Why a False Alarm Mammogram Can Be More Dangerous Than You Think

Feb 10, 2017 at 11:03 a.m. ET
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There’s no denying that going in for a mammogram and finding out you have a suspicious lump is nerve-wracking to say the least. Now imagine being told that your suspicious mammogram was actually a false alarm. How likely would you be to show up for your next scheduled screening?

According to a new study out in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, researchers are finding out that women who are told their suspicious mammogram was a false alarm are more likely to delay their next scheduled mammogram or possibly not show up for their next screening at all.

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"The medical literature suggests the experience of a false positive can cause anxiety, worry, and affect the woman's quality of life," said lead author Firas M. Dabbous, an epidemiologist and researcher at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital near Chicago. "That may deter a woman from coming back."

The study looked at 261,767 women from the Chicago area and found that the likelihood of returning for a subsequent mammogram was higher in women experiencing a TN (true negative) result than women experiencing a FP (false positive) result.

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Dabbous and his co-authors analyzed more than 741,000 mammograms taken between 2001 and 2014. In about 12.3 percent of the cases, there was something suspicious but it turned out to be a false alarm.(Women whose mammograms correctly detected cancer were excluded.) 

During the three years after that initial mammogram, 77.9 percent of the women with a false positive result had a subsequent mammogram compared to 85 percent of the women who had not experienced a false alarm.

"Women with a true negative result were 36 percent more likely to return to screening in the next 36 months compared with women with a false positive result," the team wrote.

The findings suggest "that we need to more actively encourage women who have a false-positive result from a screening mammogram to adhere to routine screening mammography recommendations, because it has been shown to reduce breast cancer mortality," Dabbous said in a journal news release.

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How often women should get mammograms has become a controversial topic. However, the fact that breast cancer is a leading killer of U.S. women, with 255,000 women being diagnosed each year and 40,000 women losing their lives to this disease, it’s no wonder that annual mammograms have become a constant in so many women’s lives.