Why I refused a mammogram, and what I do instead!

The first thing I want to say is: Your body, your choice. I completely understand and empathize with the fear of recurrence. So when your doctor recommends a mammogram, I understand why many women don’t hesitate or think twice about it. You have to do what makes you feel comfortable, confident, and safe in your body. And for many women, what makes them feel comfortable, confident, and safe is peace of mind from having a routine mammogram. But I want you to know that you have other options. Much safer options. And my hope is that you’ll read on to see what I do instead of a mammogram that makes me feel comfortable, confident, and protected from recurrence.

The second thing I want to say is: my message is all about patient advocacy. I want you to know that you have CHOICES. I want you to know the facts and your options so that you can make informed and empowered decisions. You don’t need to sacrifice feeling safe, but there are ways to get that same result without the harmful consequences of routine mammogram screening.  

In case you’re new to my social media or my website, here’s some background information on me to give you some context about this post. 

First off, hi! I’m Lauren! When I was 26 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My life was everything but holistic – I had never even heard of naturopathic medicine at this point in my life – so when I was diagnosed, I followed the instructions from my oncologist which was to have surgery followed by chemotherapy, radiation, and start hormone therapy (tamoxifen for 10 years, then switch to something else after).

So I did all those things… but by some miracle I was introduced to natural medicine during my radiation treatments and when I saw dramatic improvements in my health and wellbeing – I was sold and never looked back. Natural medicine from here on out! It was too late for me to go back in time and opt to forego the chemo and radiation (don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for these and everyone is different, but with my specific cancer case if I could do it all over again, I would never opt for these treatments), but what I could do is manage all future cancer prevention strategies using completely natural methods. So I put a plan together and I got off tamoxifen ASAP and now I manage my entire prevention strategy only using natural methods. And I refused to get a mammogram.

Now that you realize that I have some skin in this game too and I take breast cancer prevention VERY seriously, let’s get into why I opted to forego any/all mammograms.

I’m often asked something like “Mammograms been around for a long time now, and its been the standard practice of care… so it can’t be THAT harmful right?!” We are debating this, because it’s the job of our health regulatory bodies and researchers to stay current. Studies conducted from when mammograms were first introduced up until now clearly show that what we used to believe about the safety and efficacy of mammogram screening is no longer current or accurate. 

I understand that this may be confusing because it contradicts what you’ve believed for quite some time. So let’s start with debunking something that you know to be true.

Fact: Mammograms can detect breast cancers before a lump is felt. 

Yes, this is true, but at what cost? Let’s start with the fact that mammograms use ionizing radiation which is a known breast cancer contributor. Although mammograms use a “low dose” of radiation, the effects of this are cumulative. Studies are showing now that each mammogram increases your lifetime risk of breast cancer by 1%[1]. This number may sound small to you but let me illustrate the magnitude of this 1%.

Women are getting breast cancer much earlier than we used to. The average age of diagnosis is now 45. The newest guidelines in both Canada and the US for women with normal risk of breast cancer state the recommended age to start mammogram screening is 50. So let’s say a woman gets diagnosed with breast cancer at the average age of 45 and then has routine mammograms every year after because she is now considered “high risk”. By the time she’s 50 (the normal screening age) she now has increased her chance of having a breast cancer recurrence by 5% (1%/year) and the worst part is the radiation was exposed to both breasts – not just the one that had the original cancer. By the time this woman is 65, she will have increased her risk of recurrence by 15% - which is huge because as a cancer survivor she’s already at a high risk. I’m trying to illustrate that 1%/year is significant because the effects are cumulative and it adds up quickly. And with women getting diagnosed younger and younger, this 1%/year is actually a very significant and dangerous number. 

In my case, I was encouraged by my oncologist to start mammogram screening when I was only 27! By the time I would have turned 50 I would have increased my risk of recurrence by 23%! Increasing my risk by that much all in the name of “prevention” just sounded ludicrous to me and I knew there was a better way. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what I do to protect myself – just keep reading!

Another important thing to note is that breast density plays in a role in the efficacy of the result. Breast density decreases as we age, but in younger women (below 50) our breasts can have a higher density. A general rule of thumb is the younger you are, the more dense your breasts are. This just means there’s more tissue in the breast. The problem is that this tissue shows up on your mammogram in the same way that any cancer would, which makes it difficult to see any breast tumors. The result is that women with denser breasts end up requiring additional tests/screens because the mammogram results can be hard to determine. 

