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Breast Cancer Tied To False Positives

Increased Risk Soars Over 20 Years

Women who receive a false-positive mammography are more likely to get breast cancer.

By John Salak –

With the exception of skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer for women worldwide. It is also far more dangerous and deadly than skin cancer. In the U.S. alone it is estimated that approximately 300,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer every year and almost 45,000 will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

The exact causes of breast cancer are unclear, but genetic makeup is believed to play a large role. Researchers out of Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet now have identified another breast cancer risk if not caught: false-positive mammography results. Their work indicates that women who receive these reports are 60 percent more likely to develop breast cancer over the subsequent 20 years than others. The highest risk is for women aged between 60 and 75 and who have low breast density.

The research relied on data exclusively from approximately 500,000 Swedish women, about 45,000 of whom were given a false positive result. It is believed the results would largely be the same through most of Western Europe and North America, including the U.S. where it is estimated that approximately 13 percent of all women will develop breast cancer with the greatest risk for women between 70 and 90 years old.

On average about three percent of the women who undergo screening will receive a false positive result, which means that they are recalled for further examination without any cancer diagnosis. Previous studies have indicated that false-positive mammography results may increase the short-term risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer possibly because they cause anxiety and encourage screening attendance.

The Karolinska Institutet’s research now suggests that false positives also may be linked to a long-term increase in breast cancer. 

“The elevated risk was higher in women in the 60-75 age bracket than in the 40-49 age bracket, and in women with low rather than high mammographic density,” reported Xinhe Mao, a postdoctoral researcher at the institute. “The risk was also highest in the four to six years following a false positive result.”

Whatever the cause, the correlation between false positives and increased risk warrants consideration by the medical profession, Mao said. 

“It’s important to accentuate a long-term awareness of breast cancer in women who get false positive mammography results,” she noted. “It might be beneficial to draw up personal monitoring programs for these women with careful follow-ups over the years immediately following.”

The researchers stressed that the increased risk associated with false positive reports should not be interpreted as an excuse to cut back on screenings. They are more important than ever, especially as related technologies develop.

“Radiology and breast cancer screening are currently in a phase of rapid development, partly thanks to the use of AI,” said study author Professor Kamila Czene. “Our published paper is part of the general efforts to achieve better screening results and increase the screening program uptake.”





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