Breast Cancer Checks Result in “False Positives”

Almost one-third of American women who obtain annual breast cancer checks for a decade will receive at least one false alarm, according to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Among women who receive only X-ray mammograms, rather than mammograms and physical exams, up to one-half may receive “false positives.”

The study, conducted by Joann G. Elmore and colleagues at the University of Washington, examined medical records of 2,400 women, ages 40 to 69, who received mammograms over a ten-year period.

“We’ve come to believe in this country that the important thing is to avoid false negatives and we think false positives are painless,” said George Annas, law professor from Boston University School of Public Health, “But people always imagine the worst. These women go through hell. And we haven’t taken these costs into account at all as we should.”

The study showed that 47 percent of women who received false positives experienced “substantial anxiety” as much as three months after the initial result.

The study said, “We need to develop ways to reduce the false positive rates of breast-cancer screening and their associated psychological and economic costs.”


Washington Post - April 16, 1998

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