5 Things I Wish All Women Knew About Mammograms
In 2014, one of the largest and longest studies of mammography to date — involving 90,000 women followed for 25 years — found that mammograms have no impact on breast cancer mortality. It is important to note, however, that breast-cancer-specific mortality for women between the ages of 40 and 59 are beyond that of physical examination alone, or usual care in the community.1
Over the course of the study, the death rate from breast cancer was virtually identical between those who received an annual mammogram and those who did not, while 22 percent of screen-detected invasive breast cancers were over-diagnosed, leading to unnecessary treatment. The researchers concluded “the data suggest that the value of mammography screening should be reassessed.”2
A Cochrane Collaboration review also found no evidence that mammography screening has an effect on overall mortality, which, taken together, seriously calls into question whether mammography screening really benefits women.3
Public health agencies, however, have been slow to update their recommendations. The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms for average-risk women starting at the age of 40, while the US Preventive Services Task Force recommends mammograms every other year starting at age 50.
The conflicting recommendations send women mixed messages on whether screening is helpful or harmful, yet, earlier this year the Swiss Medical Board made a clear-cut recommendation: no more systematic mammography.
Why Did the Swiss Medical Board Do Away with Routine Mammograms?
After a year of reviewing the available evidence and its implications, the Swiss Medical Board, an independent health technology assessment initiative, noted they became “increasingly concerned” about what they were finding. The “evidence” simply did not back up the global consensus of other experts in the field suggesting that mammograms were safe and capable of saving lives.
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On the contrary, mammography appeared to be preventing only one death for every 1,000 women screened, while causing harm to many more. Their thorough review left them no choice but to recommend that no new systematic mammography screening programs be introduced, and that a time limit should be placed on existing programs.
In their report, made public in February 2014,4 the Swiss Medical Board also advised that the quality of mammography screening should be evaluated and women should be informed, in a “clear and balanced” way, about the benefits and harms of screening. Although, the Swiss Medical Board is nongovernmental and thus, its recommendations are not legally binding, so it remains unclear whether the report will have any effect on the policies in our country.
Unfortunately, many women are still unaware that the science backing the health benefits of mammograms is sorely lacking. Instead of being told the truth, women are guilt-tripped into thinking that skipping their yearly mammogram is the height of medical irresponsibility. It can be hard to stand your ground against such tactics.
When it comes to cancer prevention, however, many doctors are just as confused and manipulated as the average person on the street because of the relentless industry and media propaganda that downplays or ignores research that dramatically contradicts their profit-based agenda.
FIVE FACTS ABOUT MAMMOGRAMS THAT EVERY WOMAN SHOULD KNOW
Before your next (or first) mammogram, you may be interested to know the following:
1. Mammograms May Offer Less Benefit Than You Think:
In one survey, most women said they believed mammography reduced the risk of breast cancer deaths by at least half and prevented at least 80 deaths per 1,000 women screened.5 In reality, mammography may, at best, offer a relative risk reduction of 20 percent and prevent in absolute terms only one breast-cancer death per 10,000 women.
2. Mammography May Increase the Risk of Breast Cancer in Women with a BRCA 1/2 Mutation:
Results published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) show that women carrying a specific gene mutation called BRCA1/2 (which is linked to breast cancer) are particularly vulnerable to radiation-induced cancer.6
Women carrying this mutation who were exposed to diagnostic radiation (which includes mammograms) before the age of 30 were twice as likely to develop breast cancer, compared to those who did not have the mutated gene. They also found that the radiation-induced cancer was dose-responsive, meaning the greater the dose, the higher the risk of cancer developing.
3. False Positives are Common (and Dangerous)
In the US, the risk of having a false-positive test over 10 mammograms is a concerning 58 percent to 77 percent!7,8 When a woman is told she may have breast cancer, it causes considerable anxiety and psychological distress. Meanwhile, you will be subjected to more testing, such as biopsy or surgery, which carry their own set of risks, unnecessarily.
4. Mammograms May Not Work if You Have Dense Breasts
Up to 50 percent of women have dense breast tissue, which makes mammograms very difficult to decipher. Dense breast tissue and cancer both appear white on an X-ray, making it nearly impossible for a radiologist to detect cancer in these women. It’s like trying to find a snowflake in a blizzard.
Breast density laws have been passed in California, Connecticut, New York, Virginia, and Texas, making it mandatory for radiologists to inform their patients who have dense breast tissue that mammograms are basically useless for them. A law is now being considered at a federal level as well.
5. There are Other Screening Options
There are other screening options, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and you have a right to utilize those options. Remember, only a biopsy can confirm cancer. Screening tools only aid in the process of showing concern.
