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Doctors Weigh In: Do Mammograms Really Save Lives?

[Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on October 30, 2013, on Philly.com. It is borrowed with permission.]

After asking the question, “Are Mammograms really saving lives?” two weeks ago, I got some very good follow up. It seems like there were two major ideas:

  1. The science behind mammograms can be questioned, but there are also very strong reasons to get one.
  2. Breast Cancer Awareness has certainly turned a few people different shades of pink than intended with overexposure.

I am lucky enough to be in contact with several medical experts, so I asked two of them to contribute to a follow-up post on these subjects.

Brian Wojciechowski, M.D. is a physician and medical advisor for Breastcancer.org. Maciej Ferenc DO, FACOEP, ABAARM, is a board-certified academy of anti-aging doctor.

Here is what they had to say.

Patient #1: The mammogram post generated some debate.  Let’s start with medical issues first. I presented the perspective that mammograms do not save lives, and also lead to over-diagnoses. My wife is scheduled to have her first one in two years. Convince me I should encourage her to get it done.

Dr. Wojciechowski: Mammograms DO save lives.  The best studies reflect this; none of the major medical societies dispute this.  Beyond that, detecting cancer earlier can allow more women to avoid aggressive treatments like mastectomy (and keep their breast), radiation and chemotherapy.

Dr. Ferenc: Mammograms save lives and should be performed as scheduled. Early diagnosis leads to better survival.

Patient #1: How can women minimize their risk of developing breast cancer — specifically, what are preventative measures before and beyond the mammogram and other “typical” preventative measures (like weight loss, eating right, self-exams, etc.)?

Dr. Ferenc: I believe most cancers and other man-made diseases (such as hypertension and type II diabetes) are a result of diet and environment. A clean diet, with minimal animal protein and large amounts of cruciferous vegetables (including broccoli sprouts and kale) may limit or slow the disease process of breast and other cancers. No smoking cigarettes, no dairy, no artificial sweeteners or colorings. GMO foods may play a role as well.

Dr. Wojciechowski: Many women do not know that excessive alcohol, hormone use (such as birth control and hormone replacement therapy), having children later in life, and not breastfeeding increase the risk of breast cancer. Interestingly, the value of self-exams has never been proven.

Patient #1: For those women who are undergoing or will one day battle this, what should they know now that will help them in the future — both physically and emotionally?

Dr. Wojciechowski: Obesity is a big factor. Women who are overweight not only have a higher risk of breast cancer but have a poorer prognosis after they are diagnosed. Prevention is where you get the most bang for your buck! Even when diagnosed, our treatments have improved dramatically over the past 30 years. We are curing most women with breast cancer; most get to keep their breasts and avoid chemotherapy, partly as a result of ‘pinkification.’

For women who are un- or under-insured, there are SO MANY donated funds that you need not worry about getting medication paid for. Ask your doctor or reach out to a breast cancer advocacy group for more information.

Patient #1: If someone wanted to give to breast cancer — time, money, awareness, etc. — what are the avenues that make the most impact on current and future patients?

Dr. Ferenc: I believe that prevention, early diagnosis and re-checks are most important avenues for future patients. Use all modalities for early detection; thermography is another tool which may be helpful.

Dr. Wojciechowski: Donating directly to research and educational institutions will save the most lives.

Thanks to both Dr. Ferenc and Dr. Wojciechowski for lending their time and expertise to this discussion. While I feel there is some merit to the observational study and the questions it brings up, clearly the established medical community has had successes with mammograms. The first takeaway from this is that the more you know about your treatment options the better, but the most important one is that prevention is a much better weapon than treatment. So ladies, regardless of your stance on testing, heed the good doctors’ advice and do what you need to so those tests all come back “negative”!! And as a side note: Both doctors have been extremely helpful during my battle with melanoma and their contributions are immensely appreciated.

Brian Wojciechowski, M.D. is a physician at Alliance Cancer Specialists and medical advisor for Breastcancer.org. He is a 1997 graduate of Bishop Eustace Prep.

Maciej Ferenc, DO, FACOEP, ABAARM is a board-certified ER and board-certified academy of anti-aging doctor who initially treated Patient #1’s cancer in August 2012.

T.J. Sharpe is sharing his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma. A South Jersey native and Bishop Eustace graduate, he currently lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL with his wife Jennifer and children Josie and Tommy. He was Patient #1 in a clinical trial at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa as the first person worldwide to use this sequence of treatments to fight melanoma, and is currently in a second clinical trial at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale receiving Merck’s anti-PD-1 drug Lambrolizumab. T.J. writes the Patient #1 blog for Philly.com.

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