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Does Breast Cancer Go Away?

Can breast cancer just disappear on its own? That's the provocative question raised by a new study creating some waves this week.

Per-Henrik Zahl of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo and colleagues compared breast cancer rates between two groups of more than 100,000 women ages 50 to 64. One group got mammograms every two years while the second got just one after six years. Surprisingly, the researchers found that the women who got more frequent mammograms had about 22 percent more breast cancers.

That finding, reported this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, raises the possibility that mammograms detect cancers that never cause any problems and just go away. The idea that cancer can just fade way is not unprecedented: A variety of cancers can in rare cases regress spontaneously, including melanoma and kidney, colon and cervical cancers.

If true, the researchers say the finding raises new questions about routine mammography, which has long been controversial, and whether women who find out they have cancer from an exam necessarily have to do anything about it.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Robert Kaplan of the University of California in Los Angeles and Franz Porzsolt of the University of Ulm in Germany said that the findings could cause a "major reevaluation in the approach to breast cancer research and treatment."

But that suggestion was immediately challenged by other experts. Robert Smith of the American Cancer Society says there are a variety of explanations for the findings. A single mammogram might miss a tumor that is caught after multiple mammograms, for example. Smith called the study's conclusions "an overreaching leap in logic." While some women may undergo unnecessary treatment as a result of a false alarm, Smith argues there is clear evidence that mammograms save lives.

Care to share your thoughts about mammograms?

By Rob Stein  |  November 27, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cancer  
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After having annual mammograms for years, I missed 2006. A March 2007 mammogram revealed a spot on my right breast. Instead of doing a needle biopsy my surgeon did a lumpectomy. When the tissue was tested it was a stage one (less than 1 cm.) malignant tumor with a growth rate of 6 on a scale of 1-10. Then I had the choice of doing nothing or having 30 radiation treatments and taking an estrogen inhibitor for five years. I chose the radiation and am taking Femara. Now I have diagnostic mammograms every six months and have six month check-ups by the radiologist and the oncologist. Thanks to a mammogram diagnosis, my surgeon, my radiologist and my oncologist I have an excellent chance of surviving cancer.

Posted by: mpm1728 | November 27, 2008 12:38 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that this might be difficult to study. If you had a cancer would you join a study to see whether it went away all by itself?

There is no going back once breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Posted by: RedBird27 | November 30, 2008 8:57 PM | Report abuse

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