New Advice about Mammograms

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In the news today (several different sources) I read that a federal advisory panel has come out with a new recommendation about mammograms. The old guideline was that mammograms were unnecessary until the age of 40. The new guideline puts the age for beginning to have mammograms at 50. Why the change?

Color me cynical, but it has to be all about cost. One of the reasons given is that the denser breast tissue of younger women makes it harder to detect tumors in their early stages. Oh, so that means we should just stop trying to detect them? That it’s okay to wait until a tumor is at a more advanced stage? I personally know of two mothers in their 30s who have died or are dying of breast cancer. What woman is willing to take the gamble that if she does develop breast cancer it won’t be until after she’s 50?

This is yet another example of the way that women are discriminated against in the health care arena. One of the doctors who agrees with the new guideline asks if detecting one breast cancer is worth using the money that could fund many immunizations or other health measures. I guess it depends on whether or not you’re the one who is dying of the cancer that wasn’t detected early enough.

Upon hearing about the new guideline, many women were confused. “Does this mean that insurance companies won’t pay for mammograms until you’re 50?” one woman asked. The answer is probably yes, eventually. “Will we be refused mammograms if we try to have them done before we’re 50–even if we pay for them?” “What if a woman has a history of breast cancer in her family? Is she going to have to have genetic tests done to prove that she is at risk? And won’t that cost more money?” These are all good questions and I have yet to hear satisfactory answers–or answers at all.

One criticism of the new guidelines is that the panel did not suggest anything to replace mammograms for women who are younger than 50. What detection methods are left for these women? Breast self-examination (BSE)? If a mammogram can’t detect a tiny tumor, how is a self-examination supposed to do so?

Many doctors have already stated that they will not go by the new guidelines, at least not until they’re forced to. One reason why they will persist is that they don’t want to send the message that early detection methods are pointless, especially not after years of trying to get women to have them done. The American Cancer Society and other breast cancer organizations have no plans at this time to change their current recommendations, partly for this reason.

Go to Breastcancer.org for more details about this issue. Other stories were found here and here.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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