This past October, the American Cancer Society revised its breast cancer screening guidelines. The ACS no longer recommends that women at average risk between the ages of 40 and 44 have mammograms and advises reducing the frequency of mammograms from every year to every other year for women 55 and older. The organization also recommends ending physical breast examinations by doctors entirely.
As the Marketing Director for Radiology Imaging Associates, I’ve been inundated with questions from women about these new recommendations. I’m passionate about helping women make informed healthcare choices for both themselves and their families. It’s important to remember that these are only guidelines. I would strongly recommend that you speak with your medical doctor about your individual risk factors and how these new recommendations impact your personal healthcare. In conversations over the past few weeks, I’ve heard lots of confusion. I wanted to take the time to address some of the common misconceptions floating around about this important issue. Hopefully these facts will help you better facilitate a conversation with your doctor about your personal healthcare.
MISCONCEPTION #1: The American Cancer Society made this recommendation because it believes early detection in the affected age groups doesn’t make a difference in mortality rates.
FACT: The ACS has not changed its position that annual mammography screening starting at age 40 saves the most lives. In fact, the ACS reports there has been a 33 percent drop in breast cancer mortality in the U.S. since 1990 as a result of early screening and improved treatments. Here are the fiveyear breast cancer survival rates:
The American Cancer Society says that early detection and regular mammograms can often help find breast cancer at an early stage, when treatment is most likely to be successful. A mammogram can find breast changes that could be cancer years before physical symptoms develop.
Results from decades of research clearly show that women who have regular mammograms are more likely to find breast cancer early, less likely to need aggressive treatment (such as chemotherapy or a mastectomy, which is surgery to remove the entire breast), and more likely to be cured.
MISCONCEPTION #2: Risk of breast cancer decreases with age. FACT: Your risk actually increases with age. Here are the statistics from the ACS on an American woman’s chance of developing breast cancer at a specific age:
FACT: According to the American Cancer Society, 75 percent of women diagnosed each year have no known risk factors. They have no known family history and no genetic predisposition (BRCA 1 or 2 mutation).
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “Okay, then why did the ACS change its recommendation for screening mammogram?”
Well, for those women age 55+, the new American Cancer Society recommendation is for biennial screenings. When my 72-year-old mother called and asked me if she should skip her mammogram, here’s what I told her:
Statistically, women in her age group develop more cancers (1 in 26), but on average, they tend to be slower growing.
“REGULAR MAMMOGRAMS CAN OFTEN HELP FIND BREAST CANCER AT AN EARLY STAGE, WHEN TREATMENT IS MOST LIKELY TO BE SUCCESSFUL.” — AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY
We currently have no way to predict if her potential cancer will be of the tortoise or the hare variety, but finding cancer a year later will likely mean more aggressive treatments. It could mean the difference between a mastectomy and a lumpectomy or chemotherapy and no chemotherapy.
The ACS has also recommended raising the age for women to begin screening mammograms from age 40 to 45 due to concern for the stress of false-positives on patients. A false-positive is when the radiologist sees an area of suspicion on a patient’s mammogram and calls the patient back for additional imaging.
Most of these are cleared up by a simple ultrasound, while a few will go on to have a biopsy.
I can tell you first hand that being called back for further imaging is stressful! However, for me, the choice is clear. I would prefer to take my chances of having short-term anxiety resulting from a false-positive than take my chances and miss a cancer diagnosis and treatment.
The American Cancer Society’s statement strongly advises that the choice should be left up to the patient. Remember, these are only guidelines. Your choice may be different than mine, but I do hope that it’s based on a factual conversation with your medical doctor.