Mammograms: The Painful Truth – Part I

By Maureen Page –

I have always followed doctors’ orders.  But lately, I’ve started to wonder if that’s a good policy, per se.  Case in point:  Mammograms.  We’ve been told that mammograms save lives with early detection to prevent or minimize the effects of breast cancer.  And with advances like digital mammography, I really hadn’t questioned the common wisdom or given it much thought beyond the fact that I was due for a screening.

The Visit:
Armed with my doctor’s referral, I arrived early at the special wing of the hospital where mammograms are conducted.  I chatted for a moment with the receptionist, confirming what I’d been told about the new digital method. She said it was much better than the old film x-rays, quicker, more accurate, and not at all painful.  A breeze, she said.  These were all the same things my doctor had told me, so I felt relaxed and worry-free when I took the requisite hospital gown into the dressing room to get ready for my close up.

The Betrayal:
I was smiling as they led me into the x-ray room.  Granted, that smile slipped a bit as the technician told me to place my right breast onto the glass tableau that had been raised and adjusted to fit my height.  But I held my ground, steady on.  As she began to lower the top piece of glass, a niggling worry began to form.  Hold up, I thought. This is the exact same thing they do with the film X-rays.  So where’s the difference?

I tried to push back these thoughts, staving off the panicky feeling of being trapped.  Surely with digital film, they don’t bring that glass down all the way…   But they did.  Lower.  And lower.  And lower still.  Squashing my poor mamacita so impossibly flat, tears leaked from my disbelieving eyes.  If my breasts had of been grapes, we’d have had wine.

The Questioning:
It had all been a pretty lie, and I had bought it lock, stock, and barrel. And maybe that’s how it had to go down to get me into that screening, I don’t know.  But of this I am sure:  that’s the day I started looking at things differently.  The doctors, the tests, the people who support it all.  I began to ask myself questions about these procedures that we’re told we need:  How effective are they? How often do we really need them? Are they safe? And who really benefits?  I had the questions, and now I needed answers.

Mammograms: What and When?
According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, a mammogram is a picture of the breast, obtained by X-ray, and there are two types:  diagnostic and screening. The screening mammogram is recommended yearly or biennially, for all women over the age of 40.  Recently, according to a CBS news report, a government panel (the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, USPSTF) came out with the controversial recommendation that women wait until age 50 to start being screened.  The reason for this is because they believed that the benefits of early screenings were not worth the harm (emotional and otherwise) caused by possible false positives resulting in biopsies that really weren’t necessary. But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist, as well as other entities like the Mayo Clinic, said NO, we should continue recommending mammogram screenings starting at age 40.  This recommendation was backed by the findings of one particular Swedish study, involving more than a million subjects.  The study showed that women who had screenings in their 40s, were 29% less likely to die of breast cancer.

The diagnostic mammogram on the other hand, is an after-the-fact tool, used to investigate lumps, pain, changes in skin texture, or changes occurring from one screening to another. The diagnostic mammogram is more involved and more time consuming, because unlike screening mammograms, more pictures are taken, and suspicious areas are magnified to aid diagnosis.

Film vs Digital: Which Method Is Better?
Just like in photography, it depends on who you ask. And at any given time, each side has a point.  Supporters of the traditional film X-ray say that digital imagery is not any more effective in cancer detection and costs more to boot. They claim that the change from film to digital X-ray is a direct result of aggressive marketing campaigns and successful political maneuvering by the manufacturers of the digital screening equipment.  These ploys created such a strong public demand, that the insurance companies were forced to adopt the new method.

In a medical news article on, researchers found that with women who have yet to experience menopause, are in their 40s, and have dense breasts, digital mammography might be more effective at detecting cancer. As previously stated however, the risk of a false positive is higher in these cases than with film.  Proponents of digital mammography site convenience, immediacy of results, image adjustment, and the quick and easy storage, retrieval, and transfer of the images as some of the benefits.

Ultimately however, the answer to which method is better really depends upon factors and circumstance; neither method wins out totally, with both methods performing about the same for women in the 50+ age bracket.  So it really comes down to what your medical facility offers, and what your insurance provider will cover. And I’ve learned that it pays to call ahead and ask questions about methods and insurance provision for procedures, facilities, and staff.

Check back for the next installment: Mammograms: The Painful Truth – Part Two, where we explore the meaning of the screening results, and your options.

About the Author

This article was written by Maureen Page, VP of Discount Security Cameras, your source for quality security cameras and security camera systems. She enjoys sharing her love of technology, reading, and music with her husband and two children in Jacksonville, FL.


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