Friday, May 2, 2008

The Reality of Mammograms and Breast Cancer False Alarms

Better technology means more scares, but if you have breasts like mine, you have to believe it's worth it
by Sally Chew

On my way into St. Vincent's Comprehensive Cancer Center recently to get my annual mammogram, I happened to read in the paper that the greater accuracy of the new digital mammograms means more false alarms—more scares, more visits.

I don't know if it was technical improvements that sped me through the masher more quickly than usual that day. More likely, it was the usual exasperation with the dense tissue of my ultra-fibrocystic breasts.

Digital mammograms are intended for women with dense breasts, but mine would defy even Superman’s powerful stare—or so I've been told. Radiologists dutifully study my "films" each year but rarely expect to see what's really going on till I lay back, down the hall, for a cool, sticky ultrasound.

Which is where I was dispatched last week so they could snap these:

The shadowy globes at the top of each image above are cysts, among a dozen or so I carry around from year to year. We track them every spring like so many migrating whales.

I crane my neck to see the screen while a technician punches measurements into her computer with one hand and drags that chilly wand around my breasts with the other.

Actually, she's more interested in those white, wispy "calcifications" and any brand-new dark shapes—like the pebble that prompted an open biopsy a few years back on that very same hall.

At the time, it seemed like pure luck that I emerged from surgery with a benign diagnosis (and a pretty scar). I hadn't yet experienced enough bump-by-bump monitoring to understand the benefits of the false alarm.

I get it now, though. As long as the statistics continue to be in my favor—did you know that 80% of biopsies are benign?—and the folks manning the machines actually seem to be paying attention, count me in for the extra whale-watching.

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