Encrypted login | home

Virtual Press Room


Large Study Shows Women Receive About 30 Percent Less Radiation than Previous Believed

Embargoed for Release until 10 a.m. PT July 15, 2015

Matt Sobczak, PCI
312-558-1770 x124

ANAHEIM, Calif. – July 15, 2015 – Screening mammography is safer than previously thought, suggests a large study that determined women receive about 30 percent less radiation during the test than assumed. The research is being presented at the 57th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM).

“Our findings suggest that the harms of screening mammography are smaller than perceived by a significant amount and its efficacy therefore is that much greater,” said Andrew Hernandez, BS, a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at the University of California Davis. “Our large study confirms smaller studies that found the levels of radiation women receive during screening mammography are overestimated.”

The breast is composed of skin, fat and glandular tissue. Because the latter is at greatest risk of being damaged by radiation, current methods in mammography focus on the radiation dose deposited only to the glandular tissue. But these methods assume that the breast is composed of a uniform mixture of glandular and fat tissue. Previous studies (one based on computer models and one based on 20 patients) found the glandular tissue is not distributed uniformly throughout the breast, leading to an overestimation of the radiation dose to the breast.

The new study used a comprehensive model of breast anatomy based upon computed tomography (CT) exams of 219 women representing a large population average over a range of breast density, age, ethnicity, and size to determine how the glandular tissue is distributed throughout the breast. The study concluded that the radiation dose is overestimated by 25-35 percent.

Because the amount and distribution of glandular tissue varies from breast to breast, some women could receive 20 percent less radiation than thought, while others could receive 40 percent less, said Hernandez.

Currently, there is disagreement regarding when mammography screening for breast cancer should begin in women at average risk for the disease, and how often it should occur. While the American Cancer Society recommends yearly screening beginning at age 40, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends waiting until age 50, and then screening every other year. Both groups recommend earlier screening in women at increased risk for breast cancer.

“The decision to screen is a computation based both on benefit and risk. We know what the benefits are, and our research now suggests that the risk of developing cancer from screening mammography is 30 percent lower than previously thought,” said Hernandez. “The next step is to update the radiation dose methods relevant to mammography to reflect the real distribution of glandular tissue.”

In addition to Hernandez, collaborators on the study being presented at AAPM are: J.M. Boone, and J.A. Seibert.

About Medical Physicists
If you ever had a mammogram, ultrasound, X-ray, MRI, PET scan, or have known someone treated for cancer, chances are reasonable that a medical physicist was working behind the scenes to make sure the imaging procedure was as effective as possible. Medical physicists help to develop new imaging techniques, improve existing ones, and assure the safety of radiation used in medical procedures in radiology, radiation oncology, and nuclear medicine. They collaborate with radiation oncologists to design cancer treatment plans. They provide routine quality assurance and quality control on radiation equipment and procedures to ensure that cancer patients receive the prescribed dose of radiation therapy to the correct location. They also contribute to the development of physics-intensive therapeutic techniques, such as stereotactic radiosurgery and prostate seed implants for cancer, to name a few. The Annual Meeting is a great resource, providing guidance to physicists to implement the latest and greatest technology in a community hospital close to you.

About AAPM
The American Association of Physicists in Medicine (www.aapm.org) is a scientific, educational, and professional organization with nearly 8,000 medical physicists. Headquarters are located at the American Center for Physics in College Park, Md.