There is no information yet to establish the biological behavior of breast cancer, although some day that might be possible. This means that there is not an answer to the question that you might have heard: How fast growing is this cancer? But even when research begins to put this puzzle together, this is a piece of information that will be difficult to prove, because breast cancer is not just one disease but many, with different behaviors and outcomes.
The controversy is particularly intense when we talk about certain types of breast cancer that are discovered at such an early stage that the cancer cells do not yet have a chance to spread. This situation, a good one, is encountered more and more often because of mammography. And that is just one reason why mammography continues to be a test with a proven record: It saves lives.
Even the authors of the study we are talking about confirm this fact, derived from their own statistics: Mammograms do save lives.
There is currently work in progress producing information derived from the genetic material of tumors that will eventually answer some of these questions, but not until then should you allow these newspaper articles to confuse the issues. And we have facts, good facts to prove that we are doing something correctly, because deaths from breast cancer have been declining steadily for three decades. And much of that decline is due to early detection, and mammograms are responsible for a good part of that improvement.
So the message is simple: There is no reason to change what is working well until something better comes along. You must continue to have an exam and a mammogram every year if you are 40 or older, and yes, I do think it's of great importance to discover cancer early.
I'm not a gambler. Are you?
Kusminsky is a doctor and has a master's in public health. He is a professor in the Department of Surgery at the WVU medical school's Charleston Division.