A cancer screening is one of the few times in life where you do not want a positive result. For many women, that positive report from a mammogram or breast cancer screening is a huge fear. Luckily, modern cancer screening tools make it more possible to catch developing breast cancer early and give you a greater chance of a full recovery with less aggressive treatment options.

However, screening tools do have limitations. The most recent data from the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium suggests that conventional mammograms give accurate results to 87% of women who do, in fact, have breast cancer. In 13% of cases, you may receive a false positive or a false negative.

False negative results

The dangers of a false negative are clear: delayed diagnosis for breast cancer means that the cancer will have more time to spread. This can lead to a need for far harsher treatment than you would have needed if the initial mammogram detected the cancer accurately.

False positive results

Receiving a positive result when you do not actually have cancer sometimes harms women as well. In most cases, you could undergo an additional screen such as a breast ultrasound or breast MRI. Through this process, you will most likely receive the correct result showing that you do not have cancer. Yet, women who experience false cancer breast cancer scares do show long-term negative effects like higher risks for anxiety and difficulty sleeping. Some women even show lower self-esteem compared to women who had normal mammogram results throughout their lives.

On the extreme end of the spectrum, “overtreatment” can happen. Overtreatment refers to the tragic occasions where women who do not actually have breast cancer undergo chemotherapy, radiation treatments or even a mastectomy due to a false positive result.

The lesson from both types of false results is the same: always seek a second opinion, and trust your gut. If something does not feel right, whether you receive abnormal results or a clean bill of health, advocate for yourself until you get the treatment you deserve.