Reaction to government's new mammogram recommendations

By Karen Abernathy – bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - It has been the gospel long promoted by the American Cancer Society: Routine mammograms after age 40 are vital to early detection and treatment of breast cancer.

But a new government study concluded that those routine exams aren't really necessary until age 50. And even then, they're only needed every other year.

The new recommendations are creating a lot of questions. It is an emotionally charged issue, especially among those who say early testing saved their lives.

Nancy Gaul is a breast cancer survivor whose first mammogram at age 40 revealed a two inch tumor.

"I am shocked by these guidelines, because if I had not had a mammogram at age 40 I would not be here today," Gaul said.

"Screening every two years captures most of the benefit in terms of reducing breast cancer mortality, while decreasing the harm," Dr. Diana Petitti from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force said.

The primary "harm" they are concerned about? False positives. Those "false alarms" that can require more screening, painful biopsies, and anxiety. The task force said they also drive up health care costs, unnecessarily.

The American Cancer Society is refusing to endorse the new recommendations, and many doctors agree. Oncologist Dr. Allison Wall, from the Medical Oncology Group in Gulfport, said "routine mammograms starting at age 40 are key to early detection and more successful treatment."

The American Cancer Society not only worries that the new recommendations will impact the health of women, but that it could also impact whether insurers, Medicare and Medicaid pay for mammograms.

So how do doctors and patients sort through the conflicting information?

Oncologist Dr. Edgar Hull from Singing River Health System said each case should be decided on an individual basis.

"There are a lot of things that can affect that decision," Dr. Hull said. "Family history, breast disease, factors that allow you to start getting mammograms earlier or later based on your personal situation."

And he said it's important for women to discuss their concerns with their physician, so they can make the decision together. Dr. Hull went on to say there is a more important issue to be concerned about with regard to mammograms.

"What's a much bigger issue is that millions of women are not getting mammograms at all. That's a much more serious problem than whether you start at age 40 or 45, or whether you get a mammogram every year, every 18 months or every two years."

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