What are the real harms and benefits of mammograms?

It has been debatable recently how beneficial mammograms really are, considering reports of so many false positives that can lead to biopsies and anxiety. But it looks like this procedure is still the best bet we have in detecting breast cancer and saving lives. To make it easier to grasp the big picture, Dr. Jill Jin, […]

It has been debatable recently how beneficial mammograms really are, considering reports of so many false positives that can lead to biopsies and anxiety. But it looks like this procedure is still the best bet we have in detecting breast cancer and saving lives.

To make it easier to grasp the big picture, Dr. Jill Jin, an associate editor of JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, put together this graphic on the odds of various outcomes from screening mammography. It’s based on a review of studies on the risks and benefits of mammography earlier this year and was published Wednesday in JAMA.

Part of the issue though, with mammogram-related overdiagnosis, is that something that is detected could result in surgery, radiation or chemotherapy, even if it’s never life-threatening. “Some studies estimate that 20 percent of cancers found on mammograms are overdiagnosed and lead to unnecessary treatment, according to Jin,” reports NPR.

The graphic looks at the odds of false positives, overdiagnoses and breast cancer diagnosis for 10,000 women over 10 years, if each started getting annual mammograms at age 50, the age recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. About 3,568 women will have normal exams, while 6,130 will have at least one false positive result. About 302 will be diagnosed with cancer, and 10 deaths will be averted because of screening.

At the end of the day, mammograms are the best way we can detect breast cancer early on. We are better off knowing what the resulting possible harms and benefits are in general, though. There is still progress to be made.