Have mammograms been linked to an 84% rise in breast cancer deaths?

By December 21, 2023 Health

We’ve come across this claim being circulated on X (formerly Twitter) and other local message groups. The claim is that radiation from mammograms (which test for breast cancer) has been linked to an 84% rise in breast cancer deaths, suggesting that the screening process is detrimental rather than helpful.While the post and others citing this number do not provide direct links to the study they derived it from, a search of recently published studies on breast cancer turned up one titled: Breast Cancer Incidence After a False-Positive Mammography Result from 2nd November 2023.

As the title suggests, the study specifically researched breast cancer mortality and incidence after false-positive mammogram results – with a population-based study in Sweden. It aimed to explore if there is a relationship between false-positive mammogram results and long-term cancer-related outcomes.

As can be clearly seen even in the abstract and summary that appears at the top of the page, while this particular study found an increased risk of breast cancer in the initial years after a false-positive result, long-term outcomes were unclear.

The 84% number being cited in social media claims comes specifically from the study finding that women with “a false-positive result had an 84% higher rate of breast cancer death than those without.” That is, the comparison being made is between women who have all undergone mammograms – women who received false-positive results after the mammogram were 84% more likely to experience breast cancer death.

Therefore, the claim that mammograms have been linked to an increase in breast cancer deaths is extremely inaccurate and reflects a significant misreading of the published results of this study. The study never suggests that mammograms can lead to breast cancer, and the 84% statistic being used as evidence of this association has been misrepresented.

We give this claim a rating of false.

The notion that mammograms are harmful is not a new one and other fact-checking platforms have debunked claims about mammograms being unnecessary or exposing women to extreme radiation.

As noted by health organisations and experts around the world, while radiation exposure does occur during the screening, the amount of radiation is within a safe range and the benefits outweigh any potential risks. Mammograms can significantly reduce breast cancer mortality through early detection and is strongly recommended for women over the age of 40. The Singapore Cancer Society and the Ministry of Health guidelines similarly recommend yearly checks for women between 40-49 years old, and once every two years for women 50 years old and above.

Published studies on a wide range of medical issues are readily and easily available on the internet. While this means increased access to new and updated information, this also means that bad-faith or incorrect readings of these studies can be spread and used to support false claims. When encountering short, extreme-sounding headlines that cite statistics without elaboration, we can take advantage of our own access to the same published studies to fact-check and determine the accuracy of such claims.

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