In my case, I was very young when mammogram screening was recommended to me and as such I had (and still do have) dense breasts. I didn’t want to risk exposing myself to that radiation for a test that may not even be able to determine conclusive results. 

For women reading this that haven’t had breast cancer before and don’t have any familial history or genetic predisposition, you may be wondering if mammograms are still beneficial for you. I mean after all, early detection saves lives right? Well all the new research out there has looked at data over the last 40 years and it clearly shows that mammogram screening does not save lives.

According to the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Medicine, 2,108 women between ages 40-49 would have to be screened in order to prevent ONE death from breast cancer[2]. Maybe you’re thinking, well at least one death was prevented, so it’s worth it! Well those 2,107 other women who would have to be screened to prevent that one death will have been exposed to unnecessary radiation and 690 of them would receive a false positive leading to unnecessary follow up testing including biopsies and surgeries. The real kicker for me with this one is the damaging psychological effects a false positive has on a woman’s world – because let’s face it, a breast cancer diagnosis has an impact on everyone in your life – not just you. 

I remember when I got my biopsy results back and found out it was malignant. Its kind of a funny story (now, lol). I actually was told I didn’t have cancer, then 2 days later I was told that it was a mistake and I did in fact have a malignant tumor. The sheer joy and relief I felt in those 2 days of false-negative bliss were instantly replaced with complete terror after hearing the words “you have cancer”.  False negatives/positives cause real psychological damage and the trauma gets stored in our bodies. Just thinking that you have cancer when you really don’t focuses your attention in a fear-based mindset. The stress of this is enough to cause damaging effects as stress directly suppresses the immune system. 

A really great study recruited 454 women who had a false positive or a true positive mammogram and measured the psychological effects for a period of 3 years after testing. The results show that even the women with the false positives experience significant stress, anxiety, distrust in the medical system and more as a direct result of the false positive test[3]. 

Bottom line: After a breast cancer diagnosis, your doctor is doing his/her job by recommending the standard protocol for you which includes mammogram screening. Your job is to be your own advocate. Do your research so you can balance the pros and cons of mammogram screening and make your own informed decision.

For me, the pros do not even come close to outweighing the cons. What I do instead is protect myself on a daily basis by making my body a place where cancer can’t thrive. I do this through eating whole, nutrient-dense foods, drinking plenty of water and green juices, and I eat in a way that makes me feel energized, alive, and supports my unique biochemistry. I’ve been vegan, paleo, and modified paleo and I changed my eating style over the years to tailor it to how I was feeling. There’s no one right anti-cancer diet. Depending on many factors that can change over time, one style of eating may be better for you and someone else may thrive in a different way. It’s important to be flexible and always check in with what your body is telling you. She is your best teacher and your most trusted guide. 

Managing stress is another critical component of how I protect myself. I let go of what I thought I “should” be doing and trusted myself and my body. I took projects off my plate, reconnected to my highest self, and developed a mindfulness practice. And yoga – omg how yoga has changed my life… I can’t even count the ways! 

I also work everyday at giving my immune system the boost it needs to stay strong to fight off any cancer cells in my body. This is a mixture of foods and supplementation to help my immune system stay strong and keep my detoxification pathways functioning optimally. 

As far as screening goes, I’m a huge proponent of thermography. It’s an infrared technology that measures heat in the body. If there is an area with a lot of fast moving cells (like cancer), it will show up on the thermogram. There’s no radiation, its not invasive, it’s not painful, and it can detect fast moving cells years faster than a mammogram can! There’s really no down side! It can give you the peace of mind that you need, and if the thermogram results give you a cause for concern, then additional testing (ultrasound/biopsy) may be warranted, but at least you avoid the invasive testing until you know you need it.

For more information about screening, prevention, or if you just want to talk all things holistic breast health, get in touch with me! Links to my email are below and you can connect with me over on Instagram @nutritious.delicious.life and facebook at Nutritious Delicious Life.

Thanks for reading! 

Sending you all my love and wishing you all the health and happiness in the world.

Lauren

 



[1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5588356/

[2]http://www.cmaj.ca/content/183/17/1991

[3]http://www.annfammed.org/content/11/2/106