It was a false alarm. You don’t have breast cancer.

This ought to be a happy message for women who have been through a mammography screening which initially showed signs of something being wrong. However, even though the women are declared healthy after follow-up examinations, they are so affected by the first message that they still show signs of stress and depression several years after the false alarm.

The psychological strain of being told that you may have breast cancer may be severe, even if it turns out later to be a false alarm. This research finding was published in Annals of Family Medicine (2015; doi:10.1370/afm.1762). Researchers call for improving screening accuracy, thus reducing the number of false-positive mammograms.

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“Our new study shows that facing a potential breast cancer diagnosis has a negative effect. So far, we have believed that women who only had to undergo physical examinations or additional mammography would feel mentally better than women who had to undergo biopsy or surgery,” said Bruno Heleno, PhD, of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

“It now turns out that there is no difference between having to undergo a physical examination or surgery. Being told that you may have cancer is what affects, stresses, and worries you.”

Heleno added that the study has excluded other factors such as social and financial conditions that may otherwise affect the women’s mental state.

For the past 4 years, the study has followed 1,300 women who have all been through a mammography screening requiring follow-up examinations. The women completed five questionnaires with questions about their mental state as part of the study. The results showed that the women were deeply affected by the false alarm even several years after the suspicion of breast cancer was not confirmed.

“We must do everything we can to reduce the number of false-positive mammograms,” said John Brodersen, PhD, also of the University of Copenhagen. “We must also be better at informing women that there may be psychological consequences associated with a mammography screening, and that many women receive false positives.”

“For each woman who dies of breast cancer, there are 200 women who receive a false positive. We may consider discussing whether the negative effects of mammography outweigh the positive effects, and whether it is time to reassess the mammography screening program.”