Chronicles of Cancer: A History of Mammography, Part 2

Mark S. Lesney, PhD

September 10, 2020

Science and technology emerge from and are shaped by social forces outside the laboratory and clinic. This is an essential fact of most new medical technology. In the Chronicles of Cancer series, part one of the story of mammography focused on the technological determinants of its development and use. Part two will focus on some of the social forces that shaped the development of mammography.

Betty Ford

"Few medical issues have been as controversial – or as political, at least in the United States – as the role of mammographic screening for breast cancer," according to Donald A. Berry, PhD, a biostatistician at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.1

In fact, technology aside, the history of mammography has been and remains rife with controversy on the one side and vigorous promotion on the other, all enmeshed within the War on Cancer, corporate and professional interests, and the women's rights movement's growing issues with what was seen as a patriarchal medical establishment.

Today the issue of conflicts of interest are paramount in any discussion of new medical developments, from the early preclinical stages to ultimate deployment. Then, as now, professional and advocacy societies had a profound influence on government and social decision-making, but in that earlier, more trusting era, buoyed by the amazing changes that technology was bringing to everyday life and an unshakable commitment to and belief in "progress," science and the medical community held a far more effective sway over the beliefs and behavior of the general population.

Women's Health Observed

Although the main focus of the women's movement with regard to breast cancer was a struggle against the common practice of routine radical mastectomies and a push toward breast-conserving surgeries, the issue of preventive care and screening with regard to women's health was also a major concern.

Regarding mammography, early enthusiasm in the medical community and among the general public was profound. In 1969, Robert Egan described how mammography had a "certain magic appeal." The patient, he continued, "feels something special is being done for her." Women whose cancers had been discovered on a mammogram praised radiologists as heroes who had saved their lives.2

In that era, however, beyond the confines of the doctor's office, mammography and breast cancer remained topics not discussed among the public at large, despite efforts by the American Cancer Society to change this.

ACS Weighs In

Various groups had been promoting the benefits of breast self-examination since the 1930s, and in 1947, the American Cancer Society launched an awareness campaign, "Look for a Lump or Thickening in the Breast," instructing women to perform a monthly breast self-exam. Between self-examination and clinical breast examinations in physicians' offices, the ACS believed that smaller and more treatable breast cancers could be discovered.

Jean-Franc¸ois Millet's "Les Glaneuses" is the visual motif to encourage women to schedule regular mammograms.

In 1972, the ACS, working with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), inaugurated the Breast Cancer Detection Demonstration Project (BCDDP), which planned to screen over a quarter of a million American women for breast cancer. The initiative was a direct outgrowth of the National Cancer Act of 1971,3 the key legislation of the War on Cancer, promoted by President Richard Nixon in his State of the Union address in 1971 and responsible for the creation of the National Cancer Institute.

Arthur I. Holleb, MD, ACS senior vice president for medical affairs and research, announced that, "[T]he time has come for the American Cancer Society to mount a massive program on mammography just as we did with the Pap test,"2 according to Barron Lerner, MD, whose book "The Breast Cancer Wars" provides a history of the long-term controversies involved.4

The Pap test, widely promulgated in the 1950s and 1960s, had produced a decline in mortality from cervical cancer.

Regardless of the lack of data on effectiveness at earlier ages, the ACS chose to include women as young as 35 in the BCDDP in order "to inculcate them with 'good health habits' " and "to make our screenee want to return periodically and to want to act as a missionary to bring other women into the screening process."2

Celebrity Status Matters

All of the elements of a social revolution in the use of mammography were in place in the late 1960s, but the final triggers to raise social consciousness were the cases of several high-profile female celebrities. In 1973, beloved former child star Shirley Temple Black revealed her breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy in an era when public discussion of cancer – especially breast cancer – was rare.4

Shirley Temple Black

But it wasn't until 1974 that public awareness and media coverage exploded, sparked by the impact of First Lady Betty Ford's outspokenness on her own experience of breast cancer. "In obituaries prior to the 1950s and 1960s, women who died from breast cancer were often listed as dying from 'a prolonged disease' or 'a woman's disease,' " according to Tasha Dubriwny, PhD, now an associate professor of communication and women's and gender studies at Texas A&M University, College Station, when interviewed by the American Association for Cancer Research.5 Betty Ford openly addressed her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment and became a prominent advocate for early screening, transforming the landscape of breast cancer awareness. And although Betty Ford's diagnosis was based on clinical examination rather than mammography, its boost to overall screening was indisputable.

"Within weeks [after Betty Ford's announcement] thousands of women who had been reluctant to examine their breasts inundated cancer screening centers," according to a 1987 article in the New York Times.6 Among these women was Happy Rockefeller, the wife of Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller. Happy Rockefeller also found that she had breast cancer upon screening, and with Betty Ford would become another icon thereafter for breast cancer screening.