YOUR WAIST SIZE IS LINKED TO YOUR BREAST CANCER RISK
It’s important to remember that getting a mammogram, if you choose to, is not the same as prevention. In order to truly avoid breast cancer, you need to focus your attention on actual prevention and not just early detection, and one way to do this is by maintaining a healthy weight, and, particularly, a healthy waist size.Researchers analyzed data from 93,000 mostly overweight post-menopausal women. This included data such as their general health, cancer status, and skirt size (which was used as a gauge of waist size). The latter – skirt size – was strongly linked to breast cancer risk.9 As TIME reported:10“An increase in skirt size was the single most predictive measure of breast cancer risk, the study concluded. When women went up a single skirt size over a 10-year span between their mid-20s and mid-60s, they were shown to have a 33% greater risk of developing breast cancer after menopause. Buying two skirt sizes up during that same period was linked to a 77% increased risk.”
Clothing sizes can be quite ambiguous, of course, with a size 8 in one brand equal to another’s size 10. Yet, the premise that increasing waist size might increase cancer risk is sound. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, and obese women are thought to be up to 60 percent more likely to develop cancer than those of normal weight.
The reason for this increased risk is because many breast cancers are fueled by estrogen, a hormone produced in your fat tissue. So the more body fat you have, the more estrogen you’re likely to produce. However, excess fat around your mid-section may be particularly dangerous.
WHY YOUR WAIST-TO-HIP RATIO MATTERS
If you have a high waist-to-hip ratio, i.e. you carry more fat around your waist than on your hips, you may be at an increased risk for certain chronic conditions. Certain body compositions do tend to increase your risk of chronic disease, and carrying extra inches around your midsection has been repeatedly shown to increase cardiovascular health risks. Your waist size is also a powerful indicator of insulin sensitivity, as studies clearly show that measuring your waist size is one of the most powerful ways to predict your risk for diabetes, and this could also play a role in cancer as well.
To calculate your waist-to-hip ratio, measure the circumference of your hips at the widest part, across your buttocks, and your waist at the smallest circumference of your natural waist, just above your belly button. Then divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement to get the ratio. (The University of Maryland offers an online waist-to-hip ratio calculator11 you can use.) To determine your waist-to-hip ratio, get a tape measure and record your waist and hip circumference. Then divide your waist circumference by your hip circumference. For a more thorough demonstration, please review the video below.
The Sugar Connection
Obesity, including abdominal obesity, is driving up rates of breast cancer in many developed countries. And what is driving up rates of obesity? Many factors, actually, but sugar certainly plays a primary role. There is no shortage of research linking excessive sugar consumption with obesity, and the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages appears to have a particularly strong link. It was more than five years ago when UCLA researchers found that adults who drank at least one sugar-sweetened beverage a day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.12 Even those who only drank soda occasionally had a 15 percent greater risk.
This is far more than simply an issue of consuming “empty calories,” as sugary drinks, soda, and even fresh-squeezed fruit juice contain fructose, which has been identified as one of the primary culprits in the meteoric rise of obesity and related health problems—in large part due to its ability to turn on your “fat switch.” Alarmingly, research presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism 2013 Scientific Sessions suggested sugary beverages are to blame for about 183,000 deaths worldwide each year, including 133,000 diabetes deaths, 44,000 heart disease deaths, and 6,000 cancer deaths.
About 77 percent of food items in US grocery stores contain added sugar. So it’s no wonder that, while the American Heart Association recommends a daily sugar limit of six teaspoons for women and nine for men, the average American consumes more like 22. If health agencies really wanted to make a dent in breast cancer, they would focus on sharing the truth about sugar (and grains), and their role in obesity and cancer. Unfortunately, breast cancer is big business, and mammography is one of its primary profit centers. This is why the industry is fighting tooth and nail to keep it, even if it means ignoring (or downplaying) the truth.
Avoiding Sugar and Other Top Breast Cancer Prevention Tips
I believe the vast majority of all cancers, including breast cancer, could be prevented by strictly applying basic, commonsense healthy lifestyle strategies, such as the ones below. No available screening method, whether mammography or otherwise, is going to lower your risk of breast cancer… but the tips that follow will:
-Avoid sugar, especially fructose, and processed foods. All forms of sugar are detrimental to your health in general and tend to promote cancer. Refined fructose, however, is clearly one of the most harmful and should be avoided as much as possible. This automatically means avoiding processed foods, as most are loaded with fructose.
-Optimize your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D influences virtually every cell in your body and is one of nature’s most potent cancer fighters. Vitamin D is actually able to enter cancer cells and trigger apoptosis (programmed cell death). If you have cancer, your vitamin D level should probably be between 70 and 100 ng/ml. Vitamin D works synergistically with every cancer treatment I’m aware of, with no adverse effects. Ideally, your levels should reach this point by exposure to the sun or a tanning bed, with oral vitamin D used as a last resort and balanced by other nutrients like vitamin K2 and magnesium.
-Limit your protein. Newer research has emphasized the importance of the mTOR pathways. When these are active cancer growth is accelerated. One way to quiet this pathway is by limiting your protein to one gram of protein per kilogram of lean body mass, or roughly a bit less than half a gram of protein per every pound of lean body weight. For most people, this ranges between 40 and 70 grams of protein a day, which is typically about 2/3 to half of what they are currently eating. You can eat 25% more if you are exercising or pregnant.
