“False Alarms” Cause Long-Term Anxiety

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The number of false positives from mammograms are a major issue in the breast cancer screening debate. When a mammogram identifies an abnormality that looks like a cancer but turns out to be normal, it's called a false positive.

Ultimately the news is good: No breast cancer. But there is a cost to false positives: psychological stress and extra tests and procedures. A false positive requires follow-up with one or more doctors and usually more tests. A study underscores what many women know: Worrying that you might have breast cancer and waiting to find out for sure causes a huge amount of anxiety.

No screening test is perfect. A screening can raise a false alarm when there is no problem. A screening also can falsely reassure when there is a major problem. Mammograms are no exception. To make up for these limitations, you need more than mammography. You also need to:

  • practice breast self-examination
  • get regular breast exams by a doctor
  • in some cases, get another form of breast screening, like ultrasound or MRI

This challenge that comes with breast cancer screening is NOT a good reason to delay or give up screening. The challenge should motivate doctors to find even better ways to screen for breast cancer—techniques that minimize false positives and false negatives.

In the meantime, you can minimize how a possible false alarm affects you and maybe even lower the risk of a false alarm in the first place.

  • Ask your doctor if one mammography center is better than another. Staff members' skill and the technology used at the center can affect the accuracy of mammogram readings.
  • Insist that your current mammogram be compared with older mammograms when being read. This has been shown to affect the quality of a mammogram interpretation.
  • Ask if the center routinely has a second person review any suspicious mammograms before the final interpretation is made. This also has been shown to improve the mammogram accuracy.
  • Know that there is always a chance that your mammogram may suggest breast cancer when there is no cancer. If your mammogram suggests cancer, take a deep breath and remember this fact. Then do what you need to do to find out for sure as quickly as possible.

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