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Exposure to Mammography Radiation Raises Chance for Breast Cancer in Women

Young women already at high risk of developing breast cancer, due to family history or genetic mutation, could be increasing their risk for the disease by having yearly mammograms.

Drucilla Dyess, Health NEws, Dec 3, 2009

Young women already at high risk of developing breast cancer, due to family history or genetic mutation, could be increasing their risk for the disease by having yearly mammograms. Ironically, exposure to mammography radiation may be the most harmful to the very women who need them the most. Healthcare providers commonly recommend that women at high-risk for breast cancer begin having mammograms earlier in life, and to undergo them more often than women at an average risk for the disease. However, the dangers of these screenings may outweigh the benefits.

Lead author Marijke C. Jansen-van der Weide, an epidemiologist at University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands, presented a report on the recent findings while attending a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, Illinois. The results of the new analysis come only two weeks after The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of government-appointed experts, advised women ages 40 to 49 who are at an average risk for breast cancer not to undergo routine mammograms, due to concerns over false alarms and unnecessary treatment. The task force also advised women ages 50 to 74 to have mammograms only every other year, instead of annually.

The latest findings came from an analysis of combined data from six prior studies that involved a total of about 5,000 women in both the United States and Europe. The average age of these women was 45 years, with some of them having breast cancer, and others who did not. All of the women had a high risk of breast cancer. In researching their medical histories, the researchers revealed that those women who had undergone mammograms or chest X-rays were more likely to develop breast cancer. In fact, women who were exposed to radiation prior to reaching age 20, as well as women having five or more exposures to radiation, were found to be 2.5 times more likely to develop breast cancer when compared to women who had not been exposed. The findings apply only to women having a high risk of breast cancer, account for between 0.5 percent and 1 percent of the population.

Regarding the results, the researchers cautioned that the findings are not conclusive, and more study will be necessary to determine their validity. Although the pooled data yielded statistically significant results, only part of the individual studies resulted in significant findings, and for those having no statistically significant results, the differences could have been due to chance.

Although high doses of radiation can increase the risk of breast cancer, there is a low dose used in mammography. According to the American Cancer Society, the benefits of screening far outweigh any risk. According to Dr. Jansen-van der Weide that it was concerning to find that women whose baseline risk was already high, were put at a doubled risk. Her suggestion was for young women at high risk to avoid repeated exposure to even low-dose radiation, as the same mutation that increased their risk of breast cancer might also make the breast more susceptible to cancer caused by radiation. She stated, "For high-risk women, it's important to weigh the benefits and risks of mammography with their doctor and come together on a screening strategy, and to keep in mind that at a young age you can use an alternative screening technique like M.R.I. (magnetic resonance imaging)."

The American Cancer Society's director of cancer screening, Robert Smith, disagreed that an M.R.I. could be used in place of mammography in high-risk women. He reasoned that mammography could find tumors missed by M.R. I. just as M.R.I. could find tumors missed by mammography, and that the best-case scenario would be to use the tests together.

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