Chronicles of Cancer

Chronicles of Cancer: A history of mammography, part 2


Conflicting voices exist

These reports advising a more nuanced evaluation of the benefits of mammography, however, were received with skepticism from doctors committed to the vision of breast cancer screening and convinced by anecdotal evidence in their own practices.

These reports were also in direct contradiction to recommendations made in 1997 by the National Cancer Institute, which recommended screening mammograms every 3 years for women aged 40-49 years at average risk of breast cancer.

Such scientific vacillation has contributed to a love/hate relationship with mammography in the mainstream media, fueling new controversies with regard to breast cancer screening, sometimes as much driven by public suspicion and political advocacy as by scientific evolution.

Vocal opponents of universal mammography screening arose throughout the years, and even the cases of Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller have been called into question as iconic demonstrations of the effectiveness of screening. And although not directly linked to the issue of screening, the rebellion against the routine use of radical mastectomies, a technique pioneered by Halsted in 1894 and in continuing use into the modern era, sparked outrage in women’s rights activists who saw it as evidence of a patriarchal medical establishment making arbitrary decisions concerning women’s bodies. For example, feminist and breast cancer activist Rose Kushner argued against the unnecessary disfigurement of women’s bodies and urged the use and development of less drastic techniques, including partial mastectomies and lumpectomies as viable choices. And these choices were increasingly supported by the medical community as safe and effective alternatives for many patients.12

A 2015 paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine was bluntly titled “Mammography screening is harmful and should be abandoned.”13 According to the author, who was the editor of the 2013 Cochrane Report, “I believe that if screening had been a drug, it would have been withdrawn from the market long ago.” And the popular press has not been shy at weighing in on the controversy, driven, in part, by the lack of consensus and continually changing guidelines, with major publications such as U.S. News and World Report, the Washington Post, and others addressing the issue over the years. And even public advocacy groups such as the Susan G. Komen organization14 are supporting the more modern professional guidelines in taking a more nuanced approach to the discussion of risks and benefits for individual women.

In 2014, the Swiss Medical Board, a nationally appointed body, recommended that new mammography screening programs should not be instituted in that country and that limits be placed on current programs because of the imbalance between risks and benefits of mammography screening.15 And a study done in Australia in 2020 agreed, stating, “Using data of 30% overdiagnosis of women aged 50 to 69 years in the NSW [New South Wales] BreastScreen program in 2012, we calculated an Australian ratio of harm of overdiagnosis to benefit (breast cancer deaths avoided) of 15:1 and recommended stopping the invitation to screening.”16


If nothing else, the history of mammography shows that the interconnection of social factors with the rise of a medical technology can have profound impacts on patient care. Technology developed by men for women became a touchstone of resentment in a world ever more aware of sex and gender biases in everything from the conduct of clinical trials to the care (or lack thereof) of women with heart disease. Tied for so many years to a radically disfiguring and drastic form of surgery that affected what many felt to be a hallmark and representation of womanhood1,17 mammography also carried the weight of both the real and imaginary fears of radiation exposure.


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