive mammograms require more diagnostic procedures, sometimes including biopsies, before a final diagnosis is made.

Of the 233 women whose mammograms were false-positive, the study says 55% of the false-positive group returned to an outpatient clinic in the first year, some as many as eight times, contributing to anxiety and quality of life issues.

“Women often overestimate their risk of breast cancer and the material provided by healthcare professionals and government agencies often focuses on the positive aspects of screening and [is] not always objective,” van der Steeg says. “Women deserve more balanced information to help them to choose whether or not to accept a breast screening invitation. This should not only cover the supposed benefits, but explain the potential side effects of a false-positive, such as the increased feelings of anxiety and reduced quality of life found by our study.”

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News release, British Journal of Surgery.

Van der Steeg, A. British Journal of Surgery, January 2011.

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