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What Are the Benefits and Risks of Screening?

Every screening test has benefits and risks, which is why it’s important to talk to your doctor before getting any screening test, like a mammogram. The benefit of screening is finding cancer early, when it’s easier to treat.

Harms can include false positive test results, when a doctor sees something that looks like cancer but is not. This can lead to more tests, which can be expensive, time-consuming, and may cause anxiety. Tests also can lead to overdiagnosis, when doctors find something that could become cancer, or a cancer that won’t get any larger or any worse, or even may go away on its own. This could lead to getting treatments you don’t need, which is called overtreatment. Overtreatment can include treatments recommended for breast cancer, such as surgery or radiation therapy. These can cause unnecessary and unwanted side effects if they could have been avoided. Mammograms may also miss some cancers.

Other potential harms from breast cancer screening include pain during the procedure and radiation exposure from the mammogram test itself. While the amount of radiation in a mammogram is small, there may be risks with having repeated X-rays.

Sometimes it can be hard to decide if you should get a screening test. Talk to your doctor to understand the possible benefits and risks to make the right decision for you.