The Truth about Mammographic Radiation and Breast Cancer

Recently, there was another national TV network series story on medical imaging and radiation. The media loves to create controversy because that is what increases viewership, sells newspapers and promotes heated conversations in the social media. No medical advocacy group wants to sue them for libel.

Let us set the record straight. Radiation is a concern to all Americans. We are exposed to cosmic radiation just by living on our planet. Did you know that the cosmic radiation dose varies depending on the level of your residence above sea level? As an example, people who live in Denver, CO are exposed to more radiation than those in Fairfax, VA in their daily lives. This is because Denver is one mile above sea level as compared to Fairfax! In parts of China, the background radiation is ten times higher than in a typical U.S. city.

Let’s talk about radiation dose. It is measured in units of Sieverts, just as length can be measured in inches, feet, millimeters, centimeters, etc. Modern day mammography results in a radiation dose of 0.4 of 1000 Sieverts. Described another way, the mammographic dose is 0.4 mSv of radiation. This dose is a little less than the extra radiation a person would receive just by living in Denver for a year.

The FAA considers 20 mSv of radiation annually safe for airline crews working on commercial airlines. That is equivalent to having 54 mammograms per year. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers 50 mSV per year safe for nuclear power plant workers.

It is true that a single dose of 500 mSv is associated with causing a number of cancers including breast cancer. However, this dose is similar to the exposure of Hiroshima, and is equivalent to 125,000 mammograms taken consecutively on a single visit. It’s important to keep in mind that a little dose of radiation has an even less damaging effect when it’s not delivered all at once, but only as a small amount every year. As an example, we all know that drinking a gallon of vodka could kill a person, yet a single martini would not do so.

Since the advent of modern day mammography in the 1980’s and the recommendation for yearly mammography screening beginning at age 40, the death rate of breast cancer has decreased by 30%.  Do not be afraid of undergoing a yearly screening mammogram due to concerns of radiation. The benefit of early detection of breast cancer outlays any miniscule risk of radiation causing breast cancer.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) instituted under Obama Care, advocates mammography beginning at 50 and performing it only every two years. The American Cancer Society and other medical organizations still recommend yearly mammography starting at age 40 due to the results of many controlled clinical trials showing a significant decrease in the mortality rate from breast cancer. If we change mammogram schedules from yearly to biennially in order to receive the supposed benefits of curtailing costs as the USPSTF recommends, then we will ultimately see an overall increase in health costs by treating a significant number of advanced cancers. And how do you place a price on the increased death rate from breast cancer?

Do not let the concerns of radiation dose stand in your way from having your yearly mammogram starting in your 40’s. Another important point to remember – 80% of women diagnosed every year with breast cancer have no family history of breast cancer!