Background We analyzed the claim "mammography saves lives" by calculating the life-saving absolute benefit of screening mammography in reducing breast cancer mortality in women ages 40 to 65. Methods To calculate the absolute benefit, we first estimated the screen-free absolute death risk from breast cancer by adjusting the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program 15-year cumulative breast cancer mortality to account for the separate effects of screening mammography and improved therapy. We calculated the absolute risk reduction (reduction in absolute death risk), the number needed to screen assuming repeated screening, and the survival percentages without and with screening. We varied the relative risk reduction from 10%–30% based on the randomized trials of screening mammography. We developed additional variations of the absolute risk reduction for a screening intervention, including the average benefit of a single screen, as well as the life-saving proportion among patients with earlier cancer detection. Results Because the screen-free absolute death risk is approximately 1% overall but rises with age, the relative risk reduction from repeated screening mammography is about 100 times the absolute risk reduction between the starting ages of 50 and 60. Assuming a base case 20% relative risk reduction, repeated screening starting at age 50 saves about 1.8 (overall range, 0.9–2.7) lives over 15 years for every 1000 women screened. The number needed to screen repeatedly is 1000/1.8, or 570. The survival percentage is 99.12% without and 99.29% with screening. The average benefit of a single screening mammogram is 0.034%, or 2970 women must be screened once to save one life. Mammography saves 4.3% of screen-detectable cancer patients' lives starting at age 50. This means 23 cancers must be found starting at age 50, or 27 cancers at age 40 and 21 cancers at age 65, to save one life. Conclusion The life-saving absolute benefit of screening mammography increases with age as the absolute death risk increases. The number of events needed to save one life varies depending on the prospective screening subset or reference class. Less than 5% of women with screen-detectable cancers have their lives saved.