DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Mammograms, which can detect cancer early, can also raise red flags that turn out to be nothing. And as NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, new research puts a price tag on these false alarms.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: A stunning number is how researcher Dr. Kenneth Mandl puts it.
KENNETH MANDL: Four billion dollars per year.
NEIGHMOND: That's right, $4 billion a year on inaccurate results of mammograms. Mandl's a professor at Harvard Medical School. He reviewed medical records of more than 702,000 women between the ages of 40 and 59 who received routine screening mammograms in 2012. One in 10 of those women were told there were suspicious shadows on their mammogram x-rays.
MANDL: Those shadows are certain shapes and patterns. And densities of those shadows are associated with tumors.
NEIGHMOND: The important word here is associated. It turned out 98.6 percent of those women did not have cancer, but to figure that out takes more tests - repeat mammograms, ultrasound, needle biopsies. And even when cancer is detected, sometimes it can be low-risk, slow-growing tumors that aren't likely to become invasive or life-threatening. But once suspicions are raised, Mandl says, it often leads to overtreatment.
MANDL: Mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation in women who may not have needed any medical treatment at all.
NEIGHMOND: But other experts feel strongly about the benefit of routine mammograms. Dr. Richard Wender heads the cancer prevention program at the American Cancer Society. He says the study overestimates the cost of additional testing, and it doesn't take into account the proven benefit of mammograms.
RICHARD WENDER: It is the most effective way we have to find breast cancer before anybody can feel it, and it's proven to reduce the risk of dying of breast cancer. So whenever we're doing decision-making, either as policymakers or as just one woman, it's important to look at both the benefits and the downsides.
NEIGHMOND: Wender says mammograms have been shown to reduce death from breast cancer by 20 percent. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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