Researchers from Denmark reported that false-positive results from mammography screening can cause long-term psychosocial harm.
“Screening for cancer has the potential for intended beneficial effects, with the reduction on cancer mortality as the most important,” the researchers wrote. “Inevitably, however, screening for cancer also has unintended harmful effects, primarily caused by the consequences of detecting inconsequential cancer and false-positive results.”
John Brodersen, PhD, and Volkert Dirk Siersma, PhD, of the department of public health at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, examined the psychosocial outcomes of 454 women with abnormal screening results. For each woman with false-positive results, the researchers recruited another two women with normal results who were screened on the same day and at the same clinic. Participants were followed up for 3 years, completing a validated questionnaire that covered 12 psychosocial outcomes related to screening for breast cancer at baseline and at 6, 18 and 36 months.
Results indicated that 6 months after the final diagnosis, women with false-positive results reported changes in existential values and inner calmness as great as those reported by women who were actually diagnosed with breast cancer. Compared with women who had normal screening results, women with false-positive results reported greater negative psychosocial consequences 3 years after being declared free of cancer.
Quoting from a study published in the British Journal of Cancer(Gram and colleagues), Brodersen and Siersma noted that a patient’s reaction to traumatic incidents such as false-positive mammography results is not always simple.
“This finding confirms complex theories behind people’s reactions to trauma, which for some individuals can in the long term be followed by positive reactions,” the researchers wrote. “Such positive reactions reported by women with false-positives, however, are not a benefit of screening, ‘since first the fear, then the relief, are induced by the same screening.’”
For more information:
Brodersen J. Ann Fam Med. 2013;11:106-115.
Gram IT. Br J Cancer. 1990;62:1018-1022.
Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.