A new Canadian study is questioning the benefits of regular mammograms and prompting many women under 60 to ask their doctors a difficult question: Will getting breast X-rays every year reduce their risk of dying from breast cancer?
Dr. Erika Schwartz, a leading advocate of disease prevention and wellness for women, tells Newsmax Health the University of Toronto study's most striking finding was that annual screening of women — aged 40 to 59 years — did not lower breast cancer death rates despite federal recommendations that women in this age group get mammograms every year.
In other words: Women who received mammograms were as likely to die from breast cancer as those who didn't get them. What's more, the radiation used in mammograms may actually cause cancer.
"A lot of the [special] interest groups actually want women to believe that mammograms save lives," says Dr. Schwartz, author of Dr. Erika’s Healthy Balance
newsletter. "They may save some lives, but they don't save everybody's life."
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Dr. Schwartz explains that she has not had a mammogram in 15 years and recommends other steps that women can take to reduce her breast cancer risks. She believes the benefits of breast X-rays are oversold and that other protective measures can be more effective in identifying and targeting cancer — such as self-breast exams, doctor checkups, genetic testing, ultrasound and MRI scans, and adhering to healthy lifestyle habits.
She notes that 30,000-40,000 of the nation's 153 million women die of breast cancer and related causes each year. But there is little evidence that mammograms can prevent the majority of those cases.
"So what does this really tell us?" she says. "Well, first of all when we promote mammograms and we promote mammogram screening, we're really telling people mammograms are a way to cure you, to protect you, to make sure that we diagnose breast cancer early and by diagnosing it early we're going to prevent it from killing you. [But] we actually have no scientific documentation to support that statement."
For the latest study, published in the online edition of the British Medical Journal BMJ, researchers tracked 90,000 Canadian women for 25 years. They found that those who received regular mammograms did not experience fewer deaths from breast cancer or other causes, compared with those who did not.
The researchers also determined women who were taught to examine their own breasts once a month or given breast exams by healthcare providers fared as well those who received mammograms, in terms of locating serious cancers that needed treatment.
The Canadian researchers noted mammography identified more cancers, but also led to over-diagnosis — defined as the detection of harmless cancers that will not cause symptoms or problems during a patient's lifetime. As a result, many women had unnecessary treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, that can pose serious side effects.
In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated its recommendations on mammograms — advising them for women aged 50 to 74 every two years — but has concluded self-exams are not effective. Among women aged 40 to 49, the task force advises only a discussion with a woman's doctor on the pros and cons of screening.
But some medical organizations, including the American College of Radiology and the American Cancer Society, continue to recommend annual mammograms for women beginning at age 40.
Other health groups, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, advocate regular clinical breast exams, performed by doctors or trained nurses, for women beginning at age 20. The American Cancer Society also offers instructions and suggests women ask their doctors about them.
Dr. Schwartz suggests the debate over mammograms is partly driven by financial incentives that push some medical organizations to advocate breast X-rays. At the same time, she says cancer fears may cloud some women's judgment.
"When women hear the word 'cancer,' and especially 'breast cancer,' they don't hear anything else," she tells Newsmax Health. "We have been so brainwashed and we've been so fear-stricken by the concept of breast cancer that we can't hear anything else. And if it's possible maybe we could start empowering women to stop reacting to a word and start understanding what's really going on here.
"I am a woman and I deal with women so I want everybody to feel empowered, I want us to enjoy our lives; I don't want us to be afraid."
She says it's critical that women understand that mammograms do not necessarily reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer. She adds that mammograms may make sense for some women — those at high risk because of inherited and genetic factors, which can be identified through genetic testing.
But she also notes that cancer can be successfully treated, if it does develop.
"I think we need to understand that cancer … is not a death sentence," she says, "and we need to start really putting it into perspective because we've made such a big thing out of the mammograms saving lives."
In addition, she recommends women take control of their health and reduce their risks of developing or dying from breast cancer as they age by engaging in healthy habits that have been clinically shown to offer protection against the disease.
- Engage in regular moderate exercise, 20 to 30 minutes each day.
- Eat a healthy diet, heavy on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other nutritious foods.
- Manage stress effectively by some means.
- Get regular sleep each night (average 7 to 9 hours); and
- Consider taking bio-identical hormones to maintain a healthy balance of these key biochemical regulators of the body's immune system, metabolism, and other key functions.
"Listen, I'm 64 years old, I take bio-identical hormones and I've been taking them for 16 years. I take really good care of myself and I eat well. I exercise, I sleep eight hours a night. I focus on something that I'm passionate about, which is helping women and men prevent disease," she says. "I didn't really think that having a mammogram … was actually helping me.
"I also think that you need to look at your life in general and look at what are you looking for. Well, I'm looking to be healthy and I’m looking to feel good. And getting a mammogram is not necessarily, for me … what will make me feel good."
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