It’s been over 120 years since the discovery that masses in breast tissue could be detected through x-ray technology. In 1949, a compression technique for examining breast tissue was conceived, giving birth to the modern mammogram.
Since then, using x-rays to monitor breast health has become a widely accepted practice, despite the dangers of radiation and the evidence to suggest that mammograms may not lower the fatality rate of breast cancer. We recognize they have saved lives, but could there also be a safer alternative?
In fact, studies have shown that the increase of screenings in recent years has increased the rate of positive diagnosis by 16%, but has not reduced the number of deaths associated with breast cancer. This little-known statistic raises some important questions:
Does our current mammography protocol actually save lives?
… Or do the associated risks outweigh the benefits?
THE LIMITATIONS OF MAMMOGRAMS
While mammograms have been widely regarded as the key to breast health, even the strongest proponents of mammography for early detection admit that this technology has significant limitations.
Mammography is not sensitive enough to detect all breast tumors, and may be up to 50% less effective in women with dense breast tissue, which is more prone to developing malignant cells. As a result, women with dense breasts often require additional x-ray screenings, MRIs, and ultrasounds.
Along with their detection limitations, mammogram screenings often result in false positives or false negatives. The risks associated with a false negative result are apparent — A woman will believe she is healthy and fail to receive treatment, missing an important opportunity for early intervention.
The risks with false positives are more difficult to define, but not to be taken lightly. A positive result is anxiety inducing and can cause long-lasting psychological distress surrounding breast examinations. Along with these negative mental health implications, further testing magnifies the physical risks of using mammogram technology to detect breast cancer.
THE PHYSICAL RISK ASSOCIATED WITH MAMMOGRAMS
Mammograms expose the body to radiation by using x-ray technology to identify abnormalities in breast tissue. While the amount of radiation used in a single mammogram is low, the risks of low-dose radiation increases over time and inflates the risk of breast cancer in those with a genetic predisposition by 1.5 times.
A woman who begins annual breast screenings at age 40 will undergo 34 mammograms in her lifetime — and that is if she receives only negative results. Unfortunately, statistics show that after a decade of screening, the majority of women will receive at least one false-positive result and need to undergo more testing. The x-rays and scans that are required after a positive result expose the body to more radiation, and an unnecessary biopsy may be conducted, posing greater risk.
Even in the case of an accurate positive result, there are risks associated with further testing. Research suggests that core needle biopsies can cause trauma to breast tumors, which may promote their growth and metastasis. The process of a biopsy may also contaminate adjacent breast tissue with malignant cells, a complication commonly known as needle seeding.
A MODERN ALTERNATIVE TO ANNUAL MAMMOGRAMS
At Agent Nateur, we deeply respect much of Europe’s approach to issues like agriculture, healthcare, and quality control — and, once again, we can look to them as our guide when it comes to breast health.
In the states, it’s recommended that all women aged 45-55 undergo yearly mammograms, and annual screening can begin as early as age 40. But according to the European breast cancer guidelines, screening before age 44 is not advised, nor is annual screening. Instead, they recommend every 2-3 years.
It’s essential to remember that even though annual mammograms are recommended in the United States, the frequency at which we have screenings is a personal choice. Rather than exposing yourself to the dangers of radiation and the risks associated with inaccurate results on a yearly basis, there are alternative screening options that can be used for early detection, such as thermography — a painless, radiation-free breast exam that uses thermal imagery to determine abnormalities or changes in the breast tissue. This can be done in addition to less-frequent mammograms. (You can read more on thermography and its applications here.)
LIFESTYLE CHANGES TO DECREASE RISK
Along with adopting a customized approach to breast tissue screenings, there are adjustments you can make in your daily life that will improve your breast health. It’s widely known that poor diet, lack of exercise, and substance use increase the risk of cancer, but there are a couple lesser-known contributing factors that are also preventable.
When’s the last time you had your vitamin D levels checked? Research suggests that maintaining a higher level of vitamin D may protect your breast health. Not only that, adding vitamin D to conventional breast cancer treatment may improve the effectiveness of the treatment. (Read more on the link between vitamin D and breast health here.)
Another common contributing factor to breast health is estrogen dominance. While estrogen is a beneficial hormone present in both male and female bodies, an abundance of estrogen increases the risk for breast cancer. Fortunately, lifestyle changes like increasing exercise, eating organic foods, managing stress, using fewer plastics, and switching to aluminum-free deodorant can help manage estrogen dominance.
Above all, know that you have agency over your healthcare decisions. Before undergoing an annual mammogram, assess the risks, research alternatives, and proceed with the breast health screening protocol that resonates most with you and your body.
***THESE STATEMENTS HAVE NOT BEEN APPROVED OR REGULATED BY THE FDA. WE ARE NOT DOCTORS, THEREFORE ALWAYS CONSULT WITH YOUR DOCTOR FIRST.