Information Articles

Mammograms: Important Weapon Against Breast Cancer

By: Avice Margaret O'Connell, M.D.

Avice Margaret O'Connell, M.D. Rochester, N.Y., Oct. 1, 2010 At what age should a woman begin regular mammograms? It’s a question I hear often – and it became a matter of national debate after an advisory group recommended that the initial age of screening mammography rise from the current age 40 to age 50 unless a woman has risk factors such as family history of the disease.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force states that the benefits of screening for women in their 40s are outweighed by the risks of false positives, followed by unneeded diagnostic procedures. The task force also discounts the value of breast self-exams and clinical breast exams by health providers.

But as a radiologist specializing in mammography, I think the recommendations should remain at age 40, for these reasons:

  • Some 18 percent of breast cancers occur in women under the age of 50.

  • The incidence of breast cancer is rising, even for women with no family history or other risk factors for the disease. However, up to 70 percent of women have no risk factors for developing breast cancer.

  • Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women.

  • Early detection offers the best chance at survival of breast cancer, and can prevent the need for more invasive, more aggressive medical treatment.

  • Clinical breast exams and breast self-exams do have value; many women have come to me after detecting a change in their breast, only to find after a diagnostic mammogram that the lump was indeed cancer.

  • The American Cancer Society and the American Radiological Society are not adopting the panel’s new recommendations. Both organizations contend that it’s best for most women to begin annual mammograms at age 40.

  • The panel’s assertion that mammograms cause needless anxiety when they raise an area of concern and require biopsy doesn’t give women enough credit as managers of their health. In my experience, women prefer being proactive and would rather undergo a needle biopsy that’s negative than do nothing at all to monitor this important aspect of their health. It’s much better for women to be safe than sorry when it comes to breast cancer.

  • The same national panel – with different members -- devised the 2002 recommendations that mammograms should begin at age 40. I believe that the panel does not have sufficient data to make such a drastic change in recommendations at this time, and further study is required.

  • It’s very important that women don’t take this announcement as motivation to forego mammograms. Even now, we struggle to get all eligible women in for their breast screenings. It’s important that we don’t lose the ground we’ve gained in raising awareness about breast cancer and how to fight it.

For more information, contact the Highland Breast Imaging Center.


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