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Confusion and fear arise as study clouds mammogram issue


As Mother's Day approaches, health organizations are once again gearing up to send mothers -- and daughters -- a powerful message about breast cancer. The message: Catch it early. Get a mammogram.

But this week, many younger women will be greeting this appeal with profound confusion and annoyance. News trickling out of a massive study of Canadian women has suggested that women in their 40s who get annual mammograms do nothing to lower their chances of dying of breast cancer.

"I've had calls today from patients who are reasonably hysterical," said Dr. Alex Munitz, chairman of radiology at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center and a vocal critic of the study.

In part, the consternation can be blamed on erroneous reports that said women under 50 in the study who got mammograms actually died at a faster rate than did those who weren't screened. With seven years of data, the study found that any differences in the death rates were statistically insignificant.

For all practical purposes, say scientists involved in the study, the death rates were the same.

Although the sentiment isn't unanimous, many physicians say the public shouldn't put too much stock in the early results out of Canada. The study, they say, may be too young to produce results that mean anything.

And while a half-dozen studies of mammography have reached conflicting conclusions, many doctors insist their own experiences as doctors leave them convinced that mammography saves the lives of young and old alike.

The furor revolves around the Canadian National Breast Screening Study, a study of 90,000 women that began in 1980 to evaluate the usefulness of screening women between the ages of 40 and 60 with X-ray technology.

Although researchers have yet to publish results, the study's principal investigator -- Dr. Anthony Miller, professor of preventive medicine and biostatistics at the University of Toronto.- said seven years of data show benefits for the older women but none whatsoever for the younger.

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