Dr. Rebecca Dunsmoor-SuAs genneve’s Chief Medical Officer, I help write or edit some of the content you see on our site, but you don’t always hear my thoughts in my own voice. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I want to talk seriously about breast cancer and screening.

Truth: Breast cancer, caught early, is curable

First, I want to emphasize two important points:

  1. 1 in 8 women in this country will get breast cancer over the course of their lifetimes.
  2. If you catch it early, it is curable (90% of women with breast cancer will be completely cured).

Myths about breast cancer screening

The second point is why I am writing today. I want to dispel myths about breast cancer screening. I am a full-time practicing clinician in Seattle and will often hear these myths and fears in my practice. It worries and upsets me when women get incorrect or even dangerous information.

Myth 1: Screening kickbacks.

This is the idea that your doctor orders screening tests, labs, vaccines, etc. because they get a “kickback” or make money on it. The fact is, there are specific laws against kickbacks that we are trained on every year. Doctors can lose our licenses or even go to prison for making money through referrals.

Myth 2: Mammograms are radiation and over time will cause breast cancer.

No, for the most part this is not true. While mammograms do use radiation, they use very little — equivalent to about 2 months of the background radiation that you get from living in the world.

What is true is that the minor risk of this exposure is completely outweighed by the ability to pick up earlier stage breast cancer, so on balance mammograms overwhelmingly save lives.

Myth 3: I don’t need a mammogram as I do breast self-exam and will feel a lump early.

No. I would never discourage self-exams, but they can’t take the place of a mammogram. This idea is false because the average size of a lump picked up by regular mammogram is about 1 cm, whereas the size picked up by regular breast self-exam is approximately 3 cm. There is a great graphic produced by the Susan B Komen foundation that shows this.

Myth 4: Thermography is as good as mammography at detecting cancer with no risk.

This one makes me the angriest. False, false and more false. Thermography (the idea that breast cancer is “hot” and can be picked up with a thermal map of the breast) was tested as an alternative to mammography. In the studies done, this screening modality had a 25% false positive rate (claimed to find cancer when there was none) and much more concerning, a 60% false negative rate, meaning 60% of the time when a lump or cancer was present, it was not detected and the study was “negative.” More modern devices have been tested again and proven to be equally inaccurate.

So why are there thermography centers? Because the device is “FDA cleared” which means it has been deemed to be safe to use (it won’t directly hurt you) but has never been determined to be effective.

Any device with FDA clearance can be used in the US. Centers can promote and sell this modality for profit. Some of the providers who promote thermography actually believe it is effective, but they don’t have the training to be critical about the source of their information.

Some thermography providers believe that mammograms are part of a conspiracy and that they are saving women from this (really). Some just want to make money. Whatever the reason, thermography is not a safe modality to use.

In honor of this month I do not wear pink, I donate to my local Planned Parenthood which is the largest provider of low- and no-cost mammograms in my region. Find out who it is in your region and consider supporting them. And get your mammogram (I do)! 

What are your thoughts on breast cancer and breast cancer screenings? Do you get regular mammograms? If not, why not? We'd love to hear your thoughts, so please join the conversation in the genneve community forums