Mammography’s ability to detect small tumors has down sides

Editorial ID’s "collateral damage" of enhanced screening capabilities

HSNewsBeat  |  Updated 1:00 PM, 10.12.2016

Posted in: Issues

  • A woman undergoes a mammogram. The author suggests targeting populations at higher risk for cancer, rather than screening the general population. ThinkStock

Increasing evidence indicates a less-obvious outcome of breast cancer screening: overdiagnosis of diseases that would never cause symptoms or death. 

A study in the Oct. 13, 2016, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine shows that, among every 100,000 women screened for breast cancer in the early 2000s, 162 small tumors were detected but only 30 were expected to become large. Practitioners' enhanced ability to detect small tumors, though, may be leading to patient harm by spurring unnecessary treatment, according to an accompanying editorial written by Dr. Joann Elmore, a professor of general internal medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“Building trust in science and medicine starts by taking ownership of all aspects of the screening cascade, including the collateral damage of our well-intentioned efforts," she said.

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