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False Alarm Mammograms Can Cause Women To Skip Or Delay Future Breast Cancer Screening

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The experience of a mammogram turning out to be a false alarm can have significant impact on a woman's attitude toward breast cancer screening.

Effect Of False Alarm Mammogram On Women

Findings of a new study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention on Feb. 9 revealed that the trauma of getting a false-positive result from a mammogram can cause many women to delay or even skip the next screening.

A false positive occurs when an aberration on a mammogram appears it is cancer, but additional tests such as biopsy or added imaging would later reveal as benign. The patient, who has gone through distress and various procedures, could opt to delay or skip her next mammogram, which breast cancer experts said could be a potentially deadly mistake since early detection of tumors can help save lives.

"Experiencing a false positive (FP) screening mammogram is economically, physically, and emotionally burdensome, which may affect future screening behavior by delaying the next scheduled mammogram or by avoiding screening altogether," researchers wrote in their study.

Women Skipping Cancer Screening

For the new study, Firas Dabbous, from Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, and colleagues looked at the data of more than 741,000 mammograms that were conducted on almost 262,000 women between the years 2001 and 2014. The researchers found that over 12 percent of the X-rays yielded a false-positive result.

Fifteen percent of those who received negative results did not come back for a mammogram, but the percentage rose to 22 percent in women who received a false-positive result.

Of the women with more than one mammogram, those with a negative result from their first mammogram had up to 36 percent increased likelihood of getting another screening over the next three years compared with the women who had false-positive result on their first mammogram.

The researchers, however, were not able to determine whether the women gave up on breast cancer screening or they had it done somewhere else.

Delaying Mammograms

The researchers also found that women who had a false-positive result on the first mammogram delay their second mammogram screening by an average of 13 months.

Dabbous and colleagues warned that delays and skipped mammograms can have dangerous effects on a woman's health since the odds of getting diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer within the next four years was 0.4 percent in women who had a false-positive result, which is higher compared with the 0.3 percent risk in those who had true negative result. Cancer experts said that this difference is statistically significant.

"The delays the authors observed were significant," said Robert Smith, from the American Cancer Society. "If these findings can be validated in other studies, then it suggests that extra attention should be dedicated to ensuring that women with false positive findings are reminded to return to annual or biennial screening with sufficient notice and multiple reminders."

The women with false positive tend to be younger, premenopausal, and were more likely to be getting their first breast cancer screening. They were also more likely to be black and have denser breasts.

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