Breast test

A new study says mammograms are still essential to fighting cancer.

Published October 27, 2005 4:55PM (EDT)

Bare those boobies! According to the New York Times, a study released today by the New England Journal of Medicine confirms "that 28 to 65 percent of the sharp decrease in breast cancer deaths from 1990 to 2000" was due to mammograms -- proving a link between mammographic screening and recovery that had recently been debated.

Though more than 80 percent of American women over 40 already get mammograms every year, doctors have long wondered whether the benefits of frequent tests outweighed the potential risks -- such as false positives or unnecessary surgeries on "indolent cancers" that might never spread beyond the breast. Mammography was not always accurate, so doctors questioned why annual mammograms were still promoted with such fervor. They also wondered if powerful new drug treatments, such as tamoxifen hormonal therapy, were accounting for higher breast-cancer survival rates.

"The emphasis was always on mammograms, mammograms, mammograms," said Fran Visco, director of the National Breast Cancer Coalition. Couple that emphasis with the cruel fact that, as the Times reports, "until recently the federal government paid for poor women not on Medicaid [to get mammograms] but did not pay to treat them if cancer was found," and the oncology community faced a serious ethical and medical dilemma.

Our "question was not whether you could make mammography work under ideal circumstances, but [whether] it works now, in the real world," said Dr. Russell Harris, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina and a member of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. For the moment at least, the new study, conducted by the National Cancer Institute, provides women an answer.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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