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The American Cancer Society just recently announced new breast cancer screening guidelines — advising women to start getting mammograms at age 45 instead of 40. These guidelines pertain to women who are at an average risk for breast cancer, and for those who have a family history or carry the breast cancer gene will need to start screening earlier and more frequently. The guidelines also suggest for women to skip the routine breast checks while at the doctors. It’s a move that has angered and confused many women.
A comprehensive review of medical articles demonstrates that these practices aren’t effective. Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the society, tells cnn.com: “The chance that you’re going to find a cancer and save a life is actually very small.”
And we are left with three different answers: the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Cancer Society, and the U.S. Preventative Task Force advise various ages for regular mammograms — 40, 45, and 50. Mammograms do save lives, but can also cause harm because of a high false positive rate.
There are more high false positives for women under 45 because they have denser breasts, making it hard to spot tumors. Brawley continues, “If she starts screening at age 40, she increases the risk that she’ll need a breast cancer biopsy that turns out with a doctor saying ‘You don’t have cancer, so sorry we put you through all this.'” The Preventative Task Force triggered a lot of talk six years ago when it had said that women in their 40s did not need to get a mammogram. The reasoning: a false positive.
Moving forward, the American Cancer Society is emphasizing that even though they’re no longer recommending women to get a mammogram at 40, women should still get one if they wish. Women just need to understand the risk with mammograms, such as false positives.
There are some individuals who are criticizing the society’s new guidelines because the society mostly viewed studies of film mammography in the U.S. compared to the newer digital mammography. Digital mammograms have a lower false positive rate. Also, the society only saw if the screening had saved a woman’s life and not if the cancer was caught early.
And there is also another issue: insurance companies. The American Cancer Society’s new guidelines also state that women over the age of 55 can get a mammogram every other year. However, insurance companies will be the decision maker at what age women will get a screening. In 2009, insurance companies had paid for mammograms starting at age 40 even when the government’s task force had advised screenings to start at age 50. So where does that leave us with insurance companies since the American Cancer Society has raised the age? The answer: it’s to be determined. Clare Krusing, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans wrote to CNN saying, “Insurance plans will certainly take these updated recommendations into account when evaluating coverage policies.”