-Avoid unfermented soy products. Unfermented soy is high in plant estrogens, or phytoestrogens, also known as isoflavones. In some studies, soy appears to work in concert with human estrogen to increase breast cell proliferation, which increases the chances for mutations and drives the phenotype associated with cancer.
-Improve your insulin and leptin receptor sensitivity. The best way to do this is by avoiding sugar and grains and restricting carbs to mostly fiber vegetables. Also make sure you are exercising, especially with Peak Fitness.
-Exercise regularly. One of the primary reasons exercise works to lower your cancer risk is because it drives your insulin levels down, and controlling your insulin levels is one of the most powerful ways to reduce your cancer risks. It’s also been suggested that apoptosis (programmed cell death) is triggered by exercise, causing cancer cells to die in the way nature intended. Studies have also found that the number of tumors decrease along with body fat, which may be an additional factor. This is because exercise helps lower your estrogen levels, which explains why exercise appears to be particularly potent against breast cancer.
In addition to exercise, try to limit your sitting time to three hours a day while taking 10,000 daily steps during your non-exercise hours.
-Maintain a healthy body weight. This will come naturally when you begin eating right and exercising. It’s important to lose excess body fat because fat produces estrogen, creating a vicious self-perpetuating cycle.
-Drink a pint to a quart of organic green vegetable juice daily. This is a simple way to get more cancer-fighting nutrients into your diet. Please review my juicing instructions for more detailed information.
-Get plenty of high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil. Omega-3 deficiency is a common underlying factor for cancer.
-Curcumin. This is the main active ingredient in turmeric and in high concentrations can be very useful adjunct in the treatment of cancer. It actually has the most evidence-based literature supporting its use against cancer of any nutrient, including vitamin D.13 For example, it has demonstrated major therapeutic potential in preventing breast cancer metastasis.14 It’s important to know that curcumin is generally not absorbed that well, so I’ve provided several absorption tips here. Newer preparations have also started to emerge, offering better absorption. For best results, you’ll want to use a sustained-release preparation.
-Avoid drinking alcohol, or at least limit your alcoholic drinks to one per day.
-Avoid electromagnetic fields as much as possible. Even electric blankets may increase your cancer risk.
-Avoid synthetic hormone replacement therapy, especially if you have risk factors for breast cancer. Many forms of breast cancer are estrogen-fueled, and according to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer rates for women dropped in tandem with decreased use of hormone replacement therapy. (There are similar risks for younger women who use oral contraceptives. Birth control pills, which are also comprised of synthetic hormones, have been linked to cervical and breast cancers.) If you are experiencing excessive menopausal symptoms, you may want to consider bioidentical hormone replacement therapy instead, which uses hormones that are molecularly identical to the ones your body produces and do not wreak havoc on your system. This is a much safer alternative.
-Avoid BPA, phthalates, and other xenoestrogens. These are estrogen-like compounds that have been linked to increased breast cancer risk.
-Make sure you’re not iodine deficient, as there’s compelling evidence linking iodine deficiency with certain forms of cancer. Dr. David Brownstein, author of the book Iodine: Why You Need It, Why You Can’t Live Without It, is a proponent of iodine for breast cancer. It actually has potent anticancer properties and has been shown to cause cell death in breast and thyroid cancer cells. For more information, I recommend reading Dr. Brownstein’s book. I have been researching iodine for some time ever since I interviewed Dr. Brownstein, as I do believe that the bulk of what he states is spot on. However, I am not at all convinced that his dosage recommendations are correct. I believe they are far too high.
-Avoid charring your meats. Charcoal or flame-broiled meat is linked with increased breast cancer risk. Acrylamide—a carcinogen created when starchy foods are baked, roasted, or fried—has been found to increase cancer risk as well.
Disclaimer: Please consult your physician or other health care provider before beginning any treatment program or making any adjustment to your health care, diet, and/or lifestyle. Do not remove yourself from any prescribed medications or treatments without consulting your doctor. Any and all dietary supplements or nutritional products and treatments discussed on this site are not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any disease. The information contained in this site is for general information and for educational purposes only.
- 1 BMJ 2014;348:g366
- 2 Chicago Tribune September 24, 2014
- 3 Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jun 4;6:CD001877
- 4 Swiss Medical Board December 15, 2013, Systematic Mammography Screening
- 5 The New England Journal of Medicine April 16, 2014
- 6 BMJ 2012 Sep 6;345:e5660
- 7 Cancer Epidemiology July 14, 2014
- 8 Reuters August 22, 2014
- 9 BMJ Open September 24, 2014
- 10 TIME September 25, 2014
- 11 University of Maryland, Waist to Hip Ratio Calculator
- 12 Policy Brief UCLA Cent Health Policy Res. 2009 Sep;(PB2009-5):1-8.
- 13 Ann Intern Med. 3 April 2007;146(7):516-526
- 14 Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews October 7, 2009; (4):CD001877
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