Do Not Let the Fear of a False Positive Delay Your Mammogram


2017-02-17 14:09

Women who skip mammograms for fear of the findings may miss early detection of breast cancer.

Mammograms are an essential screening tool and good at finding breast cancer, especially in women aged 50 and older. Overall, the sensitivity of mammography is about 84% - so that means that many women may receive a call for what is known as a “false positive.”

A false positive is when a mammogram seems to find something suspicious, but it is later determined to be benign (not cancer).

The more mammograms a woman has, the more likely she will have a false positive result. Statistically, the chance of having a false positive after 10 yearly mammograms is about 50-60%. The chance is higher among younger women and women with dense breasts.

A new study has found that in a population of 741,000 women in the Chicago area, slightly more than 12% of the mammograms yielded a false-positive mistake.

Quite obviously, these false positive results can cause short-term fear and worry. Unfortunately, some women may delay or skip their next mammogram due to the distress they experienced due to a false positive. The Chicago study found that 22% of women who received a false positive either skipped future mammograms or delayed them by as much as 13 months.

That's a potentially fatal mistake, say breast cancer experts, because detecting tumors early can save lives.

"Unfortunately, for women over age 50, just skipping a mammogram every other year would miss up to 30 percent of cancers," said Dr. Stefanie Zalasin, a breast imaging specialist who practices at Northern Westchester Hospital in NY.

Women who receive false positive mammogram results, unfortunately, may ultimately still have a greater risk of later developing breast cancer. Women with dense breasts, for example, may need additional testing to ensure they are truly cancer-free.

It is extremely important to stick to your recommended mammogram screenings. Remember that out of 100 call-backs for suspicious mammogram findings, 61 women will walk away knowing there is nothing wrong. Of the remaining women, 19 will have biopsies that come back normal and only five will truly have breast cancer – which will hopefully be caught at a very early stage when cure rate is higher.

This study was published Feb. 9 in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
Additional Resources include the Susan G Komen Breast Cancer Foundation website.

Photo Credit: By Bill Branson (photographer) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons