Mammography and Radiation: Risk vs Benefit

Mammography and Radiation: Risk vs Benefit

Mammograms are safe; breast cancer… is not. Your risk of cancer from the radiation from a mammogram is very, very small. The benefit of using mammograms to detect cancer is, relatively, radically high. In other words, have no fear, go forth and get your mammograms!

As women of science, we want to quote some cold, hard facts about the risk-benefit issue of radiation dosage in mammograms. As regular people,* who like to speak in a language that regular people can comprehend, we’ll use some less technical terminology. But we’re going to talk about radiation.

Radiation is an interesting thing. It is used to detect cancer, and also used to kill cancer cells, yet it has also been linked to causing cancer. What a strange list of contradictions that is! In order to understand that curious list, we look at dose, direction, and origin of the radiation exposure.

There is no way to avoid radiation, in general, because it comes from so many things. You will have exposure by simply just existing. Eating a banana, flying on a plane, living in a brick building, and simply walking around… a teeny-tiny amount of radiation is everywhere. And you know what? That’s totally fine. It comes to you in small, small doses and is typically evenly spread throughout your body. No harm done. 

Radiation helps us see inside the body. So, we can also choose to expose ourselves to more radiation. For that the dose is small and the radiation is aimed specifically at one body part to limit the exposure even further. A mammogram’s radiation is equal to a flight from NYC to LA. That’s a very small amount. No harm done.

Radiation is also used to kill cancer cells. In other words, it can be a targeted, powerful, damaging weapon, HOWEVER, that requires extremely high doses. By high doses, we mean thousands of times more than exposure from a mammogram or x-ray. It is also enough to have negative side effects. To sum up high-radiation therapy: harm done. Especially to cancer cells.

Does the amount of radiation in annual screening mammograms increase the chances of getting cancer? By an insignificant amount. We strongly believe the benefits of breast cancer detection far outweigh the incredibly small risk of damage from the low dose of radiation of a mammogram.

That’s all, said simply by regular people for regular people. Okay, but, as doctors, we can’t resist citing a few scientific studies to support our claims.


*Radiologists are people too!




Originally published 6/26/13 on