Can Screening Mammograms Save Your Life?

Dr. Amir

Almost half-a-million people die of breast cancer every year, the majority of which are women. Currently, the treatment of this disease depends on its early detection. For this reason, screening mammograms have been used in many countries including the UK, US, Spain, Norway and Turkey. This medical imaging technique is usually available for women over the age of 50, who are believed to be at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

By detecting this cancer early, any abnormal breast cells, which may prove to be cancerous, are caught before they spread through the body. This could potentially save lives. However, such programmes have caused controversy in the science world, with medical professionals and government representatives expressing differing views amongst themselves. In the midst of all this, it is easy to get lost between all the medical jargon and technical terms that may be floating around. So how can you decide what's right for you?

Deciding whether or not to take part in mammogram screening programmes depends on weighing up the advantages and disadvantages that are relevant to you. So what are these risks and benefits?

Of course the main benefit of screening for breast cancer is the detection of abnormal breast tissue early on. This means that doctors can then start to take the necessary precautions and investigations to determine whether or not the abnormal cells are malignant and therefore have the ability to spread.

However, not everyone agrees with this. Some argue that most abnormal cells detected on mammograms are not harmful and should just be left alone. In their opinion, the use of screening mammograms subject women to unnecessary procedures that are both costly and invasive. Despite this, it appears that most women seem to prefer the removal of any abnormal lumps even if they are deemed harmless. This is probably down to the 'better safe than sorry' philosophy as well as being seen as a necessary price to pay for some peace of mind- the last thing anyone would need in this situation is a lump's worth of paranoia!

Another concern relating to the use of routine mammograms is the exposure of women to radiation that is required to produce the x-ray images. If frequently used, in high quantities, these x-rays may result in radiation-induced cancer. However, it is important to mention that the amount of radiation used in mammograms is very small, a fraction of that used in normal x-raying devices. And let's be honest, not many of us would think twice about getting our leg x-rayed.

However, some women find the high physical pressures used to obtain a clear image of breast tissue painful and uncomfortable. Conversely, it could be argued that this transient pain is somewhat necessary to prevent the fatal progression of a potentially symptomless disease.

Having read the most pressing advantages and concerns of screening mammogram programmes, which way are you swaying towards? Now you must weigh up these points and see which of them apply to you. And perhaps it's worth remembering that, with cancer, you can never be too careful.