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Federal Group Issues New Mammogram Guidelines — But Not Everyone Agrees

January 29, 2016

About 12 percent of American women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Early detection is critical when it comes to treating breast cancer, and women often have been advised to get regular mammograms for this very reason.

Though mammograms can be lifesaving for thousands of people every year, there’s now an ongoing debate about when exactly women should get them.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a federal panel, recently released new recommendations that say women over 50 should get a mammogram every year, while women in their 40s have more flexibility for when to undergo screening. The new recommendations say that women in their 40s can get a mammogram every year if they choose to.

Background on the New Guidelines

The recommendations apply to women who have an average risk of breast cancer. Those who have a family history or other risk factors should consult their doctor about when and how often to get a mammogram.

The panel seems to be concerned about women in their 40s getting false positives — or test results that say a lump is cancerous, when in fact it isn’t. The panel issued its new recommendations after reviewing five years of federal health data to determine just how many lives mammograms saved. The study showed that among women who never get a mammogram, 13 percent will be diagnosed with breast cancer after age 40. About 2.5 percent of these women will die from the disease. Lowering the screening age to 40 only would prevent one more death per 1,000 women, researchers found.

For women over 50 who get screened every two years, the mortality rate drops by about 25 percent, the study found. Getting screened every year would prevent two more deaths per 1,000 women in this age group, but it also would increase the likelihood of false positives, causing some women to be misdiagnosed and treated for cancer.

Debate About When to Get a Mammogram

The new recommendations have drawn some criticism from those in the medical community. After the panel released its new guidelines, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) said it disagreed with them, arguing that screening decisions are best left between a woman and her doctor.

Different health groups also have different screening guidelines, which further complicates the issue. The American Cancer Society updated its screening guidelines late last year, telling women that they should get a mammogram every year beginning at age 45 rather than 40. The ACOG recommends screening every year beginning at age 40. To resolve the confusion, the ACOG will hold a conference in late January where several organizations will get together to reach a consensus.

With all this conflicting information, exactly when should you get a mammogram? That’s a decision best made between you and your doctor, depending on your age, medical history and other risk factors.

It’s clear that mammograms save lives. Several studies have shown that these tests can reduce the mortality rate of breast cancer by 15 to 20 percent because of early detection.

An estimated 231,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer last year, and it’s safe to assume that some of these women have a better prognosis because their cancer was caught early. With medicine, it’s always important to weigh the risks versus the rewards. Even with the chance of false positives, it’s better for women to get regularly screened for breast cancer rather than putting off a mammogram until they reach age 50. Hopefully, health experts will reach a consensus soon about screening guidelines, but until then, talk to your doctor to decide the best course of action for your health.