Mammograms: Prevention or Risk?

Kaylyn Boccia, Staff Writer

   Once a woman hits the age of 40, it is a must to begin mammogram scans on a yearly basis. We have continuously been told that in order to prevent cancer, it’s necessary to be proactive and go through screenings to look for cancerous cells. But what if this screening is, ironically, what causes the cancer? It’s always been prevalent in the news that any form of radiation is not good for the body, but in order to detect certain problems, doctors use radiation and hope that the radiation risk is far less than the risk cancer imposes. Mammograms seem like a necessary process, however, it may be possible that these types of scans cause cancer in the breast that may not have existed prior to the scan.

   Breast tissue happens to be the second most sensitive tissue to radiation waves, following fetal tissue. Even worse, women carry an oncogene that has the potential to cause cancer, which is triggered by radiation. A single mammogram can increase a woman’s chance for cancer four to five times, and the damage from this radiation is cumulative.

   Author Susan S. Weed uses an interesting, yet terrifying comparison and explanation for this radiation risk: “If a woman has yearly mammograms from age 55 to age 75, she will receive a minimum of 20 rads of radiation. For comparison, women who survived the atomic bomb blasts in Hiroshima or Nagasaki absorbed 35 rads.” Although an atomic bomb is a massive amount of radiation at one time, which is much more dangerous than small doses each year, each mammogram a woman is given steadily increases the accumulation of radiation in the body. Each rad of exposure increases a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer by one percent. It is estimated that each breast is exposed to ten rads a year from mammogram screenings alone. Ironically, what doctors then use to treat the cancer once diagnosed is high doses of radiation.

   Another cancer risk involved with mammogram screening is the actual breast compression itself. If the breast is in fact cancerous, the squeezing of it can spread the disease by circulating cells. By rupturing small blood vessels, it may lead to a lethal spread of the cancer.

   Many doctors and patients still believe that the dosage of radiation is minimal enough to not be extremely harmful, and that the chance of getting cancer from these scans alone, is rare. “I think it does more good than bad. There are risks for these types of things (i.e. x-rays, CAT scans, and mammograms) but at the same time, they have saved people’s lives,” says Oneonta student Gina Greco; “Nothing will ever be 100 percent safe, and it’s up to us to make the decision if it’s worth it.”

   It is important for women to become more informed about the possible dangers and risks of yearly mammograms. The radiation risks, as compared to the statistics for finding the cancer early, have not been compared enough to form a definitive answer, but it seems the dangers are unavoidable. If research and studies continue in this area, there may be forms of detection that will come with less risk. The researchers may also develop new ways to treat the disease. But for now, women have to make their own decision and weigh all options before any medical procedure or treatment is performed.

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