Taking a mammogram has become a regular fixture in the lives of millions of women. It seems like a rather conservative and sensible thing to do. But is this such a benign process?
The evidence is mixed
The evidence in favour of mammograms is largely unclear and inconclusive. And, in fact, some of the evidence against having them is startling.
The basic proposal of the ‘pro’ camp is that regular mammograms in the over-50 age group reduce the chances of women over 50 dying from breast cancer by 30%; and they reduce the chances of future mastectomies. These are the interpretations of the findings of a Swedish study reported in the Lancet in 1993.
These findings have been questioned by many authorities in alternative medicine. Articles in the UK medical journal The Lancet, the British Medical Journal and the New York Times, have created more ‘official’ concerns.
Of the 1993 study, two of the members of the study group have stood apart from their colleagues and, most unusually, have voiced their concerns over the previous studies. One of the members, Dr. Peter Gotzsche, director of the Nordic Cochrane Center in Copenhagen, says: “The quality of the trials was very surprising because it is pretty low”.
In particular, it is said that these studies give no clear evidence that early identification of breast lumps leads to a reduced risk of death, or to a reduced chance of radical surgery, as claimed.
On re-examining the data, it even appears as if mastectomy is 20% more likely to happen among women who have had mammograms. (It was supposed to be less likely to happen if you had regular mammograms.)
The authorities in the USA and the UK say they have no plans to change their recommendations to women over 50. But then that is not surprising. They will wait for further studies before considering a U-turn on the mammogram policy of the last twenty years.
So – you’d better look at some of the data and make your own mind up about mammograms!
To help you, here are links to coverage from:
The British Medical Journal
The New York Times
Muddle and confusion
More recently, What Doctors Don’t Tell You magazine – a reliable UK source of complementary medicine information – state that “false positives” from mammograms (false positives are where a woman is told she has cancer when she hasn’t) are given to 61% – well over half – of women who have annual mammograms. (October 2011).
That is stunning and worrying.
And if you do have a mammogram, they point out, you should at least have it at a facility where they carry out and interpret numerous mammograms and have up-to-date equipment. You cannot rely on either of these factors unless you check it out for yourself.
Most readers will not have tried to fathom out the implications of any published scientific studies. The papers written by the teams carrying these out are often convoluted and hard to understand. Even the exact methods used may be unclear.
Crucially, how one study interlocks with another is hard to ascertain. (The data on which the mammogram recommendations were based, came from combining the results of five studies.)
I am not a scientist. I have not performed any studies myself. I am sure that they are difficult to do in a way that pleases everybody.
But my point is that however precise scientists try to make the methods used, the conclusions frequently have an element of subjectivity. Interpretation is all. That is why the members of the team reported here disagreed. And it is why conclusions drawn are often reversed at a later date.
Where is clarity on mammograms?
Let’s turn to the UK’s magazine What Doctors Don’t Tell You, which is usually a solid source of information. It gives some good reasons why there is such confusion over mammograms.
Firstly, a mammogram is painful – according to a third of women who undergo one. There is obviously a risk applying huge pressure – the equivalent of 20 kilos of weight on each breast. Such compression would never normally happen, and clearly could cause damage. Cells damaged by this process would create a weakness, which could lead to further problems developing. Also, it is possible that such pressure could disperse any cancer cells present into the lymph system and spread them around the body.
Secondly, the interpretation of mammogram results is shockingly variable. One study conducted by Yale University considered the interpretations put upon the same 150 good quality mammograms by ten experienced radiologists. Their views differed very widely.
Even the 27 patients later found to have cancer were given very different analyses by the radiographer.
This difference in analysis leads to another point – incorrect diagnosis of cancer, or “false positives”. Tremendous distress is caused to women who are called back for checks, undergo biopsy, and then wait for test results, which then eventually turn out to be negative.
A realistic question is: “Is it worth undergoing a procedure which has risk attached (mammogram) to try and identify a true positive, when the chance of undergoing much distress by receiving a false positive is depressingly high?”
Thirdly – radiation is known to be a factor in causing cancer.
Surely, subjecting the breast to radioactivity has a level of risk attached to it
For some more information and reference to studies highlighting further issues, see:
Their magazine really is worth subscribing to. They give the conventional views: and the complementary views too.
What can you do?
Clearly, the best solution is to try and avoid a breast lump in the first place.
There are two types of breast cancer. These are the more common oestrogen-dependant cancer; and the non-oestrogen-dependant cancer. The occurrence of the first type is accelerating rapidly.
This may be because there is a greater exposure to oestrogens. This can be affected, for example, by diet. Girls who had a diet lower in animal fats and higher in fibre were found to start menstruating later. Starting menstruating later is associated with a lowered likelihood of developing breast cancer.
There are many other ways we can reduce our chances of developing breast cancer.
Specific ways include:
- Avoiding dairy foods
- Keeping your weight normal – especially after menopause
- Reducing your use of hair dyes – permanent and semi-permanent hair dyes are a powerful combination of many carcinogens. When left on the scalp for any amount of time these contaminants are quickly absorbed by the body.
And do keep yourself informed – and a great way is by reading the magazine I have recommended. What Doctors Don’t Tell You
(I am not connected to WDDTY – I just like the magazine.)
Keep healthy with naturopathy
It sounds obvious – but don’t forget your breasts are part of the rest of your body! So, for good breast health, look after your general health.
Here are some background articles:
Liver cleansing is particularly important! The Chinese system of medicine sees lumps in the breast as, predominantly, a problem of the liver. ‘Stuck energy’ in the liver meridian – which travels to the breasts – is caused by reduced liver function; as well as by stress and emotional turmoil.
Alternative medicine to support and cleanse the liver; herbs and other measures to support the nerves and emotions; learn ways to deal with stress and emotions – such as meditation, exercise and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).
A ‘clean’ diet – reduce starches and proteins; increase fruit and non-starchy vegetables
Also – see the article The importance of a good bra, which studies the links between the bras you use and breast cancer. This is very, very important.