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Breast Pain May Lead to Unnecessary Testing

by Stephanie Watson  

A study by researchers from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, published in July 2018 in the American Journal of Roentgenology (AJR), looked at breast cancer diagnoses among women who were seen at three community-based breast imaging centers over one year.

In total, 799 women had diagnostic tests such as mammography, ultrasound, and magnetic resonance imaging specifically for breast pain at those centers; only one woman was diagnosed with cancer during the study period.

Some women—and their doctors—believe that getting tested will calm their fears by ruling out cancer as a cause of their symptoms. However, while imaging tests like mammograms can expose women to a small amount of radiation, repeated tests can increase radiation exposure. False-positive results can lead to more testing as well.

Given the exceptionally low number of cancer diagnoses that result from such evaluations, the researchers say that imaging for breast pain is often an overuse of health care resources. They also report that, in their study, the total cost of screening and follow-up for women who had breast pain over one year was nearly $262,000 (or about $328 per person), even though pain was associated with breast cancer in only one case.

This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.