Half Of Women Experience False Positive Mammogram


Once women hit their 40s and beyond, mammograms are a common part of female health and wellness. Doctors recommend that women 50 and older get a breast cancer screening once every two years because breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death for women in the United States. 

The current data shows that 12.9% of women born in America today will develop breast cancer at some time in their lives. As UC Davis Health notes, early detection via mammogram is a “key strategy to lower the risk of advanced breast cancer and death from this disease.”

Mammograms are a bit weird and uncomfortable. And when you get one, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be asked back for more testing. 

Yes, this can be alarming. But the good news is there’s no need to jump to conclusions. According to a new study, half of all women will experience a false positive mammogram.

UC Davis-Led Study Shows False Positives Are Common

new study led by the University of California-Davis Health published in March 2022 in JAMA Network Open has found that after 10 years of annual breast cancer screenings with 3D mammography, half of all women experience a false-positive mammogram. 

What exactly is a false positive? This is when “a mammogram is flagged as abnormal” and more testing is done, but there is ultimately “no cancer in the breast.”

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Researchers came to this conclusion after analyzing data collected by the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium on 3 million screening mammograms for 903,495 women between the ages of 40-79 over the course of 13 years. The study evaluated screening modality, screening interval, age, and breast density.

The study also found that women who were screened every other year had a lower risk of a false positive compared to those screened annually. And, 3D screening showed slightly lower false-positive results (50 percent) than standard 2D mammography (56 percent). 

Researchers admitted that they were surprised the new tech didn’t reduce the risk of a false positive more than it did.

“We were surprised that the newer 3D technology in breast cancer screening does not substantially reduce the risk of having a false-positive result after 10 years of screening; however, chances of false positives are much lower with repeated biennial vs. annual screening,” said research fellow Thao-Quyen Ho, a radiologist at the University Medical Center in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, and study co-author.

Regardless of the type of screening, the study found that false-positive results were substantially lower for older rather than younger age groups, as well as women with entirely fatty versus extremely dense breasts.

What This Means For Your Health

Epidemiologists in the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences and study co-author Michael Bissell explained that these latest results show that screening technology (3D v 2D) doesn’t have the largest impact on reducing false positives. 

Not every hospital and mammogram facility has the new 3D mammogram tech, but Bissell says that’s not as big of an issue as researchers expected it to be. Instead, he says the major takeaway from these study results should be the importance of patient-provider discussions and personalized care.

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“Findings from our study highlight the importance of patient-provider discussions around personalized health. It is important to consider a patient’s preferences and risk factors when deciding on screening interval and modality,” Bissell said.

In other words, there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution to how often you should get a mammogram (annually versus every two years) and what kind of testing should be used (3D v 2D). Everyone is different, so working with your doctor on the right interval and methods that work for you should be a top priority.

“To detect breast cancer early, we need to be careful and investigate any potentially abnormal findings. So, women should not be worried if recalled for additional imaging or biopsy. The vast majority of these results are found to be benign,” Ho said.

Mammograms should not be skipped, especially if you have a history of breast cancer in your family or there’s a chance you have inherited a mutated BRCA gene. But just understand that the process may require a few doctor visits, extra financial costs, and even more anxiety.

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