I’ve known for years that mammograms save lives. It is the reason why I’m vigilant about getting my annual screening, but you don’t often hear women talking about how a mammogram gave them the scare of their lives.
I received a call from my doctor’s office the day after Thanksgiving telling me that a radiologist had seen something suspicious on my mammogram. I spent a week sweating it out before my follow up appointment. I worried about what I would tell my children. I was even reluctant to make plans over the holidays fearing that I would be in the hospital for Christmas. I tried to clear my head by taking long walks; instead, I found myself using the time to write my own obituary. Nothing was more chilling than sitting in the waiting room of the diagnostic breast imaging center with a dozen other women dressed in identical hospital gowns. I couldn’t help thinking we were playing a strange game of Russian roulette and some of us might receive news that would change our lives forever.
I’m happy to report that I am one of the lucky ones. I don’t have breast cancer. After five x-rays and an ultrasound, the doctor told me it was a false alarm and to come back next year.
Turns out, false alarms or false positives are fairly common among women who receive screening mammograms. As new American Cancer Society President Dr. Phil Evans points out in his Incoming President editorial, which appeared in our journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, in the U.S., if 1,000 women get screened, 100 will get an abnormal result and will be called back for more testing. Of those, two-thirds, or 67, will be found to have nothing wrong right away, while nearly all of the rest will get the all-clear after additional testing, which often includes a biopsy. In the end, three to five of the original 1,000 women will be found to have breast cancer, while nearly 80 will have a false positive result.
Encouraging news, but what can be done about easing the anxiety that goes along with cancer screening and early detection? One solution is to arm yourself with information. I had the benefit of being able to walk down the hallway to quiz my colleague Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical office of the Society. He was able to walk me through what to expect during the procedure and he reassured me that the odds where in my favor. I also spent some time on line reading up on mammography. You can find detailed information on our website.
No doubt thousands of lives are saved every year because of early detection tests for breast cancer, but the reality is, screening isn’t perfect. In time maybe researchers and innovators will find a way to improve technology so fewer women like me will experience the scare of their lives.