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What you should know about breast cancer screening guidelines

If you’re confused about when to begin getting mammograms, you’re not alone. In recent years, there’s been a great deal of debate in the medical community over when women should begin routine mammograms, as well as how often they need to have the test.

In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended that women wait until age 50 to begin routine mammograms, and then get the test every two years. The panel argued that postponing mammograms until age 50 would result in fewer false-positives, which occur when a mammogram indicates cancer may be present when it is not. A lumpectomy or needle biopsy typically confirms there is no cancer.

Throughout this debate, the American Cancer Society (ACS) has continued to recommend annual mammograms for healthy women starting at age 40. It believes the benefits outweigh risks, which include radiation exposure from mammograms and X-rays, unnecessary biopsies, as well as anxiety from the additional testing and fear about possibly having cancer.

A recent study by Harvard University researchers also makes a case for starting routine mammograms before women are in their 50s. The study found that 71 percent of women who had died as a result of their breast cancer did not have a mammogram prior to diagnosis. Half of the breast cancer deaths occurred in women who were younger than 50.

Dr. Dennis Citrin, a medical oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® outside Chicago, specializes in treating breast cancer. He agrees that women should begin mammograms at age 40.

“The results of the study help demonstrate what I have seen in practice for more than 40 years: Screening mammograms can save lives,” says Dr. Citrin. “Cancers detected by screening mammograms are smaller, generally have a much higher survival rate and require simpler treatment.”

“I have never heard a woman complain of a negative breast biopsy that showed her she did not have cancer,” adds Dr. Citrin. “My view and the view of ACS remain that the benefits of prevention awareness and early detection far outweigh any concerns. Every woman age 40 and older should have an annual screening mammogram.”

Remember, screening for breast cancer is important because it can help you and your doctor catch the disease at an early stage, when it is more treatable. The downside of screening are the risks involved, as well as costs. You should talk with your doctor to determine when to have your first mammogram and how often you need the test.

Keep in mind
  • According to ACS, approximately 90 percent of women who are 40 and older and find and treat their breast cancer are cancer-free after five years.
  • The National Cancer Institute estimates more than 232,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.
  • ACS recommends clinical breast exams every year for women age 40 and over, and every three years for women in their 20s and 30s.
  • Women who have a mother, sister or daughter who have or have had breast cancer are almost twice as likely to develop the disease.
  • There are several risk factors for breast cancer. Be sure to discuss your risks for the disease with your doctor. If you are under 50, ask your doctor when you should start to have mammograms.
  • Women who are at high risk for developing breast cancer should come up with a comprehensive cancer screening plan with their doctor. For example, women who have a family history of breast cancer should discuss having a genetic test to determine if they have mutations to their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, which increase their risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer.
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