The latest guidelines from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force now say that women don't need mammograms every year and don't need the first one until 50. Citing millions who have had "false positives," they report that the benefit is not worth the risk.
For some of us, this isn't surprising. I have long questioned whether a yearly mammogram is really necessary. After all, you are shooting radiation into sensitive breast tissue every year in a machine that flattens your breast like an automatic garage door opener. But for many women, that is only the beginning. Almost every woman I know, including me, has had a false positive with a mammogram that is a nightmare of anxiety.
It starts with a phone call to let you know that there is something "suspicious" on the films from the mammogram. After a few frantic calls to women friends, you schedule an ultrasound for further evaluation. Supposedly, an ultrasound shows more detail which makes me wonder why they don't do that in the first place and skip the radiation.
If more "suspicious" spots show up on the ultrasound, you are given a choice to "watch" it or do a biopsy. I don't have any statistics which option most people pick but I can tell you when I went through this that I received a clear message that a biopsy is the only way to be "sure" that the spots are not "sinister."
It was explained to me that a biopsy is a very minor procedure where a few "snips" of tissue are taken. Like an idiot, I went in to have it done. It was not explained to me that it was painful and my entire breast would end up one big bruise. And when I called four weeks later to tell them that my breast was bright red and throbbing and I was running a fever, I was told it was impossible to get an infection so late after the procedure. Well, it was not impossible and it took two courses of antibiotics to clear it up.
Certainly I'm glad that no cancer was found but I went through an awful lot just to prove that I am healthy. Unfortunately, I have seen this a lot. I have seen double mastectomies in 85-year-old women. I've seen women in their 90s get chemo, just to "make sure there is a cure." Of course they could have done nothing and probably would have died of something else.
All I know is that I can go to the doctor perfectly healthy and leave with a handful of scripts for expensive tests: mammogram, colonoscopy, bone, scan, and blood work. Over 40 million women a year have mammograms costing medicare and insurance companies millions of dollars. About 8% of the screens show a "false positive" like I experienced. This further testing can cost from $2000-5000 dollars more.
It really makes me wonder if all this healthcare screening is cost effective.
Barbara Bartlein, RN, MSW, is the People Pro. For her FREE e-mail newsletter, visit: The People Pro
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