Nightly News   |  February 12, 2014

Do Mammograms Save Lives? Research Offers New Clues

A big medical study is reigniting the debate over the value of mammograms.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> back as promised with the results of a big medical study that is reigniting the debate over the value of mammograms where it is often so come confusing to know who or what to believe, and the results are causing further conversation over what women are supposed to do. we get more on this from our chief medical editor, dr. nancy snyderman .

>> reporter: whether or not to have a mammogram is becoming one of the most controversial and confusing decisions for women today, like patients who met at this new york cancer center.

>> you are afraid of getting too much radiation. but it is something you have to take a chance because you want to save your life.

>> reporter: this latest study is one of the largest ever done. following over 90,000 women in canada for 25 years. it found that there was no difference in the rate of death from breast cancer between women who got yearly mammograms and those who did not. what is more, researchers found that 22% of the cancers found were over-diagnosed, meaning they would not have shortened patients' lives if left untreated.

>> mammography screening is better at finding the slow-growing tumors that are actually less likely to kill us, and we're less likely to find the more aggressive, serious ones.

>> reporter: the doctor says spending more money on mammograms is not the answer.

>> the answer has got to be moving that money into figuring out what causes breast cancer in the first place. and how can we stop it from happening. because if we can do that then we don't need to find it once it is there.

>> reporter: some say that early screening was more important when newer treatments were not available. this study is the first to include women who have benefitted from drug like tamoxifen, which many credit for saving lives. the critics say that the mammograms, while not perfect is the best screening we have.

>> it will miss tumors we wish it would find, and actually find tumors that don't need to be treated. it will cause false alarms, all this taken together we recommend that women still get mammograms. they will see a benefit in it.

>> the american cancer society recommends annual mammograms beginning at the age of 40 but says it will consider today's study as well as other research as it reviews its regular guidelines. and i should point out that critics are saying it is not a perfect study. but i would just say very few studies are and it is one more piece of evidence.

>> and what about all the other anecdotal evidence , women saying early findings saved my life.

>> and this is one of the big points, the science and women are not comfortable with the message because we want to believe that screening will save our lives. but one person said this is a little like the tsa, we feel better after we have been screened but it doesn't necessarily mean we're getting to the root of the problem. we need to put more research money into what causes breast cancer .

>> all right, dr. nancy snyderman here with us, with that