"Ford's lesson for other women was straightforward: Get a mammogram, which she had not done. The American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute had recently mounted a demonstration project to promote the detection of breast cancer as early as possible, when it was presumed to be more curable. The degree to which women embraced Ford's message became clear through the famous 'Betty Ford blip.' So many women got breast examinations and mammograms for the first time after Ford's announcement that the actual incidence of breast cancer in the United States went up by 15 percent."4

In a 1975 address to the American Cancer Society, Betty Ford said: "One day I appeared to be fine and the next day I was in the hospital for a mastectomy. It made me realize how many women in the country could be in the same situation. That realization made me decide to discuss my breast cancer operation openly, because I thought of all the lives in jeopardy. My experience and frank discussion of breast cancer did prompt many women to learn about self-examination, regular checkups, and such detection techniques as mammography. These are so important. I just cannot stress enough how necessary it is for women to take an active interest in their own health and body."7

ACS Guidelines Evolve

It wasn't until 1976 that the ACS issued its first major guidelines for mammography screening. The ACS suggested mammograms may be called for in women aged 35-39 if there was a personal history of breast cancer, and between ages 40 and 49 if their mother or sisters had a history of breast cancer. Women aged 50 years and older could have yearly screening. Thereafter, the use of mammography was encouraged more and more with each new set of recommendations.8

Between 1980 and 1982, these guidelines expanded to advising a baseline mammogram for women aged 35-39 years; that women consult with their physician between ages 40 and 49; and that women over 50 have a yearly mammogram.

Between 1983 and 1991, the recommendations were for a baseline mammogram for women aged 35-39 years; a mammogram every 1-2 years for women aged 40-49; and yearly mammograms for women aged 50 and up. The baseline mammogram recommendation was dropped in 1992.

Between 1997 and 2015, the stakes were upped, and women aged 40-49 years were now recommended to have yearly mammograms, as were still all women aged 50 years and older.

In October 2015, the ACS changed their recommendation to say that women aged 40-44 years should have the choice of initiating mammogram screening, and that the risks and benefits of doing so should be discussed with their physicians. Women aged 45 years and older were still recommended for yearly mammogram screening. That recommendation stands today.

Controversies Arise Over Risk/Benefit

The technology was not, however, universally embraced. "By the late 1970s, mammography had diffused much more widely but had become a source of tremendous controversy. On the one hand, advocates of the technology enthusiastically touted its ability to detect smaller, more curable cancers. On the other hand, critics asked whether breast x-rays, particularly for women aged 50 and younger, actually caused more harm than benefit."2

Rose Kushner memorialized for her breast cancer activism in National Library of Medicien lecture series.

In addition, meta-analyses of the nine major screening trials conducted between 1965 and 1991 indicated that the reduced breast cancer mortality with screening was dependent on age. In particular, the results for women aged 40-49 years and 50-59 years showed only borderline statistical significance, and they varied depending on how cases were accrued in individual trials.

"Assuming that differences actually exist, the absolute breast cancer mortality reduction per 10,000 women screened for 10 years ranged from 3 for age 39-49 years; 5-8 for age 50-59 years; and 12-21 for age 60=69 years," according to a review by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.9

The estimates for the group aged 70-74 years were limited by low numbers of events in trials that had smaller numbers of women in this age group.

Age has continued to be a major factor in determining the cost/benefit of routine mammography screening, with the American College of Physicians stating in its 2019 guidelines, "The potential harms outweigh the benefits in most women aged 40 to 49 years," and adding, "In average-risk women aged 75 years or older or in women with a life expectancy of 10 years or less, clinicians should discontinue screening for breast cancer."10

A Cochrane Report from 2013 was equally critical: "If we assume that screening reduces breast cancer mortality by 15% after 13 years of follow-up and that overdiagnosis and overtreatment is at 30%, it means that for every 2,000 women invited for screening throughout 10 years, one will avoid dying of breast cancer and 10 healthy women, who would not have been diagnosed if there had not been screening, will be treated unnecessarily. Furthermore, more than 200 women will experience important psychological distress including anxiety and uncertainty for years because of false positive findings."11

Conflicting Voices Exist

These reports advising a more nuanced evaluation of the benefits of mammography, however, were received with skepticism from doctors committed to the vision of breast cancer screening and convinced by anecdotal evidence in their own practices.

These reports were also in direct contradiction to recommendations made in 1997 by the National Cancer Institute, which recommended screening mammograms every 3 years for women aged 40-49 years at average risk of breast cancer.

Such scientific vacillation has contributed to a love/hate relationship with mammography in the mainstream media, fueling new controversies with regard to breast cancer screening, sometimes as much driven by public suspicion and political advocacy as by scientific evolution.

