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Breast Cancer Health Center

Are Benefits of Annual Mammograms Overstated?

Analysis of 50 years of clinical data adds to controversy over who should be screened, how often
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"We think mammography has a benefit," Keating said, "but it's smaller than many people believe. And the risk of overdiagnosis, in particular, has not received a lot of attention."

Older women, who have a higher rate of breast cancer, see more benefits from screening, the review found: For those in their 60s, mammograms reduce the risk of breast cancer death by one-third.

One cancer expert said the estimates sound about right.

"Mammography does appear to save lives, but it's not as effective as people have thought," said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society.

Unlike the USPSTF, the American Cancer Society still suggests that women start yearly mammograms at age 40.

But, Brawley said, "there's a second line to the recommendation that doesn't get quoted in the media."

The "second line" says doctors should also tell women about the limitations and potential harms of screening, so they can make an informed decision.

"I've long been worried that we're overselling the benefits of mammography," Brawley said. He stressed, though, that "even though the benefit is less than promised, there's still a benefit."

Brawley also noted that 20 years ago, mammography might have had a bigger impact. Breast cancer treatment has improved so much that earlier detection through screening may not make as much of a difference as it did two decades ago, he explained.

Meanwhile, the American College of Radiology and the Society of Breast Imaging issued a joint statement Tuesday that questioned the validity of some of the data that was used in the Harvard review, and both groups reiterated their support of the value of annual mammograms for women aged 40 and older.

And the president and CEO of Susan G. Komen had this to say about the latest finding:

"We know mammography's shortcomings. We're very concerned about the potential for overdiagnosis and overtreatment," Judith Salerno said in a statement issued Tuesday. "But it's the most widely available test that we have for now.

"UItimately, we need more accurate screening tools. Komen is investing in research to develop those," Salerno added. "But until those tools are widely available, our position is that a woman should have access to a mammogram if she and her doctor think she should have one."

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