Stop Annual Mammograms, Govt. Panel Tells Women Under 50

Instead, the task force reviewed a number of studies to compile the benefits of mammograms, such as how many cancers were detected and how many lives were saved, and the harms of mammograms, such as how many false positives popped up, how many unnecessary tests were done and how much extra radiation women were exposed to during the false positive testing.

The task force then did calculations and mathematical models to see how these benefits and "harms" would change if women started getting routine mammograms at different ages and different intervals. Based on those results, Petitti said, the USPSTF made the recommendations as part of a five-year review cycle for current cancer screening recommendations.

"The recommendation was voted on almost a year-and-a-half ago," she said. "It is, in reality, entirely an accident that it is coming out on the heels of a lot of information about breast cancer screening, and certainly accidental in relationship to anything that's being talked about in politics."

Despite current politics and costs, Petitti said she hoped the recommendations would lead to "a better understanding" of the trade-offs in breast cancer screening.

"The reason to do it less often is to decrease the harms and the negatives -- false positive tests -- and the anxiety that goes along with it, the biopsies that will be done and the unnecessary tests," said Petitti. "Those harms and negatives are both common and serious."

While many women find the yearly mammograms a painful hassle they'd rather avoid, some debate the "harm" of a false positive.

"My evidence is anecdotal and there may be women who say, 'my goodness, I'm so upset that I went through that when I didn't have cancer after all,' but I've never heard a woman say that," said Margaret C. Kirk, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Network of Strength.

"I've never heard from anybody who regretted it," she said.

In fact, the first thought on many women's minds once they heard the news was whether insurance would stop paying for mammograms before their 50th birthday.

Cancer Survivor Worries About Diagnostic Tests for Daughter

Andrea Evans, 54, survived several stage II tumors in one breast after being diagnosed by a routine mammogram at age 46. After a preemptive double mastectomy to keep the cancer from spreading, doctors found a cancerous tumor in the other breast, which they had thought was tumor-free.

Although Evans does not have the two genes known to put women at a higher risk (BRCA-1 and BRCA-2) she does have a large family history on her father's side.

"My doctor thinks it is a gene, but it hasn't been found yet," Evans said. "Even now, several years later, I could go back and be retested because they find new genes all the time."

Now Evans hounds her doctor to get her 24-year-old daughter screened, even though routine screening isn't recommended for her yet.

"I am constantly asking my oncologist if the recommendations have changed," Evans said. "Insurance companies won't pay for you to have a diagnostic test sooner unless there's a proven reason."

In a way, Evans is both right and wrong on insurance companies' obligations.

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