Vocal opponents of universal mammography screening arose throughout the years, and even the cases of Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller have been called into question as iconic demonstrations of the effectiveness of screening. And although not directly linked to the issue of screening, the rebellion against the routine use of radical mastectomies, a technique pioneered by Halsted in 1894 and in continuing use into the modern era, sparked outrage in women's rights activists who saw it as evidence of a patriarchal medical establishment making arbitrary decisions concerning women's bodies. For example, feminist and breast cancer activist Rose Kushner argued against the unnecessary disfigurement of women's bodies and urged the use and development of less drastic techniques, including partial mastectomies and lumpectomies as viable choices. And these choices were increasingly supported by the medical community as safe and effective alternatives for many patients.12

A 2015 paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine was bluntly titled "Mammography screening is harmful and should be abandoned."13 According to the author, who was the editor of the 2013 Cochrane Report, "I believe that if screening had been a drug, it would have been withdrawn from the market long ago." And the popular press has not been shy at weighing in on the controversy, driven, in part, by the lack of consensus and continually changing guidelines, with major publications such as U.S. News and World Report, the Washington Post, and others addressing the issue over the years. And even public advocacy groups such as the Susan G. Komen organization14 are supporting the more modern professional guidelines in taking a more nuanced approach to the discussion of risks and benefits for individual women.

In 2014, the Swiss Medical Board, a nationally appointed body, recommended that new mammography screening programs should not be instituted in that country and that limits be placed on current programs because of the imbalance between risks and benefits of mammography screening.15 And a study done in Australia in 2020 agreed, stating, "Using data of 30% overdiagnosis of women aged 50 to 69 years in the NSW [New South Wales] BreastScreen program in 2012, we calculated an Australian ratio of harm of overdiagnosis to benefit (breast cancer deaths avoided) of 15:1 and recommended stopping the invitation to screening."16


If nothing else, the history of mammography shows that the interconnection of social factors with the rise of a medical technology can have profound impacts on patient care. Technology developed by men for women became a touchstone of resentment in a world ever more aware of sex and gender biases in everything from the conduct of clinical trials to the care (or lack thereof) of women with heart disease. Tied for so many years to a radically disfiguring and drastic form of surgery that affected what many felt to be a hallmark and representation of womanhood,17 mammography also carried the weight of both the real and imaginary fears of radiation exposure.

Well into its development, the technology still found itself under intense public scrutiny, and was enmeshed in a continual media circus, with ping-ponging discussions of risk/benefit in the scientific literature fueling complaints by many of the dominance of a patriarchal medical community over women's bodies.

With guidelines for mammography still evolving, questions still remaining, and new technologies such as digital imaging falling short in their hoped-for promise, the story remains unfinished, and the future still uncertain. One thing remains clear, however: In the right circumstances, with the right patient population, and properly executed, mammography has saved lives when tied to effective, early treatment, whatever its flaws and failings. This truth goes hand in hand with another reality: It may have also contributed to considerable unanticipated harm through overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

Overall, the history of mammography is a cautionary tale for the entire medical community and for the development of new medical technologies. The push-pull of the demand for progress to save lives and the slowness and often inconclusiveness of scientific studies that validate new technologies create gray areas, where social determinants and professional interests vie in an information vacuum for control of the narrative of risks vs. benefits.

The story of mammography is not yet concluded, and may never be, especially given the unlikelihood of conducting the massive randomized clinical trials that would be needed to settle the issue. It is more likely to remain controversial, at least until the technology of mammography becomes obsolete, replaced by something new and different, which will likely start the push-pull cycle all over again.

And regardless of the risks and benefits of mammography screening, the issue of treatment once breast cancer is identified is perhaps one of more overwhelming import.


1. Berry, DA. The Breast. 2013;22[Supplement 2]:S73-S76.

2. Lerner, BH. "To See Today With the Eyes of Tomorrow: A History of Screening Mammography." Background paper for the Institute of Medicine report Mammography and Beyond: Developing Technologies for the Early Detection of Breast Cancer. 2001.

3. NCI website. The National Cancer Act of 1971.

4. Lerner BH. The Huffington Post, Sep. 26, 2014.

5. Wu C. Cancer Today. 2012;2(3): Sep. 27.

6. The New York Times. Oct. 17, 1987.

7. Ford B. Remarks to the American Cancer Society. 1975.

8. The American Cancer Society website. History of ACS Recommendations for the Early Detection of Cancer in People Without Symptoms.

9. Nelson HD et al. Screening for Breast Cancer: A Systematic Review to Update the 2009 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation. 2016; Evidence Syntheses, No. 124; pp.29-49.

10. Qasseem A et al. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2019;170(8):547-60.

11. Gotzsche PC et al. Cochrane Report 2013.

12. Lerner, BH. West J Med. May 2001;174(5):362-5.

13. Gotzsche PC. J R Soc Med. 2015;108(9): 341-5.

14. Susan G. Komen website. Weighing the Benefits and Risks of Mammography.

15. Biller-Andorno N et al. N Engl J Med 2014;370:1965-7.

16. Burton R et al. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(6):e208249.

17. Webb C et al. Plast Surg. 2019;27(1):49-53.

Mark Lesney is the editor of Hematology News and the managing editor of He has a PhD in plant virology and a PhD in the history of science, with a focus on the history of biotechnology and medicine. He has worked as a writer/editor for the American Chemical Society, and has served as an adjunct assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular & cellular biology at Georgetown University, Washington.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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