Mammography: The Insurance Policy You Don't Want to Lapse

It’s Russian Roulette time again on the breast cancer news front. The headlines are screaming that according to the results of a study just published in The New England Journal of Medicine, only one in three women will have her life saved by a breast cancer diagnosis from mammography. A million other women will be getting treatment they don’t need because they have tumors that won’t do them any harm. OK, you’re asking, can’t we just remove the harmful tumors? Unfortunately, we still don’t know how to tell which cancers are harmless until they are removed. That fact is usually published in the middle of the article.

In an editorial that accompanied the study, Robert Smith, the American Cancer Society’s director of cancer screening, wrote that women should view mammography as a kind of insurance policy. “As with all insurance, there are costs for protection against adverse events that have a low probability of occurrence,” he wrote, “but that could be catastrophic if they occurred without the insurance.” So let’s examine the statistic again. Only one in three will be helped. Insurance, anyone?

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