Experts Debate Breast Cancer Screenings

New guidelines draw controversy, confusion on best age for mammograms.

ByABC News via logo
November 16, 2009, 4:26 PM

Nov. 17, 2009— -- Two national figures in breast cancer advocacy appeared on Good Morning America Tuesday morning to debate new recommendations by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that state women over 50 should have mammograms only once every two years instead of annually -- and that women age 40 to 49 should not have them at all.

The lively debate pitted Dr. Susan Love of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, who supported the new recommendations, against founder and president Dr. Marisa Weiss, who opposed the change.

"I think the proposed changes in the guidelines represent a drastic step backwards," Weiss told Good Morning America's Robin Roberts. "These are old studies. These are old technologies. And the studies are using this old information to give future breast cancer guidelines for screening."

Love responded by noting the downsides of the screening procedure, which include an increased exposure to radiation.

"The issue is not depriving women of their God-given right to be radiated," Love said. "It's really, 'Let's not give them radiation if it's not really helping them. And let's find something better.'"

It was this statement that sparked one of the most heated exchanges of the segment which saw the two doctors debate directly with each other over the merits of mammography in young women compared to its risks.

In many ways, the debate reflected the nationwide dialogue over the new guidelines, released Monday. The recommendations are a stark deviation from the 2002 guidelines from the same panel that suggested women ages 40-49 should have mammograms every one or two years. Other medical organizations, such as the American Cancer Society, have stuck to the original recommendations that women in this age group be screened for breast cancer.

But even Roberts, who during the segment noted that her own breast cancer was missed by a mammogram, raised the question to Love of whether mammograms are the best solution for younger women.

"The problem is that we've oversold the notion of early detection," Love said. "What we need to be doing is not using a test that doesn't work and has risk [rather] than finding something that really does work."

The new recommendation is partly based on the idea that women younger than 50 have denser breasts that make cancer detection by mammography more difficult, leading to less-accurate results, ABC News' chief medical editor Dr. Tim Johnson said on a separate Good Morning America segment.

"There are a lot of mammograms, a lot of false positives, even treatments," Johnson said. "They're just trying to weigh the positive data against the negative."