The debate over the importance of mammograms heats up

The highly charged debate about mammograms gets even more fuel tonight, with a new study from Harvard, providing the most up-to-date summary of the risks and benefits.

This new review of mammogram studies spans the past 50 years, and the bottom line is, it reaffirms that no cancer screening is foolproof.

"These studies when you look at them as a whole suggest there is a benefit to screening mammography that's probably about equal to a 19% reduction in the risk of dying of breast cancer," says Dr. Nancy Keating with Harvard Medical School.

But that's a benefit the study says must be weighed against the potential hazards, since they found that one in five breast cancers spotted during annual screening may be over-diagnosed, meaning that cancer will never grow or threaten the woman's life. And they found that more than half of women will have at least one false positive.

Still, most women say they would rather have a false positive, than miss a cancer.

Bottom line is, the mammogram is not perfect, but it is still the only routine screening tool we have.

This study encourages doctors weigh the risks and benefits for each patient, to come up with an individual treatment plan, focusing on a woman's individual risk, considering age, family history and other personal factors.

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