How Accurate Are Your Mammogram Results?

Screening mammography is the gold standard of breast cancer screening. It allows providers to detect breast cancer earlier than with a physical exam, leading to more treatment options and better outcomes in many cases. While helpful, your mammogram results may not give the full story.

Sometimes, your annual breast cancer screening may provide a false-positive mammogram or false-negative result. Understand the process of breast cancer screening and be ready to act.

False-Positive Mammogram—What’s Next?

A false-positive mammogram occurs when you don’t have cancer, but something potentially concerning shows up on your mammogram and requires follow-up. Risk factors for false-positive mammogram results include:

  • Ages 40 to 49
  • Dense breasts
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Personal history of breast biopsy
  • Estrogen used as menopausal therapy

While there are risk factors, the chance of having a false-positive result should not deter you from getting regular mammograms. In fact, the American Cancer Society (ACS) states that you have a 50/50 chance of receiving at least one false positive during a decade of regular screening.

After receiving a positive result, you need additional testing. This may include a second mammogram, ultrasound or other tests, including a biopsy. During this procedure, your provider removes a sample of breast tissue. The cells are sent to a laboratory for evaluation. This is the final step to obtain a definitive diagnosis of breast cancer.

[H2] Understanding False-Negative Mammograms

False-negative results mean that breast cancer is present, but a screening mammogram doesn’t detect it. According to the National Cancer Institute, this occurs in nearly 20% of breast cancer cases.

Risk factors for false negatives echo those of a false positive screening. Breast density and age are key factors, with false negatives occurring more often in young women with dense breasts.

While a false positive can cause undue stress while you wait for follow-up testing, false-negative results have the potential to put you at risk. Receive a false negative, and you don’t know you have cancer, so you don’t take action to stop it. You may even ignore symptoms, giving breast cancer a chance to spread. Should this happen, you have fewer treatments options and may get the best possible outcome.

[H2] Why Dense Breasts Affect Mammogram Results

Wondering why dense breasts increase your likelihood of incorrect mammogram results? On a mammogram, dense breast tissue is white. That’s the same color that breast tumors appear.

Because dense breast tissue shows up the same color as tumors, you’re more likely to receive a false positive. On the other hand, this is the same reason you’re more likely to have a false positive. Unless they are noticeably large, tumors can blend in with dense tissue.

This issue largely resolves with age. Breasts lose density through the years and increase in fat. Unlike dense tissue or tumors, fatty tissue is black on a mammogram. As your breast tissue increases in fat, the likelihood of a false positive or negative result drops.

3D mammography at River’s Edge Hospital & Clinic improves test results for women with dense breasts. It combines multiple images of each breast to create a three-dimensional image. Radiologists review this 3D construction layer by layer and can better identify potential cancer.

What to Do With Your Mammogram Results

With the risk of a false positive or negative, can you trust your mammogram results? Yes, you can. Just keep in mind that a single mammogram screening can give the wrong results.

No matter what result you get, take the next right step to protect your physical and mental health.

  • Positive results. A cancer diagnosis is stressful. Not knowing if you have cancer is as well. Save yourself some stress by scheduling a follow-up mammogram or other test as soon as possible. In the meantime, take comfort knowing that it’s normal to be afraid or sad. Talk about your feelings with a loved one or counselor. If possible, seek out a woman who recently underwent breast cancer therapy.
  • Negative results. A negative mammogram brings comfort, but it shouldn’t cause you to ignore your body. If you experience breast cancer symptoms before or after receiving a negative result, pay attention! Schedule an appointment with your provider. A physical breast exam, follow-up mammogram, ultrasound, MRI or other test can get to the bottom of your issue. By seeking further care, you increase the likelihood of finding breast cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages.
  • Any result. Whether you receive positive or negative mammogram results, continue following doctor’s orders. Schedule and undergo regular mammograms and be familiar with the way your breasts look and feel. Should you notice an abnormal lump or other change in your breasts, let your provider know.

Who Needs a Mammogram?

Currently, the ACS recommends screening mammograms for all women starting at age 45. Depending on your health history, you may want to begin earlier. Screening recommendations are:

  • At age 40, women may choose to begin annual mammograms.
  • Annual mammograms for all women ages 45 to 54.
  • After age 54, women should undergo a mammogram every other year, but they can choose to continue with annual mammograms. This should continue if you’re in good health and expect to live another 10-year period.
  • Women at high risk of breast cancer should consider annual mammograms and breast MRI beginning at age 30. Those at high risk have specific gene mutations (such as mutations on the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes) or a parent, sibling or child with those genetic mutations.

Research published by the American Association for Cancer Research found that a false positive can make you more likely to postpone your next mammogram. Don’t put your exam off. Regular mammograms are vital for good breast health. When you stay on schedule with mammograms, your provider can compare each year’s results and notice changes that may indicate cancer. By doing this, you help increase the screening’s accuracy and reduce the likelihood of a false result.

Need an annual mammogram? At River’s Edge Hospital & Clinic, our imaging services include 3D mammography, which take clearer images of your breasts and reduce the risk of incorrect results.

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