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Radiologists: Get Mammograms Early, Often

2 Groups Call for Annual Breast Cancer Screening at Age 40 for Average-Risk Women
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 6, 2010 - Blasting new breast cancer screening advice from a Health and Human Services Department panel, radiologists say women need annual mammograms starting no later than age 40.

Recent guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) -- an outside group of experts that makes health recommendations based on the best available evidence -- call for women to start every-other-year screening at age 50 unless they are more comfortable with starting earlier.

That change from annual screening beginning at age 40 is "ill advised and dangerous," say the American College of Radiology and the Society of Breast Imaging.

Claiming that the new guidelines will cause "countless unnecessary breast cancer deaths each year," the groups call for a return to annual screening at age 40 for average-risk women, and annual screening starting at age 30 (or even as early as age 25) for higher-risk women.

The USPSTF calculates that the greatest benefit of breast cancer screening is for women ages 60 to 69. Evidence on women 75 years or older does not exist. For younger women, the USPSTF calculates that to extend the life of a just one woman, 1,904 women ages 40 to 49 and 1,339 women ages 50 to 59 must be screened.

That's where the debate begins. A woman's risk of breast cancer starts rising sharply at age 40. The USPSTF calculates that breast cancer risk gets large enough by age 50 to justify the "potential harms" of screening. These harms include anxiety over false-positive results and painful, unnecessary biopsies. The radiology groups say the risk at age 40 already justifies any such harm -- and that catching cancer at an earlier stage prevents the harm of more difficult late-stage treatment.

Because women have been taught for years that breast cancer is most curable and most easily treated when caught early, the USPSTF guidelines were met with a public uproar. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius soon told women under 50 that the suggested guidelines would not become federal health policy.

Now radiologists have officially joined the uproar. Memorial Sloan-Kettering radiologist Carol H. Lee, MD, chairwoman of the American College of Radiology Breast Imaging Commission, condemned the USPSTF recommendations as "unfounded."

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