Sometimes, a Mammogram May Actually Hurt Your Health—Here’s Why

Mammograms can save lives, but they can also make some women anxious along the way.


By the time you’ve had your 10th annual mammogram, your chances are 50/50 that at least one will have been a false-positive, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). A false-positive mammogram looks abnormal and requires additional testing (whether another mammogram, an ultrasound, an MRI, or even a biopsy, or more than one of these), but no breast cancer is actually present, the ACS explains, which is why there are at least seven questions to ask your doctor when you have an abnormal mammogram. Also—these are the signs of breast cancer you shouldn’t ignore.

Although a false positive is clearly better news than an actual cancer diagnosis, it’s still a miserable experience. In fact, women who go through a false-positive mammogram are at least 10 to 20 percent more likely to begin taking prescription medication for anxiety or depression within three months afterward (compared with women who get an immediate clean bill of health), according to a study recently published in the journal, Medical Care.

The study was led by Joel E. Segel, PhD, a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Administration at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania. Dr. Segel was aware of the connection between false-positives and anxiety but wanted to go a step further and determine the extent of that anxiety—whether it tends to rise to the level of needing to see a doctor and starting meds.

Using insurance-claims databases (both commercial insurance and Medicaid), Dr. Segel and his team of researchers identified women between the ages of 40 to 64 who underwent mammography screening and had no prior insurance claims for anxiety or depression meds. The researchers then looked at which women got false-positive versus immediate negative results, and which women began taking meds within the following three months.

The researchers found that the longer it took for the false-positive to be resolved, the greater a woman’s chances of going on meds. Similarly, the more tests a woman had to undergo to resolve the false-positive, the greater the more the odds increased. Overall, if a woman had to undergo more than one follow-up test, the likelihood of starting meds zoomed to 20 to 30 percent. This increase was particularly noticeable among women with commercial insurance (as opposed to Medicaid). The highest likelihood of having to start meds was observed in women whose false-positive led to a biopsy.

Women under the age of 50 may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing clinically significant anxiety or depression in connection with a false-positive mammogram, the study suggests. Although the study’s limitations make it impossible for the researchers to know why this would be, Dr. Segel offered a possible hypothesis: For most of the women under age 50, this may have been their first experience with a false-positive, and that may have contributed to the anxiety. If a woman has already experienced a false-positive, it may be less traumatic. Keep an ear out for the common words and phrases that may signal depression.

The women tended to be on meds for only a short period of time, says Dr. Segel, but the fact that they had to go on meds at all is evidence that medical professionals need to prepare for false-positives and help patients through the process. Given that regular breast cancer screening is critical to early detection, and false-positives are part of that picture, Dr. Segel’s takeaway is: “We want to be sure that women are getting the appropriate follow-up care to ensure that any concerns are dealt with,” he adds. “We want to encourage women to continue screening,” as opposed to scaring them off.

Specifically, Dr. Segel sees this as an example of how “patient-centered care” can be beneficial. “Discussing the results with patients and making sure they understand what the results mean and what the next steps are is essential; so is making sure that follow-up testing is scheduled and provided in a timely manner.” Learn more about whether you might need an early mammogram here.

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  • American Cancer Society: "Limitations of Mammograms.
  • Medical Care:"The Effect of False-positive Mammograms on Antidepressant and Anxiolytic Initiation."
  • Joel E. Segel, PhD, professor, Department of Health Policy and Administration, Penn State University, University Park, Penn
Medically reviewed by Tia Jackson-Bey, MD, on October 16, 2019

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers health, fitness, yoga, and lifestyle, among other topics. An author of crime fiction, Lauren's book The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.