The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released recommendations on breast cancer screenings November 16, stating that too many women were given unnecessary tests based on an initial "false positive" mammogram. The task force discouraged women ages 40 to 49 from regular screenings, saying they were not necessary until age 50. As cancer groups and women's health organizations have decried the new guidelines, the task force clarified its position last week, saying that women can have mammograms whenever they want, but that they are more effective for women ages 50-74.
A recent "false positive" myself, I cannot tell you how happy I am to be in such a group. My first mammogram was suspicious, and the second did not clarify findings, so a third was done. A radiologist reviewed the results with me right away, showing me the trouble area (near the armpit, where 50 percent of breast cancer is found). My physician said that while the new spots could simply be more calcification clusters, their location and strange appearance raised concerns. So a biopsy was done, and—praise God—no cancer was found.
While the task force's new protocols treat false positives as a negative thing—resulting in unnecessary anxiety and more money spent on unnecessary tests—I see false positives as the result of due diligence in preventive health care. But since my field of expertise is biblical studies, not health care, I won't get into the details of health care strategy. Instead, when I read the report a few weeks ago, I began thinking about the phrase "false positive," which sounded like an oxymoron. And my mind turned to the "false apostles" that Paul writes about in 2 Cor. 11:13. These preachers taught a different gospel, disrupted the Corinthian church, and defamed the imprisoned apostle's work. The "super apostles" are false because they masquerade as true but are not.
Likewise, a medical false positive gives the impression of being the real thing but in the end is not. The difference is that we want a false positive from our doctor, while we do not want false apostles in our churches. So the analogy didn't quite work.
Then I thought of the biblical passage in which Paul mentions those who preach Christ out of envy and ambition. The Philippians were seemingly upset about this group, who were preaching Christ out of rivalry against Paul. In other passages (Gal. 5:16-26; Phil 2:12-15; Eph. 4:17-5:20), Paul directly lays out the ethical and moral codes for all believers as they live out their Christian life through the Holy Spirit. But here (Phil. 1:15-18), Paul's response is instructive: He waves aside the Philippians' worries and dismisses the envy of the rival preachers. What matters, says Paul, is that Christ is preached. The fact that the other preachers' motives are false does not negate their positive impact for the gospel: "But what does it matter?" he writes. "The important thing is that in every way … Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice."
Paul is fine with a "false positive," because in the end, it's the results that matter. So, too, in the case of mammograms; would that all women could be fortunate enough to have a false positive. The imperfections of science and the idiosyncrasies of each woman's body means that false positives can never be avoided entirely. Instead, perhaps we should embrace the false positives with humility, and remember that it is the end result, our health, that matters most.
Lynn Cohick is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and author most recently of Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker Academic).