Public Release: 

False breast cancer alarm has negative impact on health

University of Copenhagen The Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

The psychological strain of being told that you may have breast cancer may be severe, even if it turns out later to be a false alarm. This is the finding of new research from the University of Copenhagen, which has just been published in the scientific journal Annals of Family Medicine. Researchers call for improving screening accuracy, thus reducing the number of false-positive mammograms.

It was a false alarm. You don't have breast cancer. This ought to be a happy message for women who have been through a mammography screening which initially showed signs of something being wrong. However, even though the women after follow-up examinations are declared healthy, they are so affected by the first message that they still show signs of stress and depression several years after the false alarm. This is the finding of a new study from the University of Copenhagen.

"Our new study shows that facing a potential breast cancer diagnosis has a negative effect. So far, we have believed that women who only had to undergo physical examinations or additional mammography would feel mentally better than women who had to undergo biopsy or surgery. It now turns out that there is no difference between having to undergo a physical examination or surgery. Being told that you may have cancer is what affects, stresses and worries you," says PhD Bruno Heleno from the Research Unit for General Practice, University of Copenhagen.

He adds that the study has excluded other factors such as social and financial conditions which may otherwise affect the women's mental state.

False alarms must be reduced

For the past four years, the study has followed 1,300 women who have all been through a mammography screening requiring follow-up examinations. The women have completed five questionnaires with questions about their mental state, for example. The results showed that the women were deeply affected by the false alarm even several years after the suspicion of breast cancer was denied.

"We must do everything we can to reduce the number of false-positive mammograms. We must also be better at informing Danish women that there may be psychological consequences associated with a mammography screening, and that many women receive false positives. For each woman who dies of breast cancer, there are 200 women who receive a false positive. We may consider discussing whether the negative effects of mammography outweigh the positive effects, and whether it is time to reassess the mammography screening programme," says John Brodersen, Associate Research Professor, PhD, from the Research Unit for General Practice, University of Copenhagen.

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