A crisis of visibility: The psychological consequences of false-positive screening mammograms, an interview study

South West PeninsulaCancer
Published Date: 6 May 2015


To understand the meaning of having a false-positive screening mammogram.


Qualitative interview study.


Twenty-one women, who had experienced false-positive screening mammograms, took part in semi-structured interviews that were analysed with Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis. This research took place in the United Kingdom.


The analysis revealed a wide range of response to having a false-positive mammogram, from nonchalance to extreme fear. These reactions come from the potential for the belief that one is healthy to be challenged by being recalled, as the worst is frequently assumed. For most, the image of the lesion on the X-ray brought the reality of this challenge into sharp focus, as they might soon discover they had breast cancer. Waiting, whether for the appointment, at the clinic or for biopsy results was considered the worst aspect of being recalled. Generally, the uncertainty was quickly resolved with the pronouncement of the ‘all-clear’, which brought considerable relief and the restoration of belief in the healthy self. However, for some, lack of information, contradictory information, or poor interpersonal communication meant that uncertainty about their health status lingered at least until their next normal screening mammogram. Mammography screening related anxiety lasted for up to 12 years.


Breast cancer screening produces a ‘crisis of visibility’. Accepting the screening invitation is taking a risk that you may experience unnecessary stress, uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and physical pain. Not accepting the invitation is taking a risk that malignant disease will remain invisible.

Dr Ruth Garside