Mammograms are the standard “go to” procedure to detect breast cancer, yet there’s been some controversy surrounding it. My new doctor, who is a D.O. and somewhat open-minded about nutrition and alternative therapies, told me that strong evidence supported the safety of mammograms and urged me to get one. Shortly after, though, she said that with breasts like mine (dense), there’s a high chance of false results with a mammogram.
No big deal, right? Just get a second opinion then.
Well, maybe…or maybe not. It turns out that mammograms have been the center of some controversy lately. In an attempt to make my own decision as to whether or not I should get one, I’ve taken a deeper look at this issue.
The Dangers of Mammograms?
Recently, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force reaffirmed its recommendation that women only get mammograms regularly after age 50 and then only every other year. This is a change from the annual mammogram recommendation for women over 40. So what gives with the change? Could mammograms be harmful?
Possible Radiation Exposure – or Not
The American Cancer Society (ACS) states that currently, mammograms produce very low radiation from 2 views of each breast, a dose of 0.4 mSv (radiation measurement unit). (Exposure rates were higher on older machines, now out of use.) They claim that daily living life exposes us to 3.0 mSv of radiation. And yet, you still should not get a mammogram if you are pregnant. In fact, ACS itself changed its guidelines on 10/20/15, in line with the Journal of the American Medical Association, stating:
“…The new recommendations say all women should begin having yearly mammograms at age 45, and can change to having mammograms every other year beginning at age 55.”
This is extremely confusing. Why would you have fewer mammograms as you age?
I found another article that stated that the radiation exposure for an annual mammogram is 0.5 rad (rad = radiation absorbed dose). The scientists who authored this 2010 article claim that this “is about 500 times the dose from a single chest X-ray,” which is not so focused on one area and that this exposure is “25 times higher than is recommended by the EPA.” They also claim that the ACS has financial ties to the producer of Tamoxifen, implying that early detection benefits them.
Are There Any Benefits to Mammograms?
Putting aside the complex scientific issue of radiation exposure, let’s see if mammograms are beneficial. Conventional wisdom tells us, yes, of course – they save lives, but in 2014, the New York Times published, “Vast Study Casts Doubts on Value of Mammograms.” This study published by the British Medical Journal involved 90,000 women and lasted 25 years, found that “death rates from breast cancer and from all causes were the same in women who got mammograms and those who did not.” Those who are at low risk were not benefitted by mammograms. The study came with an editorial, though, that claimed this study was created before the routine use of “Tamoxifen that sharply reduced breast cancer deaths.” Now the ACS’ alleged ties to the pharmaceutical company that creates this drug make sense. However, this study covers that old equipment – what about more recent updates?
The Dangers of False Positives
Digging a little deeper past the “mammograms are always 100% safe” entries, I found more disturbing articles on the dangers of getting a breast cancer diagnosis. What about false positives, which are a likely possibility for some women? “Prone to Error” is an NY Times article discussing the real problems with inaccurate early detection. Doctors may send you straight to chemo – and we all know that breast cancer chemo treatment can cause other cancers. Then there is the nocebo effect. This I learned from the 2015 “Truth About Cancer” series. Like the evil twin of placebos – when a patient experiences healing after only a sugar pill – the nocebo effect means a patient is given a doom and gloom scenario from their doctor and gives up hope. This negativity can cause a person to get sicker. You can read about the research and psychology behind this phenomena at The Smithsonian’s article, “What is the Nocebo Effect?”
Is the Procedure 100% Harmless?
Finally, in “The Truth about Cancer,” we learned that the tight constriction of a mammogram compressing the breast tissue can actually do harm if you have a cell that is starting to become cancerous. It’s the same reason we’ve been warned off wire bras for years. (I’m amused that this is called an “Internet rumor.” This idea has been around long before the internet – I learned it 20 years ago – and has been theorized off certain braless cultures that have extremely low or negligible levels of breast cancer.) This is a hot topic nowadays. A resource that I trust, The Breast Cancer Fund, published information on “Ionizing Radiation,” which goes into some depth on the science behind radiation methods of treatment and detection.
Regarding mammography, there is some science that suggests it’s not healthy. BeatCancer.org reports:
Although many experts believe that the low-dose exposures to radiation received as a result of mammography procedures are not sufficient to increase risk for breast cancer, recent evidence indicates that the lower-energy X-rays provided by mammography result in substantially greater damage to DNA than expected and that risk of breast cancer caused by exposure to mammography radiation may be greatly underestimated (Heyes, 2009).
The Alternative to Mammogram
Whether or not you have a hard time swallowing those bits of information, you may want to investigate another option. The other choice is thermography, Medical Infrared Imaging. It is definitely a safe option but it may not be the most accurate for certain women. Dr. Christiane Northrup has promoted it as the way to go, given its ability to detect cancer years before – enough time to possibly treat it with detoxing your body and cleaning your diet.
The problem with thermography? It’s almost never covered by insurance at all, and as an out of pocket cost, it can range from (so I’ve heard) from $150 to $400. Just like mammograms, you need to establish a baseline and go annually so the fees add up. You also need to find a center that will do one, which can be a challenge depending on your area.
Finally, if something is wrong, you STILL need a mammogram to move ahead and confirm. According to The Healthy Home Economist, you cannot substitute a mammogram with an ultrasound – you’ll be required to get a mammogram along with or before the ultrasound. If the damage done by mammograms is correct, you’re in a real catch-22.
The Real Answer? Cancer Prevention
So what is a woman to do? My answer to you is to do your own research. I hope this article has helped you, but you should not only speak to your doctor or practitioner, but also to women who have had these procedures. Whatever your choice is for detection, I can tell you that I believe the best thing to do is prevent cancer. If you watched the Truth About Cancer, you have some idea about how toxins, food, stress, and other problems can lay the groundwork for cancer.
One of the biggest ways to combat cancer? Don’t be afraid. While watching the Truth About Cancer, I was struck by what they said about Angelina Jolie. Here is their article about what doctors didn’t tell her about the BRCA gene. In my heart, I agree that what she did by removing her breasts was completely motivated by fear and terror, most likely caused by her doctor with good intentions. We need to stop being afraid and we need to take the steps that WE see fit to heal ourselves with a cancer diagnosis, be it chemo or other measures. I’ve already told my husband that chemo is not a choice I would make for myself.
I’m not a doctor, scientist or researcher. Everyone nowadays, from doctors to health coaches, has their own agenda and it is YOUR personal responsibility to make the best choices you can for your health. I can tell you that since I’ve replaced wearing bras with a comfortable fitting tank top most of the time, my breast pain has dropped down from frequent to almost never. Of course, breast pain does not necessarily mean a lump or breast cancer, but it is indicative that something is wrong, if only that you are putting a strain on your body.
And my choice, right now? I think I’m holding off on that mammogram. I’ve found a place that will do thermography and, as it turns out, it is what I want in a medical practice, so I may transfer there next year. That’s my choice – but you need to make your own and take responsibility for it. I know people in the nontoxic world who swear by mammograms and people who won’t touch them and all shades in between. The key is that you understand the risks – as best you can – and make an informed decision.
What do you think about mammograms, thermography, and breast cancer detection?
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