Cancer Group Clarifies Confusing Mammography Recommendations

PHOTO: A woman receives a breast exam.Getty Images
A woman receives a breast exam.

Women between the ages of 40 to 49 should get a mammography to screen for breast cancer if they’ve weighed the risks and benefits, the United States Preventative Services Task Force said in a statement.

“The group’s top level recommendations that women should begin mammogram testing at age 50 and only schedule them every two years until about age 74 have not changed,” Dr. Michael LeFevre, the immediate past chairman of the task force told ABC News. “We’ve also said in the past that the decision to start screening mammography in women prior to age 50 years should be an individual one, he added.

The group wanted to clarify their position on younger women and mammography which he admitted might be confusing for some, said LeFevre.

“Younger women should work with their doctors to balance the pros and cons of mammography and make a determination that best fits their situation and values,” LeFevre said. “There is some small benefit but there is also some risk.”

The Task Force recommendations are based on the studies that showed giving mammograms to women every other year from ages 50 to 69 reduces breast cancer deaths by 16.5 percent over a lifetime. If screening starts at age 40 and continues every other year, there's a 19.5 percent lifetime reduction in deaths from breast cancer. That 3 percent difference roughly translates to saving one woman's life for every 1,000 who are screened.

At the same time screening younger women also results in a larger number of false positive tests and unnecessary procedures.

A study performed by the University of California at San Francisco found that about half of women who submit to a decade of annual mammograms will be given the harrowing news that their tests are positive when they are actually cancer-free. The women who receive false-positive results will then be subjected to further testing. One in 12 of them will undergo invasive biopsy surgery that carries the risk of complication from anesthesia, scarring and infection.

Getting the screening recommendations right is important. A new study by the National Cancer Institute projects the estimated number of women diagnosed with breast cancer to rise significantly in the coming years.

“The number of cases will be 50 percent higher in 2030 than they were in 2011,” Dr. Philip Rosenberg, one of the study’s lead authors.

Rosenberg said that the increase from 283,000 cases of breast cancer to about 440,000 cases per year in the U.S. will be fueled by a larger and older population as well as an increased rate of certain types of cancers, including some that have a greater chance of being picked up on mammography.

While the study makes no recommendations on screenings, Rosenberg said that his team’s purpose was to come up with a snapshot of what breast cancer might look like in the future.

“We hope this information will be used by the experts in treatment so they chart a better course in the coming years,” he said.

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