Task Force Member Defends Mammography Guidelines

"I think for women 40 to 49, we should target women who are at high risk," she said, such as those with a first-degree relative with breast cancer.

Changing the screening interval from annually to every two years for women 50 to 74, she said, "is one of the best things they did." At her clinic, Kerlikowske said, biennial screening has been a standard for years.

A Gynecologist's View

Gynecologist Judi Chervenak, an associate clinical professor of obstetrics-gynecology and women's health at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, said she will tell her patients this: "From age 39 on, a woman should have a yearly visit to her health-care provider, during which she discusses which routine tests are appropriate for her, including mammography."

But, she also said she favors mammography for many women.

"Unless the patient is at increased risk of radiation exposure or increased mental health stress of dealing with a false-positive test, I still feel that the use of the mammogram is a potentially lifesaving and quality-of-life improving test for many women," Chervenak said.

"We know that mammography often picks up a cancer before it can be palpated," she said. "We have to do everything we can to maintain our quality of life."

A Family Physician's View

A woman should remember that the guidelines are based on the entire population and that her own decision must be an individual one, said Dr. David Baron, a family physician and chief of staff at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., and an assistant clinical professor of family medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"That's why communication between a patient and her health-care professional is very important," Baron said.

The new guidelines, in his view, are encouraging physicians to individualize the screenings.

"Some of this will depend on how risk-adverse a woman is," Baron said. A 40-year-old woman, for instance, might be afraid of radiation from a mammogram and be at average risk for breast cancer. No matter how much a doctor explains that the radiation amount is minimal, he said, she might not be convinced, and she might be advised to wait.

On the other hand, he said, another 40-year-old woman might be very frightened of breast cancer and want the screening. For her, Baron said, he might advise sticking with annual screening.

To women 50 and up, Baron said he would say: "I think it's important to have a mammogram. Whether you want to have it every year or every two years is negotiable."

And for his patients 75 and older? "It's really a matter of individual choice," he said.

The task force has drawn criticism for recommending fewer mammograms and starting them later. But Baron offered another perspective. "I respect them a great deal," he said. "They've got no horse in the race. They are independent experts."

He said the task force did its best to sort through the available evidence and come up with the most scientifically sound guidelines.

Women should also realize that the results of future studies might change the recommendations yet again, Baron said. And no matter what the recommendations are, he said, women must always discuss their own medical history and risks with their doctors when making a decision about screening for breast cancer or any other disease.

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