Nov 18, 2009 7:04 AM by Jeannette Hynes

New mammography guidelines stir up controversy

New federal guidelines for breast cancer screening is causing controversy among doctors, cancer survivors, and advocacy groups.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women who aren't in a high-risk group to start getting mammograms at the age of 50, instead of 40, every other year. The task force is an independent panel of private-sector experts in prevention and primary care. This federal group also downplays the effectiveness of self-breast exams.

"Women need to understand that there is a small, additional benefit from starting screening at age 40-49, compared with starting later. But there's also a set of accumulating harms," says Dr. Diana Petitti, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

Doctors say women between the ages of 40-49 have dense breasts. That causes screenings to be more unreliable, leading to more false positives, more tests, and higher costs.

The American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen Foundation are sticking with current guidelines, encouraging women to perform self exams and receive annual mammograms starting at the age of 40. These groups advocate that early detection, no matter how it is detected, saves lives.

That's the case for Chris McCloy, who's been cancer-free for 15 years. At the age 44, she found a lump in her own breast when she was doing a self exam. The mammogram technology at the time didn't show anything, but she was persistent with her doctors to investigate.

"I asked the doctor to a biopsy, and it was not only breast cancer, it was an ugly form of breast cancer," says McCloy.

McCloy says these new guidelines may make people apathetic towards any kind of cancer screening.
"They're playing with their lives," says McCloy. "It doesn't take away from your responsibility to know your own body and to bring those things to the forefront."

Doctor Dax Kurbegov, Medical Director of Memorial Hospital's Cancer Center, says doctor-patient conversations are key to screenings, treatments, and overall health. Kurbegov doesn't plan to change his screening recommendations right now.

"I think what would follow will be a very heated dialogue between a number of groups to try and really determine, to try find that balance in terms of identifying breast cancer early, saving lives, but not putting patients through invasive procedures," says Kurbegov.

Some people are worried these guidelines will pave the way for insurance companies to scale back coverage of mammograms, but a spokesperson who represents insurance companies says there are no plans to change policies.


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