Mammograms and Overdiagnosis: How Do We Know?

Mammograms and Overdiagnosis: How Do We Know?

Overdiagnosis of breast cancer or any type of cancer through screening tests is not a simple issue. The big question is: How do we know when it happens? Breast cancer screening and treatment save lives. If someone has been diagnosed and treated, and they live, how can we measure that against a hypothetical situation in which they perhaps did not have an aggressive cancer and would have lived a long healthy life anyway?


Overdiagnosis is defined as a cancer found through screening that would not have been discovered in the lifetime of the woman because the cancer itself would not have resulted in symptoms or because the patient dies of other conditions before the cancer results in symptoms. How do we know which cancers are going to remain localized and require no treatment and which need therapy to spare the life and health of the patient? The answer is we don’t know! We currently have no means by which to tell one from the other.


We accept and admit that overdiagnosis can occur. There are multiple studies showing conflicting results. Recently, two major voices have risen above the din of the frenzied conversation. A New York Times author who was treated for cancer wrote a personal and moving story, and Dr. Otis Brawley, the Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society, spoke up as well. His words on the subject are thoughtful and thorough.


The subject is serious and requires research and debate. In the meantime, our stance is firmly on the side of safety. While the opportunity for overtreatment exists, the door to fatal and preventable illnesses should be held shut as much as humanly possible.


We have dedicated our careers to early detection and saving lives. We do our best to stay as educated as possible on the subjects we address here on this blog to make this space a valuable resource. We encourage our readers to do the same, and do the best they can to remain healthy.





Originally posted 5/24/13 on